Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fiddling the Numbers by Nick Brakespear

Tomorrow (Friday April 11th) at about 6pm in the president’s dining hall there will be an ISO (international student organisation) talent show. I will be participating. If anyone would like to throw flowers and/or money at me, it would be appreciated. As such, I shall share with you a few thoughts on my particular talent.

I play the violin. Yes, it’s true, I am a violinist. I fiddle. I have been fiddling for quite some time now. I never practice, but I maintain a general level of gooditude (new word) with my fiddling. You could say I am a talented but lazy fiddler. I am, however, absolutely terrible at sight-reading (the ability to play music you’ve never played before by simply reading the music) and have, instead, always played it by ear.

A lot of people interpret “playing by ear” to mean “guess”, and I have been indirectly criticised before for revealing that my strength and focus when I play or sing (I used to be a cute little choir boy, before my voice broke) is this act of seemingly “guessing”, especially in the context of an Orchestra. Personally, I don’t view it as “guessing” at all, but a simple matter of pattern recognition, and a simple matter of seeing that which must fit for the sake of the harmony.

Playing by ear, for me, is akin to one of the old mathematics problems I used to do at school; listening to the greater harmony is like being presented with a string of numbers, each one connected to every other by a rule, a pattern. And there, in this string of numbers, is a gap. Playing by ear, and doing it well, is that moment of realisation extended; the moment you understand exactly what the pattern is, and thus you understand exactly which number should fill that gap.

Having been asked in the past how I can play in an orchestra, how I can play my part and not be drowned and lost in the greater mass of sound, an irony occurred to me once. I have found it often to be the case that the larger the orchestra, the more complex the music (as long as it is well written; some music is difficult to play by ear or by sight, simply because it’s complicated noise, not complex music) the easier it is to see the pattern and the easier it is to play by ear. With each added voice, with each additional layer to the harmony, the fewer the possible “numbers” that could fill that gap.

The same sort of pattern recognition, I find, applies to the progression of the music as well as just each individual note. Essentially, by feeling where the harmony has been, and where it currently is, I usually have a pretty good idea of where the harmony will go next. This idea becomes more solid the further along the piece is.

Admittedly, playing by ear is not entirely foolproof, for as good at feeling the harmony as I am, I am not superhuman and I am not immune to distraction (ironically I can be distracted by the act of playing sometimes, when I begin thinking too consciously about what I’m doing)...but then the same can be said of sight-reading, for you can read a piece of music perfectly, following what is written upon the page note for note, but without listening to the harmony, without feeling the pattern even a little the end result is rather wooden and artificial. There is no escaping the organic aspect inherent to music; as much as music is about the numbers, it is also about the spirit.

In all my years fiddling and singing, I’ve fiddled and sung in some interesting enough circumstances, ranging from singing before royalty (Princess Margret to be precise) to going on tour in Belgium with the Cheltenham Area Youth Orchestra, (or CAYO for short. Excuse the childishness, but I am greatly relieved I was not a member of the Gloucester Area Youth Orchestra). Oddly enough, despite these experiences, despite having sung or played the violin before hundreds of people...I always find the prospect of playing before friends and family, or simply small groups of people, intensely nerve-wracking. I can face a full house with absolute calm, only the slightest flutter in my stomach as I approach my seat and lift the violin to my shoulder. And yet, lifting that same violin to that same shoulder with only one or two people present will turn my face bright red and give me the jitters good’n’proper.

This, perhaps, is one of the reasons I don’t practice; to practice is to make mistakes and attempt to learn from them...and I simply cannot do that while there are people around. I feel far too exposed. Besides, it’s never an enjoyable experience for them; I am rather bad tempered and have a tendency to swear and sulk a lot when the practice isn’t going well (as a child I had a strange obsessive-compulsive tendency whereby if I made even the slightest of mistakes, I would start the entire piece again from the beginning, instead of simply picking up where I left off).

So yes, I play the violin. I fiddle, from time to time. Such a time will be occurring tomorrow (Friday April 11th) at about 6pm in the president’s dining room. Be there or be indifferent.


Temporary Home

This blogsite is our temporary home while our website undergoes an extreme makeover of epic proportions (shifted septums, pacemakers, calf implants, dialysis, a fancy wig, contacts -- the works).

This was our old home, and while it is a bit dated, it's a good source of info regarding recent issues and the history of Prism Review.

Updates will follow regarding our new home. ETA summer 2009.