Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Becoming Sensitized

I always get excited when I meet a class of music appreciation students for the first time because I know that I will be exposing them to things that they have never known before. But, in these digital times, those of us who teach are faced with the inadequate preparation that high school (and, yes, even college) has given students to be ready to have experiences that stimulate the senses.

Many of the social activities that young people engage in for pleasure, like recreational excessive drinking, drugs, electronic games, either dull the senses or sequester them. And, like mice in a maze, we, as a "species" are gradually "wiring" ourselves to respond to electronic impulses, like the arrival of of an e-mail message or a text message. That "ping" often takes center stage in our realm of attention.

I used get a little "ping" of dopamine when our home phone rang, but now, with all the annoyance calls, political calls, and sales calls, that ping is mostly augmented with feelings of annoyance and disappointment. I'm becoming somewhat "wired" as well, and I don't like the fact that it is happening. I find that I will stop what I am doing to read an e-mail message, and I waste too much time zooming around the internet. Like everyone who uses any kind of electronic communication device, I need to seriously balance the "virtual" with the "real."

We live in a relatively quiet place so, electronic annoyances in the outside world (away from home, phone, and hearth) are relatively few. I have the luxury of not having to desensitize myself as often as city dwellers or people who constantly have their cell phones in their hands, and connect many of their pleasure responses to stuff they read, hear, and see through them.

I have spent nearly half a lifetime (that's hoping for a good 40 more years) sensitizing myself to music. I have sensitized myself by playing it, singing it, writing it, listening to it, and analyzing it. Sensitizing myself to sound, and observing the way it can change and express complicated feelings, offers a tremendous number of rewards over the long term. I liken it to scratching at a block of cedar (or sharpening a cedar pencil). You can smell the unsharpened pencil if you try, but when you scrape the surface and release the full aroma, it is a totally different experience. Sure, you have to keep scratching the surface of music (which is an enjoyable process in itself) in order to have it give back. I find that over time (and after a lot of scratching) I hear and experience more and more in music of quality. I also find that the absence of quality becomes apparent after a lot of experience with high quality music.

I was thinking about this last night during a rehearsal of Respighi's "Pines of Rome." There's something poly-sensual about the piece: and listening to it (or playing it and listening from the inside) you can almost smell the cedar and feel the experiences of the ancient civilizations that watched the trees grow.

Respighi must have been highly sensitized.

This is a terrific recording, but even though it is a concert recording, it doesn't feel quite the same as hearing it played by living and breathing players in real space. We just have to work a bit harder to allow the music to do its magic when we listen to recordings.


Erik K said...

Great, great post. It's a struggle to avoid electronics and the internet, but every time I successfully do I inevitably feel disconnected in the best way imaginable.

And that Toscanini recording is indeed awesome.

Joe Carlson said...

Thanks, Elaine. Often wondered how trained musicians with their sensitivity to sound hear the "real world." Speaking of pencils, here is John Updike:

"You know, this image I mentioned. There’s an image in one of the first Nabokovs I read - the pencil sharpener, which said “Ticonderoga, Ticonderoga.” Ticonderoga being the brand of a pencil. But to listen to what a pencil sharpener is saying was a kind of image you would love to have created yourself."

Nabokov was thinking of the sound made on an old-fashioned grade school pencil sharpener that you had to crank: Ti-con-der-o-ga, Ti-con-der-o-ga!

Elaine Fine said...

Oh how I loved sharpening pencils in elementary school! And the sound WAS part of the experience (sometimes you had to go to the FRONT of the room to sharpen, which made it an even bigger deal).

Elaine Fine said...

It is interesting to involve Nabokov because although his words are extremely musical to me, he hated music! He has synesthesia, but music sounded like noise to him!

Joe Carlson said...

Remember The Gershwin Piano Rolls? Now Debussy checks in.

Quodlibet said...

For lovers of pencils and music:

(I have no connection to that blog other than my pleasure in reading it. Lots of pencils, but dig around and you'll find plenty on music, too.)

Michael Leddy said...

For anyone who’d like to see the Nabokov passage Joe mentioned:

With the help of the janitor he screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener — that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must. He had other, even more ambitious plans, such as an armchair and a tall lamp.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (1957)

It’s sometimes a pleasantly small world: Elaine and I both read (and gape at the photos in) Contrapuntalism.

[No great effort involved here — I posted the Nabokov on my blog a few years back.]