Classical Music and Analysis: What the HELL?
Can I choose something seemingly more different and off-beat than a post like this? But what may seem different from the surface is in actual fact, no more different than my choice of coffee than the average person (skim macchiato, 1 sugar). That said, this is still very different to most of my other posts which is why I personally enjoyed it.
So for this Corner Conversation, I caught up with Amanda, a classically trained pianist who so happens to also lead a team of business analysts and is also a handy developer to boot.
Without further ado..
PC @ MMA: So classical music and analysis; what’s the synthesis here?
Here’s what I think they’re about: Analysis and Development in our profession requires one to think in a logical and structured manner whereas in music it’s more about the feeling. In music, you know what you’re going to play, but the timing, feeling and energy you put in to it is very different from analysis. At least those are my immediate thoughts. Any views on that?
Amanda: I guess the fundamentals on how you approach learning material is the same. So for example since I have a very limited amount of time learning to play the piano, I have had to come up with a lot of tricks. So I can sit in a park and decompose the music trying to figure out where the patterns are. When I do that, I am really coming up with a logical approach to learning. Things like the IF-THEN-ELSE in IT development could be used a bit with dynamic shaping, For example, if you’re loud now, then you can either go soft next or even louder. But I don’t usually think of it in terms of formal logic.
Another thing is when you’re in the process of learning piano music, you will have to use ‘the reptilian brain‘ for memory and that means you’re going to have a lot of repetitions.
When you have things at a subconscious level, then you can start applying things with standard memory e.g. ‘I have this lag coming up’ or ‘I know I have to play this particular note in here’ when playing music.
PC @ MMA: So that’s when you jump in and start improvising in a way?
Amanda: Yeah, in a way.
Developing your Memory
PC @ MMA: It’s like you know what is before and after your improvisation part. So it’s like saying ‘that part there, needs this note here’. So this is where I mentioned, you play based on feelings and emotions..
You know I used to think memory is just one thing so I did a lot of memory exercises. I don’t know if you heard of ‘The World Memory Championships‘ but it’s basically guys memorising decks of cards and stuff like that. I did that to help my memory.
PC @ MMA: Can I interject and ask “What’s the trick?”
Amanda: Hmm. Well the trick I learned was actually too slow for The World Championships but it’s basically by association. Every card has a number and a suit it comes from and you come up with a word that you associate with that card like an image, then you need to remember the order so you peg that image to a particular number. So that process used to take me 20 minutes to remember a pack of cards so it would be too bloody slow and I immediately realised that that process of memorisation was too slow for piano playing. It might be appropriate for some of the work I do here but too slow in the piano world. And we had to play based on memory for the piano unlike other instruments.
Also I am not sure if you have heard of Neuroplasticity?
PC @ MMA: Better fill us in on that.
Amanda: I have been on training courses where they have used neuroplasticity tricks to embed memories more thoroughly. They require you to switch focus from one side of your body to the other. This means that both hemispheres of your brain are activated and apparently enhances memorisation. This is something that occurs naturally with piano playing anyway since you are coordinating between your hands.
PC @ MMA: Sounds like that could have taken some time.
Amanda: Ha-ha, yes it did. But you know when you play the piano you use both hands all the time so doing these exercises was a way to help exploiting that naturally, I suppose.
PC @ MMA: So you can toggle.
PC @ MMA: And have you used that for analysis work or any of the above memorisation tricks?
“Bridging the 2”
Amanda: Sometimes. If I’m in a hurry to learn something then I use the techniques I learn in the piano world.
I guess another crossover between the 2 is the business skills I’ve learnt in business. It’s more transferable to the music world like networking, knowing how to present yourself..
PC @ MMA: ..Ah, the soft skills.
Amanda: Yeah all those soft skills. And just off point, making a living helps because you don’t have to worry about where your money is coming from all the time. So I guess they’re complimentary in that regard.
You might think about the track that one must take when one is a pianist and it’s like ‘lock yourself in a room for 8 hours a day and do nothing else’ but that only works if you have the financial and psychological support structures in place around you, and it helps if you’re pretty charismatic anyway. If you look at the guys who do well in music, a lot are pretty charismatic. And just because you can play doesn’t mean you have that extra level of social ability. Certainly working in a corporate environment, I have been able to develop those skills.
PC @ MMA: So am I right to say that work financially supports your music and music takes you to a place outside the crazy world of work?
Amanda: To a degree. It also gives you a different perspective on things. For example if there is a little bit of drama at work, then my mindset is ‘well it’s not the end of the world‘ as I have a different little world that I can escape to.
PC @ MMA: Cool. An outlet is always nice to have.
So another question I had here was that certain types of analysis is pretty black and white whereas music has more grey areas. What do you think about that as a general statement?
Amanda: Well there’s actually more analysis and thought that goes into it than you would expect. Specially in classical pieces like sonatas where they actually have a formula for it before you write it. And the way that the key changes, that’s all predetermined if the piece has come from the classical period.
PC @ MMA: Ah, that I didn’t know. Always good to know ha-ha.
My colourful world
Amanda: Ha-ha, yes. I’m a synaesthete as well, I’m not sure if I told you (note: taken from the word ‘Synesthesia‘).
PC @ MMA: No, you didn’t tell me that. Pardon the ignorance but what exactly is that?
Amanda: Basically when I read, I see things in colours. So if I look at the piano, all the keys are coloured.
PC @ MMA: Oh. So is that through your genes or something like that?
Amanda: I’m not sure about the exact science behind it but I believe it has something to do with your brain not forming the right way.
PC @ MMA: Obviously helps you, right?
Amanda: It’s been with me for as long as I can remember. The strange thing is when I play to music, I can see colours as well.
PC @ MMA: All the association of colours to the keys right?
Amanda: Yeah pretty much.
Listen while you work
PC @ MMA: There you go. So here’s another Q for you: do you like listening to music at work?
Amanda: Yes I do. I listen to ABC classic FM music all the time.
What I also found was that, when I use to code, I could listen to audio books in German.
PC @ MMA: Ha-ha. That was random!
Amanda: He-he. Basically I have limited time in learning things like foreign languages so I worked out that I can actually do 2 things simultaneously. BUT, one thing would always be the primary focus. So when I’m coding, my focus is on the code but I would subconsciously be learning German because my language track is being activated in my brain but its just not the primary focus.
Here’s another interesting thing about it: I can’t write a document in English and listen to German. I can listen to music and write a document in English just like I can listen to music and code. So if I really to learn a piece fast, then I put on the headphones during the day and play it on the background.
PC @ MMA: I can relate to that. Sometimes I play a podcast and I hear this voice in the background while I’m writing. So my primary focus is writing but on the odd occasion I hear this voice with a thought bubble coming in and out of my brain and you know what, strangely enough it’s a split second of distraction that makes you concentrate on the document even harder.
Amanda: Yeah. And you find that if you listen to the same audio book a couple of times, you will pick up different bits here and there and eventually it builds up the whole picture.
PC @ MMA: Exactly. There you go, you do the same thing I do but I don’t have someone teaching me a different language in the background. But I guess it’s no different to listening to any other podcast or music.
Amanda: Yeah. I guess that’s how I’m different.
PC @ MMA: I’m a little bit different too in that I can play Coltrane and Slayer on any given day.
PC @ MMA: Ha-ha. And sometimes I have some Saul Williams poetry, M.I.A., Tiesto, Lila Downs or some other random piece in my ears too. It really depends on my mood.
Amanda: I know what you mean.
When I want to relax, I plug in Vaughan Williams or Thomas Tallis. So it could be the atmospheric church music kinda thing too.
PC @ MMA: Like Gregorian Chants and the like? That relaxes me too.
Amanda: Yes, that what it does to me too. See I like putting that on when I have some major work to do and I just tell people to leave me for the moment while I work.
PC @ MMA: I do my best work when I play something like Blue Trane. The opening sequence, ta-da-da-da, really fires up my brain big-time. As soon as I hear it, my brain just go ‘whoa! here we gooooo!’
PC @ MMA: Do you do the reverse where you think about work when you’re playing?
Amanda: Yes I do. Sometimes you can’t control what pops up in your head. Specially when I play a piece that’s repetitive so it has to do with the reptilian brain, which we mentioned before as it involves a lot of repetition. If you imagine practicing something over and over, your mind dulls and is in need of some stimulants!
What’s the G-O with Classical Music?
PC @ MMA: Ah, I completely understand that. Now I have a hard-hitting question for you: Is there growth in classical music?
Amanda: Oh, that’s controversial! But my immediate response would be no.
PC @ MMA: And all the fusion stuff that’s coming around?
Amanda: Hmm. Well you know that stuff like that comes and goes. You know when they started inventing CD’s and all these media devices, there’s less incentive to play acoustic instruments. So for example, back in the day when Wagner wrote his operas, the way by which people heard about the music was when people used to play them in their own homes (on the piano). Of course these days you just play music on your device. That means that you don’t have to actively learn the instrument yourself in order to be exposed to it, which in turn leads to a population that is not as skilled as it might have once been.
PC @ MMA: Yep, I’m with you.
Amanda: Also If you look at Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and the like, they were composers. Now we’re up to a point where composers are not necessarily the artists that present the music.
PC @ MMA: Completely agree. It’s very rare to find an artist that writes and performs.
Amanda: Specially with virtuoso piano playing. You spend 4 hours a day or so, practicing your craft. You don’t really have time to compose. So it’s either you chose one or the other. So that kind of meant that the range of stuff written for the piano, it’s diminished a lot compared to, well, the good old days kinda thing. I’m sure it’s out there but it’s just harder to find it. And people are just not that interested in it. You get older people – that can be quite depressing actually only because it would be nice to see the younger generation get into it. But you do know that they say that once you get to a certain age, you really mature in to the music.
It’s also is a bit elitist. Some people in the classical world might take offense to that but it’s a very protective society and they don’t like outsiders.
PC @ MMA: Ooo. Clique-ee.
Amanda: Yeah. I was never really accepted in to that world. And it took a lot of self belief to continue with my music as I wasn’t accepted by them. And now I have found that the world of amateur classical piano, which I never knew existed – none of the professionals told me about it – is pretty much the same in terms of the standard that people are playing at. And it’s funny because it’s these people – the amateurs – that buy the concert tickets right and finance what you do. So it should be in the interests of the professional world to help cultivate amateur classical players. Instead what you get is
If you’re not a child prodigy by the age of whatever, then they tell you ‘you’re not going to make and don’t even bother darling’.
It’s a bit sad but that’s just how it is. I have met a lot of 20 year olds who play really well but they’re not rated in the professional classical world because at that age they are already too old.
The other thing to bear in my though is the game has changed a lot too.
It used to be that one must win a big competition, get an agent in order to get exposure. Now exposure is a YouTube upload away.
So if you take Lang-Lang he made it through the MP3 distribution. Obviously he has a big backing in China. But yeah he was big on the electronic distribution methods.
PC @ MMA: Yep, agree with that. That’s how the Arctic Monkeys started too but the uploads came from their fans.
So what relaxes you?
Amanda: Housework. Cooking and while listening to my German audio book in the background. Swimming, Running and Cycling..
PC @ MMA: Sounds like a great de-stresser without having anything to do with work and music (note: except for the German audio books). Well thanks again for having this quick chat with me. You’re the 1st classically trained pianist I have come across at work.
Amanda: I know one other girl who does the same stuff. She’s a lawyer and does 10 hour days at a minimum so I don’t know where she gets the time. For me it’s a personal struggle to get where I am as I don’t have a music degree and I always just learned on the side. So I chose jobs that can fit time with my music rather than have a job that takes over my life.
PC @ MMA: Yeah but you seem to think about work stuff at home anyway. You have to stop that Amanda, ha-ha! You have to shut it down!
Amanda: Ha-ha. I do.
This has been one of my favorite conversations because of the subject matter covered. People who are passionate about their craft and have a strong sense of responsibility at work – yes, I have seen this lady in action! – are a rare find. And on top of this, I really enjoyed her views on the world of classical music and analysis; there’s certainly a lot to digest here!
Perhaps one day I will attend a performance and post that here. (note: that’s a threat Amanda)
But until then, I would like to thank Amanda and all the readers for your support.