Monday, 20 May 2013

Reading Ahead

In  my youth, I had a great liking for super-hero comics. My favourites were those Marvel Comic staples of Stan Lee, "The Fantastic Four" and "The Silver Surfer". I still have one or two early editions of these, now classics. On Saturday evening, I couldn't resist watching a film on TV, "The Rise of the Silver Surfer", if only for the spine-chilling moment when The Surfer reappeared on earth. Naturally, my wife made some disparaging remarks about failing to grow up and I guiltily knew she was quite right. Can you feel a "however" coming?  Here it is: however, I am currently reading a book by James Naughtie called, "The Making of Music" (thanks for the loan, John). Now, I thought this would not really add to the numerous books I've absorbed on the history of western music, but James Naughtie adds a flavour of his own brilliant journalistic and political awareness to create a bit of a musical page turner. Oh, and of course you can hear inwardly his mesmerising Radio-4 voice while reading it. The point is that in his discussion about Richard Wagner he makes clear the mythological power in which Wagner's music is rooted, music which brings those hidden powers to light in the form of operatic gods and goddesses. Wagner's operas are not that far distant from the super-hero adventures of my Silver Surfer, The Human Torch, The Hulk, Stretcho and the Invisible Woman.

At the other end of the reading spectrum, some time ago I came across a crusty old book in a Hay-On-Wye shop. Called "Fugue", it was published in 1878 by Novello, while Wagner was yet still alive. It's a great little text book and only cost a couple of quid. I like its concise, old-fashioned, precision and matter-of-factness. I mention this because although learning about the art of fugue may not be a driving force in your life, the Novello series of music primers includes a whole host of topics from "Singing" to "The Double Bass", from "History of the Pianoforte" to "Hand Gymnastics" (I must find out what that one is all about). I was delighted to find that copies of these books are still to be found online for not much more than the cost of postage, if you search hard enough. (Here's another enigmatic title in the series, "Musical Gestures"...)

I enjoy reading and the subject leads me on to something else that has been occupying me over the last month, namely reading music. All musicians appreciate that a significant amount of time has to be spent reading music in order to become fluent and even then there will be stumbling moments. The process is not unlike reading text and my cursory excursion into the psychology of reading reveals this to be true. A beginner (whether a beginner in reading music or text) will start by breaking down phrases into tiny comprehensible chunks before building them up again into a meaningful whole. The learning process is one of eventually developing - or programming the unconscious - to recognise pattern. This only comes through practice and experience. Once the brain has developed its memory of a pattern, seeing it again becomes a matter of recognition as opposed to analysis.

There is a lot of academic work on this topic but not much that is then distilled down to the simple practical essentials. One academic finding that I am finding exceptionally helpful is to do with the way that the eye moves over a music score. There are two movements: one is a scanning; the other is a series of halts and starts. It is mainly in the halts, short that they may be, that most information is gathered and then, hopefully, recognised by the brain.

My concern has always been to read ahead in the music. This creates a particular difficulty in that there is then a tendency to read on before absorbing clearly the note or notes to be played, resulting in a musical stutter. Reading ahead is clearly helpful but perhaps should not be to the detriment of "the now". In fact, as you gain experience, reading ahead becomes less and less important as you know that your brain has seen it all before and will know just what to do. Then it becomes more beneficial to concentrate on allowing the halts and starts to happen, so that you can really see and absorb and respond to what information is right there in front of your eyes.

To coin a Buddhist philosophy and apply it to music, "Live in the now." Fortunately, that doesn't mean ignore your history books, so I can return to James Naughtie with a clear conscience and also perhaps eventually find out how to improve my "musical gestures".

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