Tempo, Where’s the Hurry?

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In my last entry, I made some sarcastic remarks about the tempo in Berio’s Sequenza for flute being too fast. Now with genuine curiosity, I would like to probe composers’ psyche in the hopes that it will reveal why given tempi are often too fast. I will try not to make this a rant.

Given today’s technology, it is not surprising that computer generated scores can churn out notes at a certain tempo that sounds “correct” when electronically reproduced. Then when produced with actual living, breathing creatures playing mechanical objects, the composer realizes that compromises or adjustments to tempo have to be made. That is understandable.  However, I  encounter this phenomenon with pre-technological pieces as well as contemporary ones that were composed away from the computer.

The problems I see when a tempo is too fast:

  • Variations in division of the beat are poorly perceivable. Personally, I like my quintuplets to sound like quintuplets, and be discernible from sextuplets or sixteenth-notes.
  • Variations in pitch are poorly perceivable. Not only are fingering and lipping microtones difficult at high speeds, but can you really tell in a blur of notes if I play an F or an F a sixth-tone high? Should I really bother? [When I (and probably most flute players) get excited about a loud, fast passage, my F, and all the surrounding notes,  will be a sixth tone higher whether I like it or not.]
  • Variations in articulation are poorly perceivable. If inflections of long and short are important, I would appreciate time to produce them and to make sure the audience has time to capture them.

Sometimes I am annoyed when I point out these things to a composer, and the response is: “Oh, that is the tempo you strive for, the ideal tempo.” Well, do I really strive for that tempo (which I can achieve in some cases) and sacrifice the musical details? If you know me already from reading my blog, I am at my worst when presented with conflicting information. I do appreciate conflict as a positive creative force, but do not appreciate it when it is a result of artistic laziness.

But I am a nice person, and cannot believe that the majority of composers are lazy. So what is going on?


Wish List

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Things I wish I had spent more time on as a student:

  • Sight reading
  • Scales in intervals of a sixth – and sevenths and ninths! There are too many of those intervals flying around in contemporary music.
  • Improving my writing skills
  • Yoga or sports
  • Learning acoustics. I wasted a lot of time trying to blow, blow, blow in order to play loudly. A little studying to understand how the flute sound is produced and travels will really help.
  • Practicing piano or harpsichord to keep up my keyboard skills. They do come in handy, especially for arranging and teaching.

Oh dear, this list could go on if I list everything I wish I had studied more of (traverso, Jazz), and it will lose the thread of attempting to make a sort of temporal commentary on my past, hopefully with some relevance to students of the present. Besides, one does not have to be a student to study these things.

Things I wish I had spent less time on:

  • Worrying
  • Studying for academic stuff that would go in and out of my short-term memory. (OK, grades are important for academic scholarships and grants, or if you are going to continue studying. But if getting a playing job is your next step, consider signing up for something physical instead of academic.) Nobody looking to hire me as a flutist has given a crap that I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh way back in the 20th Century.
  • Soliciting criticism at random. It’s great to play for as many people as possible and to be exposed to many points of view, but the earlier you can choose people you trust to be honest and constructively critical about your abilities, the better.

These lists will probably grow as my experiences sift through time.


Newsflash for Teachers: Being an Asshole is Ineffective

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Every time I pick up a science news magazine or book I end up smacking my head in disbelief that science goes to such lengths to prove what everybody else knows already. So being an Asshole is an ineffective approach to teaching. Really, a Nobel Prizewinning scientist said so!  I read it in a random book on randomness: The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. The author tells the story of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (!). I’ll retell this because here is an interesting twist on “what everybody else knows already”.

While working as a psychology professor at Hebrew University in the 1960s, Kahneman lectured  a group of Israeli air force flight instructors on behavior modification. As a well-read mother of an almost-three year old, I know about behavior modification: rewarding positive behavior works, but punishing mistakes does not. Almost every other parenting book will tell you this. My husband does not agree, but that is another story.

When I read the following passage though, my first connection was not to my son, dear as he is, but to teaching flute. I listen to some teachers brag about how tough they are, and now believe they are driven by a misconception. Perhaps more importantly, this will give us a lesson on how not to talk to ourselves, as we practice for hours on end, give concerts, and play auditions.  I’ll begin quoting from page 7, just mentally replace the word “flight” with “flute”:

Kahneman drove home the point that rewarding positive behavior works but punishing mistakes does not. One of [the pilot instructors] interrupted,…”I’ve often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse,” the flight instructor said. “And I’ve screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers, and by and large the next time they improve. Don’t tell me that reward works and punishment doesn’t work. My experience contradicts it.” The other flight instructors agreed. To Kahneman the flight instructor’s experiences rang true. On the other hand, Kahneman believed in the animal experiments that demonstrated that reward works better than punishment. […] And then it struck him: the screaming preceded the improvement, but contrary to appearances it did not cause it.

How can that be? The answer lies in a phenomenon called regression toward the mean. That is, in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely to chance, by a more ordinary one. Here is how it works: The student pilots all had a certain personal ability to fly fighter planes. Raising their skill level involved many factors and required extensive practice, so although their skill was slowly improving through flight training, the change wouldn’t be noticeable from one maneuver to the next. Any especially good or especially poor performance was thus mostly a matter of luck. So if a pilot made an exceptionally good landing – one far above his normal level of performance – then the odds would be good that he would perform closer to his norm – that is, worse – the next day. And if
his instructor had praised him, it would appear that the praise had done no good. But if a pilot made an exceptionally bad landing – […] then the odds would be good that the next day he would perform closer to his norm – that is, better. And if his instructor had a habit of screaming “you clumsy ape” when the student performed poorly, it would appear that his criticism did some good. In this way an apparent pattern would emerge: student performs well, praise does no good; student performs poorly, instructor compares student to lower primate at high volume, student improves. The instructors in Kahneman’s class had concluded that their screaming was a powerful educational tool. In reality it made no difference at all.

So the next time you or anyone else crash and burn, it’s fine to mull it over and figure out what went wrong, but it doesn’t pay to be an asshole about it – especially to yourself. And besides, apes are higher primates, not lower primates.

but I was going for that high D!