“Cells have memories.”

I can’t remember where I read this, but I’ve come to believe strongly that it’s true. A student recovering from an accident in which she injured her left hand made a frustrated comment about “my pathetic finger,” and I instantly replied “Don’t talk about your finger that way.” She looked surprised. “Cells have memories,” I said. “If you think your finger is pathetic, it may turn out to be true. If you think anything at all about your finger, change it to ‘My finger is healing beautifully’ and leave it at that.”

Do our fingers really know what we think of them? I don’t know, but consider the fact that thousands of idioms in the English language involve body parts. “Getting something off your chest.” “A burden on your shoulders.” “You don’t have a leg to stand on.” “It fell on deaf ears.” “I can’t stomach it.” “That took guts.” They’re marvellously descriptive and memorable because one’s chest does feel lighter and more relaxed when one has let go of a troubling secret or resolved a quarrel with a friend. How many times have you had a digestive upset after receiving news you found hard to process–information you couldn’t stomach?

Sometimes my own body gives me signs that its wellbeing is partly dependent on my thoughts about it. In my mid-twenties, I had a dysfunctional professional relationship that caused me a great deal of stress and unhappiness, and when I thought of this colleague, I often used the words “a pain in my behind.” (I might not have used the word “behind”). During the worst period of my association with this person, I developed excruciating sacroiliac joint pain. I went to several doctors, physiotherapists, and Alexander Technique teachers, and took high doses of prescription anti-inflammatories for many months. Eventually, I ended the association. Now, here’s the remarkable part: the morning after this “breakup,” I woke up pain-free. I hardly need to tell you that I celebrated by dancing wildly around the room, a thing I hadn’t been able to do in all the months I’d been hobbling around. Then I went out to a social event in high heels. At which I danced more. My friends didn’t know what had come over me.

At my Alexander Technique lesson that week, my wise and wonderful teacher suggested that the “pain in my behind” had been taken away both metaphorically and materially. This hadn’t occurred to me yet, and I laughed out loud at myself. How could I not have thought of this during all those months of pain and unhappiness? Since then, I’ve been very careful to avoid “corporeal” expressions of emotion. I can’t play the cello if I have a pain in my neck, so if someone annoys me, I think “That person is annoying,” take a few deep breaths, and see what I can do both to resolve the situation and to relax my body. If this all sounds a bit like a self-help book, I don’t entirely apologize, since I often give friends and students Louise L. Hay‘s books of affirmations. While I hasten to point out that I don’t believe, as Hay does, that we can heal medical conditions with affirmations, I do feel that we can do a tremendous amount of preventative self-care by watching how we talk to ourselves.

What has perfect pitch done for you recently?

I have perfect pitch, and I get asked about it a lot. Many of my students seem to think that it’s the reason I succeeded in the music profession, but it isn’t. I succeeded because I practised; because I had supportive parents and good teachers; because I studied arts entrepreneurship; because I set myself goals that other people considered unachievable; because, admittedly, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time on a number of life-changing occasions. Perfect pitch had nothing to do with it.

Perfect pitch, to me, is more a party trick than something that genuinely helps me in any aspect of musicianship or performance. It doesn’t, contrary to popular perception, help you play in tune. It’s relative pitch, not perfect pitch, that helps you play in tune. Good relative pitch is found in all the best players, regardless of whether they have perfect pitch.

In spite of this, I’ve noticed a widespread fascination with perfect pitch everywhere I’ve been. Three students in my studio are currently trying to acquire perfect pitch, and they want to know how I got it. I didn’t always have perfect pitch, you see.

I tell them what happened: my mother sat me down at the piano and played randomly selected notes to me, and sooner or later I learned them all and could say what they were. I think I developed the ability to do this when I was about seven years old. My mother has perfect pitch, but my younger brother doesn’t. My father, who would occasionally poke his head around the door to make sure no one was injured, has excellent relative pitch, and, I think, would probably develop perfect pitch if he wanted and tried to.

I can’t explain this ability I have in a way that satisfies the curiosity of the people who study it. How do I do it? Well, here’s the best explanation I can come up with. I’ve been playing the piano since I was three and the cello since I was nine, and I’ve gone to concerts and listened to recordings all my life, so I’ve listened to a lot of notes. Somehow the notes stuck in my head and I can tell you their pitch. I can also adjust my pitch perception when I’m playing early music at A=415, because I can adapt it to the resonances of the instruments. (It wasn’t always this way. When I first had to tune my cello to a harpsichord at old pitch, I panicked. I couldn’t compute the notes on the page with the notes that came out of the cello, and the whole thing felt very strange and frustrating. Then I figured out how to listen harder to the sympathetic resonances the cello’s open strings when I played certain stopped pitches, and that helped me figure it out.)

My perfect pitch is more secure in some timbres than others. Piano and cello are instantaneous. The other stringed instruments are next easiest, then the woodwinds. I used to have to think a bit harder with brass instruments, but marrying a trumpeter has fixed that.  I never thought much about pitched percussion until I moved into my University of Idaho office, which is two doors down from the percussion studio, where students practise at all hours, and now I can hear the pitches of xylophones, marimbas, vibraphones and so on. I find that if I listen mindfully to any instrument for long enough, I memorize the pitches and can identify them all. That includes non-Western instruments that make extensive use of quarter tones.

This is the explanation to I give researchers who want to understand what makes perfect pitch work. I’ve taken part in ten or twelve studies on perfect pitch, some of them scientific, involving samples of cheek cells and the like. I’ve listened to hours and hours of electronically generated pitches and written them down. I’ve answered questionnaires and been interviewed. I don’t know if any of these studies unlocked the mysteries of perfect pitch, because I didn’t follow up with the researchers.

This brings me to the methods for teaching perfect pitch, as used by the various money-making ventures by musicians eager to capitalize on the popular yearning for the coveted prize of perfect pitch. I can remember seeing advertisements for David Lucas Burge’s ear training method in music magazines since childhood.. The sales pitch began with a charming, if over-italicized anecdote about the author’s rivalry with a high school classmate.

I’d slave at the piano for five hours daily. Linda practiced far less. Yet somehow she always shined [sic] as the star performer at our school.

It was frustrating. What does she have that I don’t? I’d wonder.

Linda’s best friend, Sheryl, bragged on and on to me, adding more fuel to my fire.

“You could never be as good as Linda,” she would taunt. “Linda’s got Perfect Pitch.”

“What’s Perfect Pitch?” I asked.

Sheryl gloated about Linda’s uncanny abilities: how she could name exact notes and chords — all BY EAR; how she could sing any tone — from memory alone; how she could play songs — after just hearing them; the list went on and on…

My heart sank. Her EAR is the secret to her success I thought. How could I ever hope to compete with her?

But it bothered me. Did she really have Perfect Pitch? How could she know notes and chords just by hearing them? It seemed impossible.

The teenage Burge goes home mortified before coming up with his own super-secret yet fabulously easy technique for learning perfect pitch. Cut to the heart-warming happy ending where he beats Linda in a piano competition. (You see? Perfect pitch makes everything better.)

Disclaimer: I’m not saying Burge’s method doesn’t work. The broad description of how he taught himself perfect pitch sounds more or less like the way I identify pitches. Though I’ve not seen the materials, I’ve read positive reviews of them by trustworthy sources. But what bugs me about this is that Burge’s advertising intentionally conflates perfect pitch with good relative pitch (cf. Linda’s ability to hear chords), good memory (her ability to play the piano by ear), and good performance (her ability to win competitions).

I can tell you as a person with perfect pitch that it doesn’t help you do any of these things. I’ve discovered in the ear training class I teach that the students with perfect pitch are often the among weakest at the subject. They’ve spent years coasting by on pitch recognition without really learning to recognize intervals and types of chords. They often aren’t especially fluent at music theory. They aren’t always the best performers. They often play out of tune. Yes, out of tune.

In short, when a student asks me breathlessly about the wonders of perfect pitch, I tell them this: “If you want to get perfect pitch, sure, spend hundreds of dollars on a method that may or may not work. You’ll be able to impress your friends for hours with your pitch recognition skills. But if you want to be a good musician, PRACTISE. Seek out the best mentors. Go to a good university. Go to summer schools and practice camps. Listen to the best recordings and live performers and model your sound on them. Study theory. Study ear training and sight singing. Study orchestral and chamber scores, analysing the formal, melodic and harmonic structures and identifying chords with Roman numerals. Refine your relative pitch with additional study into just intonation. Form a regular chamber ensemble and spend hours learning to blend your sound and temper your chords. Sing all your pieces before you play them, using solfège where appropriate. Practise. Practise. Practise more than you ever thought possible. Practise until you feel that the practice room has eaten your social life, your love life, your entire life. Then practise more.”

Prevention vs. cure

Almost every day I have to correct a student who’s learned some wrong notes. Or wrong rhythms; that happens a lot too. And every time it happens, I’m surprised anew at how incredibly hard it is to unlearn and correct a learned mistake–far harder, I think, than learning a piece of music from scratch. It isn’t just the muscle memory, but the neural pathways we build when we make those memories. I get frustrated when I have to teach someone to unlearn a mistake, but I sympathize too because it’s happened to me so many times.

I still go hot and cold with shame at the memory of my last undergraduate recital, when I realized, five minutes before going onstage, that I’d learned two bars in the last movement of the Prokofiev sonata wrongly. By some miracle I managed to correct the mistake in the concert, but it was a truly terrifying moment that I don’t care to repeat.

The best way to prevent this problem, in my experience, is to do the bulk of one’s note-learning away from the cello. Score study using self-conducting, solfège where applicable, and many different recordings all help to ingrain the right notes. I don’t advise students to learn a new piece by sitting down right away with the cello for a hack-through–unless you’ve heard the piece a lot of times before, this seldom ends well.

In today’s practice session, I started learning a new piece at the cello first, because it hadn’t been recorded before and I was impatient to try it out and hear what it sounded like. To my embarrassment (teacher, teach thyself!) I caught myself several times forgetting the key signature, omitting accidentals, turning dotted figures into triplets and so on. Eventually, I forced myself to put the cello down and start singing instead. And conducting myself with a pencil. And occasionally using that pencil to write in courtesy accidentals. It seems that no matter how fluent one gets at sight-reading, once still has to do the dull old nuts-and-bolts work to get things right.

Games and music

I don’t play computer or video games, but my husband adores them. His enthusiasm prompted me to start reading the blog of one of his favourite writers and podcasters, the game designer Mark Rosewater. One fascinating post, “Ten Things Every Game Needs,” provoked me to find parallels with the way I choose repertoire, how I present it, and how I teach it.

I’m no philosopher, and I certainly don’t aspire to judge or compare the intrinsic value of musical compositions. Although I would greatly prefer to play, say, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 to Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz, I lack the musicological vocabulary to argue whether it’s “better.” (I find George Orwell’s essay “Good Bad Books” a useful analogy here.) But Rosewater’s list of features that make games successful resonated strongly with my feelings about choosing repertoire, or other music-related decisions.

In his first example, “A Goal or Goals,” Rosewater asks “What are your players trying to do?” Perhaps more important for musicians is his subsequent explanation “Your players have to want to do the thing the game drives them to do. The goal has to be attractive, meaning that the act of getting to the goal has to sound enjoyable.” It seems almost too obvious to state this in relation to music, but repertoire has to attract me to want to play it, otherwise I won’t. (Given the choice, that is. A gigging musician has to play all sorts of things for which she has no particular love.) Some compositions are more immediately attractive than others, of course: the Rachmaninov  sonata for cello and piano perhaps draws you in more instantly, but the Britten sonata is equally fulfilling to play, if not so immediately accessible to the first-time listener. I confess that the thought of playing Grieg’s over-long cello sonata makes me feel rather tired and bored, so I’ve never learned it.

In the second section, “Rules,” Rosewater discusses the need for goals not to be too easy. “Accomplishing your goal is fun because there’s a rush in completing a difficult task. Biologically, the body has to be able to motivate you to do things, so it tends to reward you chemically and emotionally (some would argue those are the same thing) for doing them.” Doesn’t this sound familiar? Who doesn’t love the rush of adrenaline you get from successfully executing some pyrotechnic feat in a Boccherini sonata or concerto? We don’t want music to be too easy; that could be why Vivaldi’s charming cello-continuo sonatas are usually treated as student works despite the fame of the composer. But Rosewater is quick to point out that games shouldn’t be too hard, either, otherwise “the player never gets to win.” I know this feeling isn’t universal, but I’ll admit that I don’t care to play the Poulenc cello-piano sonata, because its rewards don’t, in my view, make up for the awkward, un-idiomatic writing of its cello part. I don’t get to win when I play it.

One also needs to find a balance between too-easy and too-hard when teaching students. Some young players, when told they’re doing something incorrectly, take note of the problem without taking it excessively personally, and immediately start trying to figure out what they need to do to fix it. Those ones tend to be the strongest students, the ones who like a challenge, the ones who (to use Nike’s overused slogan) just do it. Then there are the ones with flagging self-confidence, or perhaps a less curiosity-driven work ethic, who simply switch off and stop learning when the challenge seems too great. I don’t want to give up on these students, who can often develop into good players, so I find it more pedagogically effective to set them many small goals every week, rather than a few large ones. It’s a fine balance.

Next Rosewater lists interactivity, that is, the opportunity to connect with others; a “catch-up feature” so you don’t lose the players who have fallen behind; inertia (in the physics sense of the term, I assume), meaning something that moves the game along to make sure it ends; an element of surprise; the possibility for strategizing, so players can get better at the game; fun, i.e. the desire to play the game all over again; the “flavor” of a design that lowers barriers to entry for new players; and lastly, a “hook,” an attention-grabber.

I hardly need to go through each one of these describing their relevance to what I do for my living, but the parallels are striking. Often the difference between a chamber composition that “works” and one that doesn’t is that even when a composition is extraordinarily difficult (Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana for string quartet immediately comes to mind, as I consider it the hardest piece I’ve ever mastered) there are certain signposts in other players’ lines that fit in with one’s own, and although it takes months to learn the piece, once you’ve figured out how the connections with other players work, you can play it relatively unproblematically. This, I think, is a sign of good interactivity in compositional technique. Other times, you’ll get a piece of new music that appears to have been written to bamboozle both players and audience, and you spend the whole time sweating with terror that you might have to commit the unthinkable and stop in the middle of a concert. There’s nothing to cling onto, no signpost you can use to get back to the place you should be in. (Can you tell that I have been required to play untold screeds of this sort of thing in my life?)

Of course, the other part of interactivity is the audience’s sense of participation in the drama of the concert. Like it or not, audience tastes are more conservative than musicians’, and they’re only going to give a new piece one chance. Many listeners will (unfairly, I think) switch off as soon as you tell them you’re going to play something modern, like the old lady I sat next to once at a concert of George Rochberg’s first quartet who groaned and winced all the way through, impervious to my icy glances. Sometimes you can win them over with–to use Rosewater’s term–a “hook” that draws them in. That’s why composers like Adès will be remembered long after they’re dead.

I first read Rosewater’s blog post a couple of days ago as I was finishing an article for Strings about the Janáček quartets, and I realized that one of the reasons they’re so famous and successful is that they draw listeners in right away and keep them involved. The musical language is unfamiliar to the average concert-goer and the formal plan is eccentrically nontraditional, but somehow this doesn’t matter, because right from the start we’re presented with a “problem” that becomes the signature motive in both quartets. This motive, and various permutations of it, runs all the way through the piece as a symbol of uncontrollable passions, or in a wider sense, the Tolstoyan death-struggle between men and women. (Janáček himself didn’t, I’m pretty sure, subscribe to Tolstoy’s morality; if anything I think he was a bit of a proto-feminist before such a term even existed.) Here’s the beginning of Quartet No. 1, “The Kreutzer Sonata.” Straightaway we know we’re in for a doom-laden tale of great woe as the first violin and viola move upwards with this great shriek of despair.

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The second quartet, “Intimate Letters,” has a bit of this going on too, though the signature motive is a bit brighter and more hopeful than that in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” probably because the program isn’t quite so grim. (“Kreutzer,” named for Tolstoy’s novella rather than Beethoven’s violin sonata, is a shocking psychodrama about the self-justifications of a paranoid wife-murderer, whereas “Intimate Letters” chronicles the composer’s own unrequited infatuation with a much younger woman.)

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When I give concerts, I typically talk to the audience before I play, because people are so verbal and they like to hear the story behind a piece of music. Plus, I think it humanizes the performer into a person they can relate to, rather than a distant figure in a highfalutin profession. Who doesn’t like a cracking good story like the ones behind the Janáček quartets? Who doesn’t love to listen out for things in the music, like the “train” motive in “Kreutzer” (Tolstoy’s novella takes place on a train as the now-acquitted murderer tells his life story to an anonymous stranger) and the “lullaby” theme in the third movement of “Intimate Letters”? I try to put myself into the position of the audience when picking repertoire, but if I’m to be scrupulously truthful, I think we performers can get an audience to listen attentively to any repertoire selection as long as we play and present it in an interesting, convincing way. So it’s intriguing to have an insight into the world of video games, which by necessity have to be much more commercial than what we do, to see what works and what doesn’t. We hear a lot of lip service about the notions of audience accessibility in classical music; perhaps we should pay more attention to what’s done in the world of games. The people who play them now may very well be the people populating concert halls in twenty or thirty years’ time.