Monthly Archives: October 2015

What’s So Perfect about Perfect Pitch??

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Meandering through various sites for violinists and string teachers in general, I sometimes run into the following exclamation by young teachers: “I’m so excited – I have a new student and she has perfect pitch!!!” How do I know they are young teachers? Because I am an older teacher, have had several students with perfect pitch, and don’t see anything to get excited about.

I believe these teachers must think that perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch (which is the term I will use from here on), is a sign of musical talent. It isn’t. Here I quote the famed neurologist (and amateur musician) Dr. Oliver Sacks* in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, in chapter 9:

“Absolute pitch is of special interest…..; because it is an isolated ability with little inherent    connection to musicality or anything else; and because it shows how genes and experience can interact in its production……..Absolute pitch is not necessarily of much importance even to musicians – Mozart had it, but Wagner and Schumann lacked it.”

He says that although absolute pitch is more common in musicians than in the general population (1 out of 10,000 people), many gifted musicians do not develop it. Sacks mentions a study by Diana Deutsch and her colleagues of first-year music students at the Eastman School of Music that showed, of students who started music study between the ages of 4 and 5, that only 14% had absolute pitch. Starting at the ages of 6 or 7 the percentage of students with absolute pitch went down to 6% and it bottomed out at 0% for those who started at ages eight or nine. This means that either the students at the Eastman School the year of that study were spectacularly untalented, or that absolute pitch is not necessary for or even synonymous with musical ability.

Still, I wish I could figure out why these teachers get so excited about teaching a child with absolute pitch. There even seems to be a consensus of opinion that absolute pitch can often cause difficulties for those who have it. First of all, you have to consider what Hertz your student’s ear is tuned to – 440Hz? How many orchestras tune to 440Hz these days? Actually, orchestras are all over the place. If you don’t believe it, I refer you to the following amusing and informative forum on the problems of orchestral tuning – make sure to read the comments:**

http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=11273

So if your students have absolute pitch they may have a real problem. If their ear is tuned to 440Hz, what happens when they play with an orchestra or a piano which is tuned to 442 or even 445Hz – or they decide to play in a baroque orchestra which tunes to 415? Once, when orchestras tuned to 435Hz, 440 would have been unthinkably difficult for anyone with absolute pitch. In fact, one of my teachers who had been a soloist before World War I told me that when the international tuning standard was raised to 440Hz in 1939, some soloists had to quit concertizing because their absolutely pitched ear couldn’t accommodate the change! Even my own imperfectly pitched ear can hear the difference even between 439 and 440Hz, but as my pitch is relative, not absolute, I have no problem with any such minor tuning differences. So, in my view, perfect relative pitch which just about anyone can achieve IF TRAINED PROPERLY, can in some circumstances make life a lot easier for violin students – and their teachers.

From what I can tell, the only thing good about absolute pitch, as far as teachers are concerned, is that as long as the student is playing at her own Hertz level, we won’t have to work hard on intonation – or will we?

Years ago I had a student who had started lessons with me at the age of four, but I did not discover her absolute pitch until she was about 12. How can that be, you ask? Easy. Your students with absolute pitch will play in tune under three conditions: Continue reading

24 October 2015

Why We Should Take Children to Concerts, Part 2

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Problems and an ounce of prevention…………

Here are some of the reasons parents are reluctant to take their children to concerts. However, what may seem to be a problem may not be one at all, can be coped with easily, or can be prevented altogether

Children will fall asleep. Some parents feel that it’s a waste of time to take children to concerts when they will fall asleep. I used to think so too, but the following event changed my mind completely. When my younger daughter was about nine years old, I was having a great deal of difficulty convincing her to vibrate. As any violin teacher can confirm, vibrato is one of the trickier things to teach because if a student doesn’t feel the necessity to vibrate, she won’t. And my daughter didn’t. Then the whole family went to hear Salvatore Accardo, at that time the most famous Italian violinist, play an evening recital. Diana always fell immediately asleep at any concert, probably because I used to play my children’s music cassette tapes at bedtime (CDs were just starting to become available), but I decided to take her along anyway. What happened? She listened to the first two minutes of the concert, made the comment, “Look how he vibrates,” then stretched herself across all of our knees and promptly fell deeply asleep. “That’s that,” I thought to myself. To my surprise, the next day she picked up her violin and started to vibrate! One concert saved us both a lot of work and aggravation. From then on, I made a point of taking Diana to whatever concert I could. She slept through various performances including Shlomo Mintz playing 23 1/2 of the 24 Paganini caprices (which she adored but just couldn’t keep her eyes open for). Nonetheless, seeing and hearing him perform even for just a few minutes made a great impression on her. Another time, I took her to see Vadim Repin (who was only 18 years old) play the Tschaikovsky violin concerto with a fabulous Russian orchestra. She was old enough to stay awake and thoroughly enjoyed herself. We left at the intermission as it was a school night (I would have loved to have heard Mahler #5 which was on the second half of the program) – but it was worth going if only for the Tchaikovsky. Many, many years later, she still talks about that concert. Continue reading

9 October 2015

Why We Should Take Children To Concerts, Part 1

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A few weeks ago, a well-known Russian virtuoso came to town to play a famous violin concerto with a pick-up orchestra. I immediately called all my students and insisted that their parents bring them to the concert. Why, you might ask, is this so important even for children as young as five or six years of age?

1. There is great value in having your children see that someone famous does all the seemingly useless and annoying things that their teachers ask them to do: hold up their violins, elbow underneath, little finger on the stick, use the bow at the frog, watch the conductor and sit up straight (for orchestra players), stand up straight (for soloists), pull the bow straight, etc. It really does save the teacher a lot of hot air – or at least she can say, “If Viktoria, Anne-Sophie, Vadim, Gil, Hilary, Maxim, Shlomo, Sarah, David, Midori, Nigel, (name your virtuoso) are doing what I’m telling you to, then don’t you think you should too?”

2. If your children are fortunate enough to have a teacher who is also a performer, make sure you go to her performances – first to provide moral support, and second so that your children can see that their teacher practices what she preaches which gives more weight to her advice.

3. Attending a performance will reinforce the concert manners they learn in group lessons and recitals. It also teaches respect for other listeners and for the musicians.

4. They learn that musicians are mortals, too. Even the greatest of artists will make mistakes sometimes. Students are often shocked when this happens but it makes them feel more like colleagues, fellow perfection-seekers, rather than worshippers. They also feel a lot better about their own mistakes when playing in public. Seeing how a real pro recovers from a mistake is a most valuable lesson for students – it can change their perspective by teaching them that what’s important is the music, not the mistake: that the performer must keep going and draw as little attention to his mistake as possible to make sure that his public’s attention stays on the music instead of on whatever error he may have just made. Continue reading

2 October 2015