Category Archives: beautiful minds


The Guardian today featured an impressive array of top novelists all offering advice on writing.

It makes for inspiring reading:

I want to compose music. Well, I do compose music, rather, I want to grasp the sense of vocation that speaks through the hard-won wisdom of these writers.

Last night a good friend of mine listened to a rough recording of my latest piece in a noisy pub, her hands cupped around her earbudded pinnae, her body hunched over my iPhone. She was able to give me some really good feedback and to help me towards fixing some of the problems with the piece; as was her friend, whose non-musical language was really insightful.

So much of what I was thinking about was echoed and expanded by the Guardian article and I think I’ll be reading it over and over during the next while.

Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall…?

I had an interesting conversation after choir a few weeks ago about practice. The next day I came across this great quote from Rob Lear on Twitter:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. (Aristotle)

One of my fellow choir members, Stephen, who sings tenor II with me, was encouraging me about going for my grade eight this year: he, like me, did the other grades while at school and then had a hiatus for “life etc.”. We talked about the piano as a rather technical problem. It is unlike most other instruments in that it is less physically connected to the player. It’s not like a violin or a clarinet or a trombone which require a lot more effort to even produce a pleasant tone, let alone play the correct notes. With the piano it’s just a matter of pressing the key and the machine does the work.

I love the idea that when a really good piano player plays a piece by, let’s say Beethoven, then they become Beethoven for those moments. They inhabit the physical movements prescribed by the composer in the score. Like an actor stepping into a role, becoming a character.

Whistler's 'At The Piano' - click for larger image

The Rocky Road To Dublin

Jen and I went to see the new Sherlock Holmes film the other night in our newly reopened local Swan Cinema in Rathmines. I really enjoyed the film and we cheerfully chatted about it as we strolled home, me wearing my new deerstalker hat. That particular part of the traditional Holmes garb was left out of the film but I appreciated l’homage myself…

The cinema are going to be showing live opera from The Met apparently, which should be interesting to go and see.

Guy Ritchie, who directed the Sherlock Holmes film, creates a wonderful world for his Sherlock reboot. London looks great and is alive with possibility: Tower Bridge is being built, Britain is at the height of her power, scientific advance and enquiry strain at the leash. And Holmes, of course, embodies that searching spirit. I felt the same admiration for the character that I felt about House in the first few seasons (before they explored his nastiness) – the thrill of watching a great mind pursuing truth and appearing totally in control.

[I think I may have copped on why American programmes are now referred to as ‘seasons’: what is the plural of ‘series’? Yes, it’s ‘series’. Not confusing at all. I found a wonderfully narky entry in Wiktionary, too, under ‘programme’:


Anyway…one of the most delightful things about the film was the use of The Dubliners’ recording of ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin’ as the music over the closing credits. I usually sit to the end of the credits in films because the music info (what songs were used, the composer, musicians etc.) is always right at the end. Sometimes, though – like with Avatar recently – the credits go on for about a day! And the music wasn’t great anyway. This, however, was a real treat. Luke Kelly’s masterful vocal rolling and tumbling the words of this slip jig (three triplets in the bar) with barely a pause for breath. Have a listen. No, have two listens…first time read the words, too…

Now with the band…

PS No sooner had I posted this but I remembered that House is, of course, based on Sherlock Holmes! Holmes, House, Watson, Wilson, House lives at 221B, takes drugs, plays music, etc. etc.

We’re going on a bear hunt

Yesterday I was teaching classes in Our Lady of Victories Infant School in Ballymun. We had been doing all kinds of stories and music about bears over the past few weeks. Goldilocks, a campfire song called ‘The other day I met a bear’ and – my favourite – Michael Rosen’s wonderful action-story ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’. His sing-song delivery is perfect for young children to copy.

If you are a teacher or a crèche worker and would like a music visit please get in touch 🙂

Master of the Unusual

I’m just back from my Friday ‘Magic of Music‘ school.  It’s the mid-term break next week and all the kids had dressed up for Halloween.  There are twelve classes in the infant school and this morning they all gathered in the assembly hall.  Some of the costumes were fantastic!  A few that caught my eye were Bart Simpson (limbs and head completely painted yellow), a great witch with face painted a ghoulish green and a straggly wig. and a Michael Jackson (black shoes, white socks visible beneath the too-short trousers, black jacket with buttons, hat and the single, spangly glove).  Each class in turn marched around to show off their finery.  This is were I came in – supplying suitably scary improvisations on the twenty year-old Casio keyboard the school had in the store.  I refused the teachers’ offers of a duster as it would have ruined the Halloween effect 😉  Splendid fun!

One of the tunes we use with the kids who do the ‘Magic of Music’ programme is ‘Wipeout’ from Dirty Dancing.  It’s a great one to get them to hear the low, middle and high chords.  Here’s a novel approach from Michel Lauzière (his rollerblade version of music from Carmen is doing the rounds amongst my Facebook friends at the moment):

Tommy Tiernan

Tommy Tiernan did a Hotpress Q&A at Electric Picnic – watch it here on the Hotpress website.  That may be enough to make you wonder what the fuss is about.  Fuss that has surfaced two weeks after the event.  You’ve probably heard something about this story by now but I’d strongly recommend watching the video.  Context is absolutely vital.  It seems quite a frightening place where our words might be taken out of context and used against us, especially if those words form part of a performed characterisation or story.  Fearfully consigning oneself to a life without stories is a fairly joyless prospect.

The interviewer, Olaf Tyaransen, makes a few strange moves during the Q&A including weirdly wrong-footing Tommy by saying he heard Brian Cowen say Ireland was a great ‘land’ not a great ‘brand’…only to contradict himself a moment later.  (I couldn’t find the speech Tommy talks about but, conveniently, Brian Cowen spoke of Ireland as a brand only last week.)

I find the whole thing fascinating.  The entire media furore (it’s hardly a story at all) is based on a biased article by Sunday Tribune writer Ken Sweeney.  It was followed by similarly biased articles by Jim Carroll (on his blog) and David Adams (in The Irish Times).  Each of these pieces suited the contexts they appeared in – Mr Sweeney’s article was cream of the crop Sunday paper material, something to raise the eyebrows over but ultimately entertainment; Mr Carroll’s blog post, although hosted by The Irish Times, is properly his own opinion; Mr Adams’s is in the Opinon section (again of The Irish Times).  The contributions of Alan Shatter TD and the Archbishop of Dublin (his opinion being front page material, of course) bring the thing to a new level with talk of incitement to hatred and racism being bandied about with calls for anyone who isn’t one of Tiernan’s fellow racist idiots to boycott and ostracise him.  Incitement to hatred, in other words.

I hope Hotpress (who published the full transcript today) sell a lot of copies.  More than that I hope that people don’t vilify an intelligent, articulate, joyful, private individual.  I know everyone’s poking fun at the church nowadays – sure it’s all the rage – but there’s definitely something to be said for “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.

Meanwhile the jester gets a kicking from the pitiful boneheads out the back of the castle.

Wonderful music site for kids and grown-ups!

I found this site via @laputean on Twitter.  It’s by a Dutch guy called Paul van Coeverden and, being entirely based in Flash, doesn’t need a lot of computer power.  He doesn’t shy away from using music that might be considered difficult, in fact the first animation I watched was of a teddy bear and was set to a piano piece by Arnold Schoenberg, the architect of the atonal movement.

There’s a fun game where you choose which track a train should travel on, matching the landscape it will pass through to the music you’re hearing (an overture by Rossini).

I can’t wait to explore it more.  It looks ideal for musically curious kids but don’t let that stop you from checking it out yourself 🙂

For another all-age treat, have a look at the animations on YouTube by Dimitriya.  They are, again, very much set to the music and so provide lots of fascination as the viewer ‘sees’ the music on the screen.

Babies are brilliant

A fascinating video (about fifteen minutes long) of psychologist Alison Gopnik talking about how babies are the best learning machines in the universe.  I have been working with very young children quite a bit over the past few years (through music) and, while it was never hard to appreciate that they are amazing beings, I never quite made the leaps that Ms Gopnik lead me to consider:

  • She points out the importance of experimentation, that babies are little scientists.  Why do so many children give up at music?  Is it because they aren’t given the chance to experiment (…with the guidance of someone who understands music)?  I don’t think people need to be ‘musicians’ to play musically with their kids but there’s a discomfort associated with music play that isn’t there if it’s colour play or shapes or building blocks.  How can I, as someone who understands music, best help children experiment with musical sounds and rhythm?
  • Experimenting isn’t telling somebody something!  We all learn loads of stuff at school but the vast majority of it, I’d say, we don’t really understand.  We know about gravity not because we learned about it in school but because we played with it as children.  By the time we get to school our experimentation has to be more efficient – the best teachers are always the ones who lead you to the answer, who let you experiment (materially or mentally); importantly (and efficiently), they guide you.
  • Yes, when we start school, we have to practice skills to get to be as good as possible, be that writing, typing, drawing, singing, long division or shooting baskets (i.e. “hoops”).  Ms Gopnik reveals the staggering notion that children are the best masters of counter-factual reasoning: they aren’t merely learning to understand what is, they are learning to imagine what could be.  How can music play encourage and broaden a child’s imagination?

A method that’s often used when playing with children, from the earliest smiling, is mirroring.  A friend of mine who works a lot with autistic children showed me the great effectiveness of this as a means of self-expression for the children he saw every week.  I have a little fifteen month old cousin who lives next door and the other day he was over with his Mum and I produced some tuned hand bells to play with.  Initially I gave him one (a ‘B’) then, after a few minutes of him getting used to it (showing it to everyone, ringing it constantly, pausing to taste it of course…), I got another (a ‘G’).  So we were making a nice, harmonious major third sound (I told him this, but I don’t know if it meant anything…).  We played for a good while with the bells – a high point being when he had the G and B and I had the A and C.  He would ring, I would copy and this – because of the choice of notes – sounded good.  We started experimenting and I followed his lead, setting the bells in front of me as he had done.  He chose one, I did the same.  He took one of mine, I took one of his, etc…  Great fun 🙂

My overqualified brain had to go and ruin things, of course, by introducing too many more bells (some were desk bells that are struck with the palm, not rung, and these confused the issue) until the cacophony became too overwhelming.  When I gave him a little glockenspiel it was just too abstracted and he couldn’t ‘see’ the individual notes as clearly as he’d been able to with the hand bells.  The mistake was in presenting too many possibilities.  Too many toys.  Like in House when he sends the team off to test for everything and they potter off glumly to the lab to face a night of haystack-needling.

Tadhg and I playing with bells
Tadhg and I playing with bells (photo by Jenny Wilson - click to visit her Flickr photostream)
Experimenting with bells
Experimenting with bells (photo by Jenny Wilson - click to visit her Flickr photostream)

Can’t wait to play some more – you should try it!

Rothko Smile

My jazz trio is doing its second gig tonight at Anseo on Camden Street in Dublin.  We’ve been thinking of a name and have paused for a little while on ‘Rothko Smile’, inspired by the famous painter.  His paintings are very popular and yet are rather abstract, so the idea of someone smiling a ‘Rothko Smile’ is quite an enigmatic one.  A friend pointed out on Twitter that Mark Rothko himself wasn’t a particularly happy person – maybe the pleasure we feel when seeing his work is tinged with a little sadness for its creator?

I found a blog post by a fellow WordPress user that describes some of their feelings on Rothko (and includes three very nice examples of the painter’s art).

The Lennox Café

Late night but it’s hard to actually sleep in so I got up to bring Jen to her photography course. Listened to ‘Falling to pieces’ by The Script on the radio on the way back – good song.

Breakfast of French toast (with bacon and maple syrup) and Earl Grey tea at The Lennox Café, our local that is all of a hop, skip and a jump from our door. Sitting in the morning sun reading The Sunday Times.

Some interesting articles:

Niall Toner on recycling…he speaks about the new thing in everyone’s life – waste – and how there are still a lot of materials and packaging that can’t be put in the green bin. My thinking is that one should put everything vaguely possible in there. NT mentions the necessity of removing the labels on cellophane…even I’ll admit this to be a bridge too far and a waste of time. I do wash out plastic meat trays (and take-away trays and microwave meal trays) and put them in the green bin, though.

He also mentions the depressing fact that a lot of our recycling gets shipped off to China. We should develop our recycling processing, surely? As an island we need to be self-sufficient with our disposal. Why not bury clean all-the-same-type plastic for future ‘harvesting’? It’s not going anywhere and might prove valuable (I’ve seen Back To The Future 2) whereas now it’s a costly headache. Let’s concentrate on the composting problem, which is much more pressing and smelly…

Good to see non-faith-based summer camps for kids springing up in the UK. Poor Richard Dawkins gets a bit of a bashing in Lois Rogers’ piece, although conspicuously more on the front page… He has done remarkable work.

Sarah McInerney writes about the Constitution. Seems like it needs changing (I have to admit I’ve never read it) to be, well, better. There have been loads of recommendations by committees of clever people that have been ignored by government. Change it! We can always fix it again down the line but let’s make it right now, for us and our children.

Family at the next table had a retired guide dog – lovely idea and I found myself smilingly respecting him or her. They also briefly talked about Michael Jackson’s death. The papers are full of more sordid detail (which I ignored). There is *perhaps* an argument for the usefulness of celebrity-watching as a moral reference point but it is such a shocking waste of time. I feel similarly about sport which is granted its own supplement so I can just ignore it. Is it too much to hope that papers might one day do the same with celebrity fluff?

Anyway, Michael Jackson is pop music for people of my age (+/- a generation). If you’re jaded by the same handful of songs that the radio will offer find ‘Speed Demon’ from the Bad album. Programmed bass line, blistering horn parts that’ll blow you away and that voice…brimming with energy and literally bursting out around the melody with soul. Genius.