Left-brain, Right-brain, and Other Pseudo-scientific Clichés

This is one of those posts that emerges from the confluence in my head of conversations with several different people over the course of a few months. What I really want is to get the various people involved into the same room together and say ‘You know what you were talking about with me in January? Say it them to see what they come back with.’ But in the absence of that opportunity (and in the recognition that even if I did they’d all probably have moved on and would want to talk about something else) I’m going to have to use my own imagination instead to work out the connections and contradictions.

There were at least two conversations about left-brain versus right-brain thinking, one in the context of teaching and learning, the other a report of a speaker who had reinterpreted the dichotomy as one of focused attention versus peripheral awareness. There were also discussions of a study that contends that the concept of ‘learning styles’ has no evidential validity, and just functions as a self-fulfilling educational ideology. All these landed into a brain that was already brewing thoughts about how much of the claims made for the health benefits of singing are presented in ways that claim a scientific basis with very little reliable underpinning.

More Musings on Mindsets

After my introductory post on Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, I promised to come back and tease out the connections with themes previously explored in this blog. For there are many. You will have noticed that I am quite rabidly growth-oriented in my stance as an educator, so there are lots connections to be made. The challenge is going to be organising them…

At the big-picture level, there are a cluster of themes I have explored over the years. Long-term readers will have seen my critique of the discourse of talent become increasingly hard-line each time I come back to it, and Dweck’s analysis will only encourage me in this dimension. Indeed, now I go back and look at my thoughts on the dangers of being young and talented, it looks awfully like her accounts of fixed-mindset difficulties.

The growth mindset, by contrast resonates strongly with my past musings on expanding your boundaries and our relationship with challenge. And one of Dweck’s key findings, for me, is the insight that your beliefs about capacity and skill determine whether you experience challenge as an adventure or a threat.

Musings on Mindsets

mindsetCarol Dweck’s research on the nature and ramifications of different mindsets is one of those ideas that has percolated through our culture quite thoroughly over the last few years. I have found myself in conversations about it with friends in teaching, and friends with small children, as well as coming across it in miscellaneous ephemeral self-help type articles online.

The general outline is probably as familiar to you as it is to me: there are two broad mindsets or belief-systems about human capability, the fixed mindset (belief that capacities are essentially innate) and the growth mindset (belief that capacities are largely learned). These shape how you go about what you do, and how you respond to others.

But eventually there comes a time when you realise you’d better actually read the book itself, not just rely on second-hand knowledge.

Playlist 2017: 3rd commentary

Time for a few words on my growing playlist of music by women. The overall sentiment I am feeling regularly as I add to it is, ‘Why did I not know this before?’

  • Alice Mary Smith, Symphony in C Minor (1863). This was a composer of whom I had no previous knowledge. That stereotype that women in the 19th century wrote in smaller forms (whether because of their inherently domestic nature, or their lack of opportunities to work with larger ensembles) turns out not to be a very safe generalisation.
  • Undine Smith Moore, Afro-American Suite (1969) - I. Andante, II. Allegro molto e marcato, III. Adagio ma appassionato, IV Allegro molto e marcato. I have been thinking quite a lot recently about the way classical music appropriated and commented upon African-American musics in the early years of the C20th (Debussy: I’m looking at you). It is fascinating to hear this cultural dialogue presented from a different point of view, with a much more complex and nuance sense of interchange.

Thoughts on the Colwall Requiem for Aleppo

ColwallI didn’t go to the world premiere of Liz Johnson’s glorious new choral work intending to write about it. I just went to support the endeavours of a friend I hadn’t seen so much of since she moved out of Birmingham – it would be nice to see her, I admired her fundraising and awareness-raising efforts for refugees, and I knew the music would be beautiful.

It was beautiful, and also moving. I can’t remember the last time I actually dripped tears during a concert. And then she brought us back to a place of hope by the end of the piece so we were emotionally safe to head back into the real world.

There are two particular aspects to Liz’s compositional voice I’d like to reflect on here. The first is her distinctive and assured handling of dissonance. The music moves seamlessly along a continuum from very harmonic and euphonius to uncompromisingly dissonant whilst always sounding realistically like it belongs in the same musical world. Part of this I think comes from the way she’ll season the consonant passages with strategically placed diatonic clashes that provide poignancy in the moment, but also help to mediate between the different regions of her harmonic palette.

Manspreading and Silly Games with Bristol A Cappella

The traditional warm-up pic: this time with buntingThe traditional warm-up pic: this time with bunting

Saturday took me down to Bristol for the first of two visits this month to my friends at Bristol A Cappella. We started the day doing some detail work on an arrangement of Bon Jovi’s ‘It’s My Life’ by their director Iain Hallam.

Part of the process of balancing a complex texture is increasing the awareness of those singing the accompanying parts of how the whole fits together. But there’s also a certain tone quality you want from the melody to assert itself through the complexity. We found this partly through technical means (getting the resonance onto the teeth), but also through the more holistic concept of manspreading.

You know how when you sit on a train with a shared armrest and the bloke next to you inhabits it all, with his elbow poking into your space? And with his knees all splayed outwards so they protrude into where your legs should go? That’s manspreading. I had heard of a particularly egregious form of it recently in a facebook conversation about someone who had used both hand dryers in a public toilet, one for each hand.

Re-Framing the Tricky Bits

Two vignettes from my undergraduate education:

In a piano lesson, playing through a piece I was working on, and stumbling slightly. ‘Yes, that bit is difficult,’ said my teacher, clearly wishing to reassure me that it was understandable that I wasn’t yet playing it as well as the rest. But I had a sudden, sinking feeling that now he’d said that, I was never going to be able to play it.

In a visiting lecture from organist Gillian Weir, reporting on her studies with Olivier Messaien. ‘There’s no such thing as difficult music,’ he had told her. ‘There’s only music you can’t play yet. Remember the music you were working on two years ago? You can play it now, but you used to think it too hard. But the music hasn’t changed.’

Looking back, I suspect it was the first experience that made me so ready to embrace the message of the second. And I have spent my life as an educator trying to avoid labelling things as difficult. Whenever somebody says anything to me that starts with the words ‘I can’t…’ I have a compulsion to add ‘yet’ to the end of their sentence.

Singing for Europe

On Saturday I headed down to London to participate with 100,000 or so other people in the Unite for Europe march, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. As you may have seen from my blog past last month I had got involved in a group intending to spend the march singing, and had done some arrangements for the occasion.

What I wasn’t entirely expecting to happen was that I ended up leading this scratch choir for the whole of the day. It’s fine, I’m always happy to help people harmonise, but it was an interesting case study in how, in a fluid situation, people get assigned roles very quickly.

When Jonathan and I found our way to our assigned meeting place, there were probably no more than 10 people gathered from our group. (It was kind of hard to tell as there was a horde of Liberal Democrats passing through the same place - some of whom stopped to sing with us en route.) But there were clearly enough of us to have a crack at one of the songs, and it just happened to be me who gathered together the various thoughts floating about (let’s start with Ode to Joy, let’s do a verse of unison and then go into parts, let’s try out the online karaoke app that delivers lyrics to people’s phones), gave a key note and start note, and coordinated the start with Alan who was controlling the app.

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