Mirror neurons and music, part II: the discovery

I know.  You’re waiting to hear about mirror neurons and music and we’ll get to that.  But the story of the discovery of mirror neurons is really too good to pass up because it was one of those serendipitous discoveries that has sometimes happened in the history of science.  Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is probably the best-known, but other revolutionary discoveries that happened quite by chance include insulin, quinine, the smallpox vaccine, nitrous oxide and ether as anesthetics, and the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).  In case you don’t know about PCR, it’s sometimes called “molecular photocopying,” and it is used to amplify a single strand of DNA, generating the significant amounts of a sample DNA that are necessary for molecular and genetic analysis, for detection of viruses and bacteria, and of course, for matching criminals to crime scenes as we regularly see on television and in movies.

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Mirror neurons and music, part I

You are at a concert and find that you are becoming increasingly tense, uncomfortable, and nervous as the performer experiences several memory lapses.    You know by the look on a klavier,piano,pianiststudent’s face as he comes to your studio that he hasn’t practiced during the past week.   A stranger smiles at you as you walk down the street and you smile back, suddenly feeling happier.  You know when your spouse grabs the grilling tongs while you are enjoying dinner outdoors that he isn’t about to turn the vegetables on the grill, he’s going to throw the tongs at the woodchuck that’s gnawing on a tree in your yard (strange, but true).

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Now from a jury member at an international competition. . .

I know that I promised mirror neurons in the next post, but we have the following from someone who has not only won a major international competition but has also served as a member of the jury at an international competition.  Paavali Jumppanen is an internationally-known Finnish pianist, winner of the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 2001.  He sent the following in response to the first “listening or watching” post.

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Are you listening or watching? part II

SimonI hate to admit it, but I played the electronic game Simon for years before I realized it was possible to play it by the colors, not by the pitches.  I knew the red, blue, yellow, and green buttons each corresponded to a certain pitch and flashed when that pitch sounded, but it simply never occurred to me to remember the sequences by color.  For me, the game wasn’t visual, it was auditory – I memorized the pitch sequences.  I still remember my amazement when I learned that it could be played by color, not sound. Continue reading

Are you listening to the music – or watching the performer?

Imagine being Brahms in 1889 and being the first composer/performer to be able to hear a recording of your own playing, as well as hearing your own voice.  Granted, the quality of the wax cylinder was terrible, but hearing a piano performance coming from a machine, rather than producing it yourself or seeing it being produced by another person, must have felt a bit disembodied.  Music, after all, had always been about a person using movement to create sound. Continue reading

Triple axels and the piano

Yulia Lipnitskaya:AP ImagesA few years ago, a composer who was writing a piece for me commented at one of our rehearsals that he wanted the audience to breathe the same collective “Aah!” at the end of the work as they do when a figure skater lands a flawless triple axel.  We were in the middle of the Olympics at the time, and as we were both fans of figure skating, triple axels were on our minds.  We are currently in the middle of another Olympic season and figure skating is again on my mind as I sit mesmerized watching the men’s, women’s, pairs, and ice dancing events.  And again I am pondering triple axels and playing the piano.  (And yes, I know that the photo at the left does not show a triple axel, but she is such an extraordinary skater!) Continue reading