Category Archives: Music

At the 55th

This is a mostly nonscientific post concerning the 55th reunion of the Princeton Class of 1960 last weekend. First the Science. Nick Cozzarelli was one of the most distinguished members of our class — great work on Topoisomerase, editor of PNAS for 10 years which established a prize named for him for the best paper each year. No one I’ve ever talked to in the class knew of him or his work. Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton certainly did, and was shocked to hear of his untimely passing from Burkitt’s lymphoma when I told her of it at our 50th, saying he was a great scientist. However, he’s one of the reasons Princeton back then was a great institution (and hopefully still is). The son of an immigrant shoemaker in Newark NJ, he was taken in, given a scholarship, and worked his way through, serving meals in commons etc. etc. I made sure the undergraduates picking up a little cash by pouring drinks and serving meals at reunions heard about him. He was a good friend.  R. I. P. Nick.

Another friend, an emeritus prof of chemical engineering, referees a lot of papers. He estimates that 80% of the papers in his field, quantum chemistry, coming from China are absolute trash. According to him China gives bonuses to people getting published in high impact journals. What he finds particularly appalling is that he writes up a detailed list of corrections and improvements for the paper, and then finds it published totally unchanged in another journal.

He and I reminisced about our great undergraduate advisor Paul Schleyer with the department chair (who of course knew of him since he is one of the most cited and prolific (1,400 papers) chemists of the 20th century). He’s another reason Princeton was such a great institution back then (and hopefully still is). For details please see and

I finally saw the new Chemistry building (under construction at the 50th) and it is gorgeous. The NMR set up is particularly impressive, with the megaHertz of the machinery a factor of 15 greater than those we first started using in the 60s. Alas Varian is no more. It was bought a few years ago by another company which terminated the business. For where the money came from see

In a remarkable coincidence, my wife an I were able to chat with the son of a neurologist in my call group, just finishing up his PhD in Chemistry there. How improbable is that?

Now for the nonScientific part.

For those undergraduates reading this at similar institutions, some advice — get to know as many of your classmates as you can. Premeds at Princeton back then had to take a lot of the same courses — biology, basic chemistry, organic chemistry, calculus, physics etc. etc. So we got to know each other. The rest of the class, not so much unless we were in other organizations (in my case, the marching band, Triangle club, and the eating club). At reunions I always meet classmates that I wish I knew back then and form new friendships.

Sometimes that isn’t always easy, with everyone working out the various important issues present from 18 to 22. A classmate’s wife described the men of the class at their 25th reunion as ‘roosters’, crowing and impressing each other. Not the case 30 years later. Everyone glad just to be there and catch up.

Princeton was all male back then. The current wives (some being #2, #3, #5) are an impressive bunch. They were uniformly intelligent and interesting. Not a bimbo in the lot of them, although most were very attractive physically. So the class may have slept with bimbos, but they were no longer in evidence.

Various seminars were held. I went to one about America’s relation to food. The panelists were 6 trim females with a fair amount of pseudoscience and touchy feely crap emitted, but at least the cautionary tale of the trash in the popular press about diet was mentioned (e.g. the paper about eat chocolate lose weight). What was fascinating was that the incidence of obesity (BMI over 29) in the group of several hundred listeners was at most 5%, proving, once again, that obesity in the USA is largely a class phenomenon. Also noted, is that I only saw one or two undergraduates and graduates smoking, again a class phenomenon, something Americans don’t like to talk about, but there nonetheless.

A memorial service for classmates was held in the chapel (built in 1929 but designed to appear that it was built in 1299). The organ is magnificent as were the acoustics, the sound surrounding you rather than coming at you. Bach and Vidor were performed by the organist. Apparently there was quite a battle about which to do first — refurbish the organ or the chapel acoustics. The stone had roughened distorting the sound so it didn’t echo properly. Clear plastic was applied to smooth the stone and then the organ was fixed. If you can hear a concert there please do so. Great composers write for the space their music will be performed in as well as the instruments it will be performed on, certainly true of Gabrielli, Bach and Vidor.

On a sadder note. I know of 4 suicides of class members (we started with around 725). Probably there are more. Also a good friend and classmate’s wife and daughter appeared to accept an award in his name. Although still alive he is incontinent, unable to walk and demented from Alzheimer’s. Despite degrees from Princeton, Harvard and Penn, Board examiner in Neurology blah blah blah, I was totally unable to help him. All I could do was offer emotional chicken soup to his wife, something my immigrant grandmother did with her 4th grade education in the dry goods store she ran. That’s why it’s good to be retired from neurology and not see this day after day.

Finally the P-rade. It is a great emotional lift for the psyche to march a mile or so to the reviewing stand being cheered by probably 1,000 – 2,000 younger graduates the whole time. The younger they got the louder the cheers and the drunker they were. It’s pretty hard not to feel good after that. I have heard that the only weekend event where more beer is consumed than Princeton reunions is the Indianapolis 500.  Along those lines, I only saw one truly drunk individuals among the 250 or so classmates and significant others although just about everyone had alcohol.  The alcoholics are no longer around for the 55th.

The Bach Fugue of the Genome

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio

Just when you thought we’d figured out what genomes could do, the virusoid of rice yellow mottle virus performs a feat of dense coding I’d have thought impossible. The following work requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of molecular biology which the articles in “Molecular Biology Survival Guide for Chemists” might provide the background. Give it a shot. This is fascinating stuff. If the following seems incomprehensible, start with – and then follow the links forward.

Virusoids are single stranded circular RNAs which are dependent on a virus for replication. They are distinct from viroids because viroids need nothing else to replicate. Neither the virusoid or the viroid were thought to code for protein (until now). They are usually found inside the protein shells of plant viruses.

[ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 111 pp. 14542 – 14547 ’14 ] Viroids and virusoids (viroid like satellite RNAs) are small (220 – 450 nucleotide) covalently closed circular RNAs. They are the smallest known replicating circular RNA pathogens. They replicate via a rolling circle mechanism to produce larger concatemers which are then processed into monomeric forms by a self-splicing hammerhead ribozyme, or by cellular enzymes.

The rice yellow mottle virus (RYMV) contains a virusoid which is a covalently closed circular RNA of a mere 220 nucleotides. A 16 kiloDalton basic protein is made from it. How can this be? Figure the average molecular mass of an amino acid at 100 Daltons, and 3 codons per amino acid. This means that 220 can code for 73 amino acids at most (e.g. for a 7 – 8 kiloDalton protein).

So far the RYMV virusoid is the only RNA of viroids and virusoids which actually codes for a protein. The virusoid sequence contains an internal ribosome entry site (IRES) of the following form UGAUGA. Intiation starts at the AUG, and since 220 isn’t an integral multiple of 3 (the size of amino acid codons), it continues replicating in another reading frame until it gets to one of the UGAs (termination codons) in UGAUGA or UGAUGA. Termination codons can be ignored (leaky codons) to obtain larger read through proteins. So this virusoid is a circular RNA with no NONcoding sequences which codes for a protein in either 2 or 3 of the 3 possible reading frames. Notice that UGAUGA contains UGA in both of the alternate reading frames ! So it is likely that the same nucleotide is being read 2 or 3 ways. Amazing ! ! !

It isn’t clear what function the virusoid protein performs for the virus when the virus has infected a cell. Perhaps there aren’t any, and the only function of the protein is to help the virusoid continue existence inside the virus.

Talk about information density. The RYMV virusoid is the Bach Fugue of the genome. Bach sometimes inverts the fugue theme, and sometimes plays it backwards (a musical palindrome if you will).

It is unfortunate that more people don’t understand the details of molecular biology so they can appreciate mechanisms of this elegance. Whether you think understanding it is an esthetic experience, is up to you. I do. To me, this resembles the esthetic experience that mathematics offers.

A while back I wrote a post, wondering if the USA was acquiring brains from the MidEast upheavals, the way we did from Europe because of WWII. Here’s the link

Clearly Canada has done just that. Here are the authors of the PNAS paper above and their affiliations. Way to go Canada !

Mounir Georges AbouHaidar
aDepartment of Cell and Systems Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 3B2; and
Srividhya Venkataraman
aDepartment of Cell and Systems Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 3B2; and
Ashkan Golshani
bBiology Department, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1S 5B6
Bolin Liu
aDepartment of Cell and Systems Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 3B2; and
Tauqeer Ahmad
aDepartment of Cell and Systems Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 3B2; and

The Ukraine

“Are you Russian?” I asked (age 10) on meeting the formidable Dr. Antyn Rudnytsky, my future piano teacher for the first time. I then received a frightening, lengthy and intense lecture concerning the difference between Ukranians such as himself and Russians (gangsters as he called them).

What he was doing on a chicken farm in southern New Jersey in the late 40’s is quite a story. I was incredibly fortunate to have been taught by an individual of his caliber, and at amateur chamber music festivals, usually someone asks me where I’d studied. I was extremely well taught, and I spent my senior year in high school studying just the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto.

I have no way of checking the accuracy of all of this, but this is what I heard about him. He had a PhD in music and had studied Piano under Artur Schnabel. He was, at one point conductor of the Ukranian State Orchestra, and didn’t like the way a particular violinist played and chewed him out. The violinist denounced him to his party cell, and Dr. Rudnytsky saw his name in the paper as Mr. Rudnitsky (not Comrade Rudnytsky or even Dr. Rudnytsky). He got out and came to the USA. It took him several years to get his wife (an opera singer) and his two boys out of the Ukraine.

He never quite adjusted to the USA, speaking of how people would wait for hours in the snow to go a great concert back there and how little respect classical music had in the USA. What really must have torn him up was seeing one son (Dorian) go to Julliard, and found the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble in the 60’s where he played cello along with two guitars and a clarinet. Leonard Bernstein plugged the group for a time, ignoring the father.

His other son, Roman, was very useful to me, in that he showed me what real musical talent was like, so that I didn’t get inflated ideas about my own ability (I’m a not-too-bad amateur). At age 3 he started telling his father what notes passing trains were emitting. Then when people would come over to the house for lessons, Roman would sit behind a door, and then play what they had played (without looking at any music) on the piano. Also a Julliard graduate.

Addendum 4 Mar ’14 — I sent a copy of this post to both sons — Roman and Dorian, and almost immediately got back a nice note from Roman. Just Google him (Roman Rudnytsky) for some of his U-Tubes etc. He said that everything I remembered about his father and his history was ‘spot on’.

One more Ukrainian bit before moving on to the present. In the 80s a newly arrived Ukranian lady was interviewed by the local paper in upstate NY. When asked what she liked about the US, she mentioned having people over to her house for prayer without having to draw the shades.

So now Russia has invaded the Crimea again, and Europe is reduced to making a few noises. Since they spend about 20% as much as the USA on defense, it’s about all they can do (but look at the great social services they have — they won’t be much help if Russia moves west again).

Another even more disturbing point, is that we talked Ukraine into giving up its nuclear weapons. In June 1996 they transferred all 1,900 of their nuclear weapons to Russia. It is very doubtful that Russia would have invaded, had the Ukraine retained them. It is even more doubtful, that any country with nuclear weapons will ever again voluntarily give them up. It is also quite likely that many small countries without them will try to go nuclear. The world has just become a much more dangerous place.

On the bright side, Europeans can now put their large numbers of unemployed youth into their armies, solving at least one problem.

Forget practicing, it’s how you look

A truly shocking paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 110 pp. 14580 – 14585 ’13 ] showed that people could reliably pick the winners of classical musical competitions when they looked at soundless videos of the competitors. Neither naive listeners or musical ‘experts’ were reliable at all when they just listened to recordings, or when they looked and listened to videos and sound.

This actually makes a peculiar sort of sense to the neurologist. Probably half our brain is involved in analyzing visual input, maybe 10% analyzes sound.

I’m still going to practice. Perhaps the music industry knows something we didn’t till now. I’ve always been appalled by the way great female classic musicians are made to look like sluts on album covers. You don’t see Lang Lang in a jock strap.

Here are the actual experiments.

Experiment 1. One hundred six participants (Mage = 20.73, SD = 2.46; 49.5% male*) volunteered.† Participants were instructed about 10 live classical music competitions that they would judge, based on excerpts of the three finalists in each competition. They had the chance to receive an additional $8 if their selections matched the actual competition outcomes. They had the choice of sound or video recordings; or, if they chose the recordings with both video and sound, $2 would be deducted from any bonuses won.

Experiment 2. One hundred six participants (Mage = 22.26, SD = 1.79; 41.1% male*) with little to no experience in classical music volunteered.† Through a within-subjects design, each participant received both the video-only set and the sound-only set of the same performances (SI Text). Participants were then asked to identify the winner of each competition. Finally, they were asked to identify whether sound, visuals, or other cues were more important for them in judging a music competition.

Experiment 3. One hundred eighty-five participants (Mage = 24.18, SD = 9.64; 46.1% male*) with little to no experience in classical music volunteered.† Through a between-subjects design, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: video-only, sound-only, or video-plus-sound versions of the experiment 2 stimuli. They were then asked to identify the winners and report whether sound, visuals, or other cues were more important for them in judging a music competition (SI Text).

Experiment 4. Thirty-five professional musicians (Mage = 27.00, SD = 9.69; 31.6% male) volunteered. They were recruited from music conservatories, symphony orchestras, and professional music organizations. The design paralleled the within-subjects format used in experiment 2 and implemented the same stimuli (SI Text).

Experiment 5. One hundred six professional musicians (Mage = 27.25, SD = 12.55; 41.5% male) volunteered. The design paralleled the between-subjects format used in experiment 3 and implemented the same stimuli. Analyses on effects of demographic variables revealed no significant patterns (SI Text).

Experiment 6. Eighty-nine participants (Mage = 27.38, SD = 10.68; 50.0% male*) volunteered.† Participants received silent videos from the experiment 2–5 stimuli that had been reduced to black-and-white moving outlines (Fig. S2). Participants were then asked to identify the winners of each competition.

Experiment 7. Two hundred sixty-two participants (Mage = 21.52, SD = 3.36; 52.3% male) volunteered.† Participants were assigned to either the silent videos or the audio recordings from the experiment 2–5 stimuli. They were then asked to identify the most confident, creative, involved, motivated, passionate, and unique performer in each set of finalists. Repeat choices were allowed.

That’s why they’re called the blues

A fascinating paper. [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 110 pp. 8836 – 8841 ’13 ] 18 selections of classical orchestral music by Bach, Mozart and Brahms were played to Americans and Mexicans. People from both cultures chose colors suggested by the music the same way. Faster music in the major mode produces color choices which are more saturated, lighter and yellower. Slower, minor music produces the opposite pattern (desaturated, darker and BLUER).

That’s why they’re called the blues.

Although I’m a lifelong musician (piano) music has never suggested any colors to me at all.

The Death of Jazz

I’ve always loved jazz.  50+ years ago, while in college, a friend and I would hitchhike 50+ miles into New York to go to Birdland, and the Hickory house.  We heard Basie, McPartland, Miles etc. etc. Then at 2PM or so we’d hitchhike back, usually reaching campus at sunrise.  It was great.  Amazingly, I was able to hire Coleman Hawkins for a party at our eating club.  People danced, drank, clinked glasses, talked, hustled each other while fellow musicians and I just stood and listened.   Hawkins didn’t mind.

This makes what happened last Saturday night very sad.  For years, a very good jazz pianist played at a local Italian restaurant on weekends.  It took me about 10 seconds of listening  to figure this out.  However, he had to drive 40 miles each way to this gig, and as he got older and had some fainting spells, his wife put a stop to it.

However, he put in one appearance at a different local venue — also a bar and grille — last Saturday night.  We invited two classical musicians I play chamber music with to come.  It turned out they liked jazz.  The previous week the violinist and I went through one of the slow movements of Bach violin harpsichord sonata #6.  Bach would have been a hellacious jazz musician.  The movement has a great bass line, and it swings, with tons of offbeat accents.  If you look at some of his organ works you’ll see variations with just a few initial measures written, the rest to be improvised by the performer.

So there we were, sitting,  talking, eating, drinking beer and wine, all the while listening to great jazz and enjoying ourselves.  During the first break, some old fart got up and asked people to be quiet so he could listen.  We blithely ignored him during the next set, until an even older fart from the next table came over and asked us to be quiet. (Full disclosure:  I’m 74, but I know an old fart when I see one).

Quickly, the place turned into a funeral parlor, with a bunch of elderly people grimly listening.  Presumably they were enjoying themselves, but it wasn’t evident from from their faces. The whole thing died, and we left.

Jazz, like Bach, is musician’s music.  There will always be people who love it.  Many of them are jazz musicians.  Some appear with Marion McPartland on Piano Jazz to play and chat.  Over the years, she’s had just about everybody on her show. I heard one of them (Ahmad Jamal) wish that he had more time to practice Bach when he was on the road.

If this sort of behavior is widespread, the death of jazz will come at the hand of its fans.  What young guy would take a date to a bar for something like this.

Double blind testing comes to music — how much did you overpay for that Strad?

Today the New York Times  reported that a Stradivarius cello was sold for north of 6 million.  Was it a ripoff?  According to the following article in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vol. 109 pp. 764 – 769 ’12) it probably was.   It has long been claimed that a pro can tell a new violin from an old within a minute (according to two ‘experts’).  In the absence of evidence, theory fluorishes.  Explanations for the superiority of the violins and cellos made by the old masters (Stradivarius, Guarneri) abound.  These include

l. properties of the varnish

2. effects of the Little Ice Age on violin wood

3. Differences in the relative densities of early and late growth layers in wood

4. Chemical treamtnets of the wood

5. Plate tuning methods (whatever that is)

6. Spectral balance of the radiated sound

The paper gives references for all 6 should you like theorizing, but wait until you see what actually happened before you look.

So at the September 2010 International Violin Competition in Indianapolis — the home of one of the great  University music departments in the country, or anywhere, the authors decided to actually check out the superiority of Strads and Guarneris  They studied 21 violinists, 19 professional,  ranging in age from 20 – 65, playing for 15 – 61 years.  The prices of the violins they owned  ranged from  $1,800 to 10 million.  4 violinists were contestants, 2  the were jurors in the competition, and most of the rest were from the Indianapolis symphony.

The violinists were told that they were going to decide which instrument was the best, and that 1 of the 6 was a Strad (actually there were 2 Strads and a Guarneri among the 6, the rest being new instruments).   So how in the world did they blind the musicians?  The 3 new violins were at most a few years old.  It would be obvious which was new and which wasn’t just  from looking.  The authors put welder’s goggles on the violinists, and a dab of scent under the chin rest of the violins to make them all smell the same.

The violinists were given a pair of violins (one new, one old) and asked to choose which was best.   They used their own bows (the price of bows is another story).  There were 9 possible new/old pairs of violins. All 21 violinists were asked to chose the instrument they preferred from each pair (21 * 9 = 189)   They chose the new violin 112/189 times and the Strad or the Guarneri only 77/189 times.  The aggregate market value of the 3 new violins was 100,000 (so they were hardly cheap instruments, and had been selected by the authors for their high quality), but that of the old ones was 10,000,000.

There’s a lot more but you get the idea.  It’s going to be interesting to see the reactions of the 7 or so string players I play with on a fairly regular basis (I xeroxed the paper for them).

Only 5 singing days left until Christmas

This is non-scientific post.   The Messiah is one of the glories of Western civilization.  It’s a shame that it only gets performed this time of year.  Last night we went to a community Messiah sing in a large beautiful old church.  Lots of the people I play with were in the orchestra.  Large numbers of the audience clearly knew how to sing.  There was a professional conductor and 4 soloists.  Before starting out he informed the assembled multitudes that this was not going to be the definitive performance, and we might have to stop if we got lost (which happened once).

We’d been to similar Messiah sings in a friend’s home with may be 15 singers in years past. It was great being in the midst of the voices, but it was nothing like last night.  We didn’t sing, but sat with the 40 or so Sopranos.  To our left were the about same number of altos, and in one of the naves were the tenors (to our right), opposite them in the other nave were the basses.  The church had a very fine organ and the orchestra had about 20 players.  They used the Mozart orchestration of the Messiah which had wind instruments that didn’t exist when Handel was writing.

I write this to urge you to go to a Messiah sing in your area, if  one’s available.  It is a fabulous experience to sit in the middle of all the voices and hear the counterpoint build up around you, as one set of voices after another takes up a phrase.  40 altos bringing in a phrase is something else.  You are  totally immersed in the glorious sound which is all around you.  It is a far more intense experience than sitting in an audience and having the choir and orchestra come at you in one direction.  It’s probably better if you can sing, but you don’t need to.  On an intellectual level, it’s far easier to understand the counterpoint when each voice is coming at you from a different direction.  The neurologist in me has to tell you that your ability to do this depends on discriminating differences in sound arrival times in your two ears at the microSecond level.

As a chamber musician, I get this something like this playing with friends, but a Messiah sing is a completely different order of magnitude.  My string playing friends tell me that this is why they play in orchestras, suffering the egos of conductors, the rehearsals, the shlepping of their instruments, etc. etc.  — the experience of the music is quite different when it’s all around you.

When we were raising out kids in Montana, they heard the Messiah at home a lot.  When we’d  drive past sheep in the field, they’d start singing “O We Like Sheep”, because that’s what they thought it meant, and they liked sheep.

Merry Christmas to all

Music and Weddings

Back from the wedding of one of the violinists I play chamber music with.  Coupled with a graduation 2 weeks ago and a craft festival last week, this means not much Anslyn && Dougherty got read (or anything else).  I will say, after getting through 100 pages or so, that A&&D  reads like a novel, is extremely fascinating, well paced and extremely clear for the most part.  It’s like being rip van Winkle and seeing answers to the many of the questions exercising organic chemists in the early 60s.  Clayden et. al. was an excellent prolog.

Two points about music making.  First, unlike the polls about who’s the greatest chemist etc. etc. amateur musicians know almost immediately if another amateur is better than they are.  By better, I don’t mean more technically adept, which you can get around by enough practice.  I mean sheer musicality.  We all have musicality to varying degrees, and I find interesting, that amateurs rarely disagree about who is ‘better’ than they are. Compare this the venom expended about sports teams or their individual players; It’s obvious to me that the newlywed violinist is lightyears better than I’ll ever be.  When we play, she’s the boss, despite being 43 years younger.

Second, playing music allows you to get to know what people are like (not just musically) in an incredibly short period of time. It’s nonverbal communication of a high order, mostly affective, and very intense.    I was invited to a cellist’s wedding despite having played music with her for only 5 -6 hours over the course of a chamber music festival.  A connection is formed that would take repeated social contacts over a much longer period of time, otherwise.  Just another reason to love music, and music making.

Apologies to Clausewitz — chamber music is the continuation of war by other means

The correct quote is “War is the continuation of diplomacy by other means”, but humans can screw up anything — even something as great as amateurs getting together to play chamber music.  This was brought to mind by an awful experience playing Brahms Trio in B major ( Opus 8 ) for piano, violin and cello.  The pianists among you know how difficult this work is technically, particularly the last movement which is fast, fast, fast, particularly for the left hand (the weak link for most pianists).  I’d never played with the violinist before (who was quite good), but it seemed to be a series of control gambits and oneupmanship.  I started the last movement at a pace I thought I could get through without major disaster, when the violinist announced that she didn’t think she could play it that slowly.   Yes, there really are people like that.  Fortunately, where I live there are plenty of people who are excellent musicians who are fun to play with.

A few random thoughts about amateur music-making  in no particular order.

I’m a retired neurologist and I’ve seen a lot of people kid themselves about how well they were thinking.  Also there’s the supposed loss of 10,000 neurons a day (a neurological urban myth, as no one has ever counted them).  Figure it out.  There are over 1 billion of them at least (the later the estimate, the larger the number).  There are 60 x 60 x 24 x 365 = 31,536,000 seconds in a year.  Preparing whole brain slides of sufficient clarity to visualize neurons is state of the art — although one of the founders of MicroSoft is trying.

So when I retired I was concerned that with my aged brain, I’d never get any better.  This isn’t true, at least for technique, as I’m able to play things with relative ease that were pretty much beyond me when I started it (Beethoven piano violin sonatas for example). Hopefully, this has improved my musicality.  It is a great thing to look at a passage and think how you want to play it instead how can you play it.   So if you’re in the midst of life, with spouse, kids, mortgage, career etc. etc. and there aren’t enough hours in the day to play let alone practice, take heart — when you retire you can pick it up where you left off and actually get better.

There is a huge difference between amateurs and professionals.  This was brought home at a chamber music festival for amateurs.  One of the coaches talked about effective practicing techniques.  She said she was tired of waiting until the fourth hour of practice to sound good on the violin.  I’ve never practiced 4 hours in a row in my life.  So in addition to having more talent than amateurs (they are self-selected after all), they work harder.  A fellow amateur said — an amateur practices until they can play it right, a professional practices until they can’t play it wrong.

Luysii’s first law of amateur musicianship:  there is always someone better than you and there is always someone worse.

Corollary: be nice to those worse than you so someone better will be nice to you.

Along these lines, amateur musicians instinctively know where they stand in the pecking order of musicality and talent.  It really doesn’t matter if the musician is out of shape, the musicality shows through.  One of the Jazz bandleaders (I think it was Artie Shaw) had people trying out just play scales.  It was enough for him.  Age makes no difference to the determination of who is better.

Most pianists don’t play a lot of pianos, unless they’re buying one.  I recently had occasion to play a brand new Yamaha 7 foot grand — so new the felt hammers didn’t have string indentations.  It was very good, at least as good as a Steinway (the new ones anyway).  Don’t dismiss Yamahas when looking.

Don’t be afraid to ask someone a lot better to play with you.  One violinist I play with is a conservatory graduate.  I think she’s slumming, but this has now gone on for several years, so she must be getting something out of it.  Needless to say, I practice hard whatever we’re going to play before she comes over.  A friend thought it might be that conservatory types learn how to be soloists or orchestra members and actually don’t get exposed to chamber music.


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