Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Guest Post: "Inspired to Remember" by Desirée Scarambone


I'm so pleased to introduce our next guest author, my friend and colleague, Desirée Scarambone, author of the wonderful book "Classical Composers: A Home in Your Head for the Musical Masters". 


Finding inspiration in unexpected places is a thrill that never gets old.  Whether it’s that bright flash of suddenly understanding a problem by looking from a different point of view, or the slow dawning that synthesizing seemingly unrelated ideas sometimes brings, it’s a rush that the hungry mind meets with pleasure.  Unfortunately, those “aha!” moments don’t come every day, but sometimes, on a very lucky day, inspiration strikes twice.  

Because I know that fellow teachers and musicians can appreciate the excitement of inspiration, I wanted to share with you some of my more recent “aha” moments.  

Late this spring, after Federation auditions, theory tests, spring recitals, piano festivals and a general flurry of performances, my students began slowly dispersing to take on their summer adventures, and I greeted June with a sigh of relief. 

“Now”, I thought, “I’ll have time to catch up on my reading.” 

I considered my queue, which had grown to an unmanageable size throughout the spring semester, and felt a bit overwhelmed by my ambitions.  In an attempt to avoid the mountainous pile of books awaiting my attention, I decided to spend an evening cleaning out a cabinet of music, books and various papers.  This is how I stumbled across an old article written by Joshua Foer (Secrets of a Mind Gamer) - published around the time his book Moonwalking with Einstein debuted.  Four years ago a dear student from long ago sent a copy to me, and at that time I casually read through the article then put it aside.  This evening, however, I settled down to read the article with great interest.  

In the midst of piles of papers and books to be organized, I felt that Foer was somehow touching upon the solution to a problem I didn’t know I had, and despite the physical chaos surrounding me, I felt a small flame of inspiration and order begin to light my way.  That evening I borrowed a copy of Moonwalking with Einstein from the library and read through, practically without stopping.  

Moonwalking with Einstein  (found here) is Foer’s documentation of his journey into the world of memory championships.  He discusses how he learned to train his mind to think and remember an immense amount of information in a very short time.  If that’s not fascinating to a teacher, what is?

The potential of a “trained” mind is not foreign to a musician, because although we execute our art physically, music is primarily an exercise of the mind.   But how exactly does how a memory champion trains relate to what a musician (or music student) does?   Are there any mnemonic devices or techniques to be gleaned from their repertoire and added to our own?

As I read, fascinated, I began thinking of various applications - and then I got to chapter 8.  The title of the chapter is The OK Plateau (Foer gives a talk about it here).  It ignited the bright light kind of “aha” moment.  In this chapter he discusses how he began to question how professionals of every walk of life reach a higher level of capability than others.  Is it, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests, 10,000 hours of practice?  (That number is nice, but haven’t we always felt that something is slightly askew with that simple formula?)  No, he concludes that it’s reaching past what he calls the OK Plateau.  Granted, The OK Plateau is, basically, metacognition in action, but would my students respond to the word “Metacognition” or the words “The OK Plateau”?  Would they respond to a lecture about “Think when you play!”  from me, or would they respond to a young, interesting journalist talking about unexpectedly becoming a memory champion because he wouldn’t let himself be just “ok”.  

The video linked above became my secret weapon for combating the OKs and Blahs that I sometimes see my early adolescent students facing.  If they stop hearing me when I say “think about what you’re doing!” maybe they’ll hear Foer.  

In literature and on television (BBC’s Sherlock, for example) memory palaces are alluded to, but they seem mysterious - fictional at the worst, unapproachable for the ordinary mortal mind at best.   Joshua Foer discusses how they are approachable for any mind, how they work, and how to use them.  

Learning a Beethoven sonata by building a memory palace seemed a bit farfetched (if I can figure out exactly how to do that, you’ll be the first to know), but learning who Beethoven was seemed to be the perfect application.  

This came to mind because while preparing for theory exams (a combo of theory and history in our case) I noticed that even well-read students with ample exposure to classical music were struggling with the various eras of classical music, which composer belonged to which and who composed what.  I decided to experiment.  We built a memory palace of my own house in their minds.  By the end of a 15 minute story in which we covered composers from Vivaldi to the Beatles, a group of students of various ages (from 9 to 14 in my experimental class) had a firm grasp of eras, composers and pieces.  It was nothing short of miraculous.  And one of the most exciting discoveries they made is that they’re capable of seemingly impossible feats by simply engaging and applying their imaginations.  


Classical Composers: A Home in Your Head for the Musical Masters is available for Kindle. 



About the author: Desirée Bradford Scarambone is a classically trained pianist with a profound love of teaching.  She is a professional piano teacher with over 15 years of experience teaching students of all levels. 
She earned a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance from the University of Houston, Texas, where she studied with Ruth Tomfohrde, Timothy Hester and Horacio Gutiérrez, and pursued graduate studies in Piano Pedagogy with Dr. Melody Hanberry Payne at Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi.  In the imminent future Desirée plans to begin the pursuit of a Doctorate of Philosophy in Musicology at the University of Kentucky. 
She is a member of The National Federation of Music Clubs, The American College of Musicians, The National Music Teachers Association and The College Music Society.  Desirée has served as an adjudicator for competitions and festivals, and her students have won prizes and honors for their performances. 
Her previous literary projects include the scripts and music for two children’s musicals commissioned and staged by the Blue Barn Theatre in Port Gibson, Mississippi.
Desirée currently lives in the beautiful Blue Grass area of Kentucky with her husband, professional pianist and professor, Dr. Bernardo Scarambone, where they homeschool their three children and teach full time.