Saturday, 2 October 2010

Why a strong grasp of history is important for scientists

The purpose of the study of history is to learn from the past so we can make better decisions in the future. In a geeky machine learning analogy, it is kind of like processing more "training data" so that we can minimize our prediction error.  A scientist should have a pretty strong concept of the history of science including
1. The history of development in this sub-discipline.  In machine learning, that translates to early inception of the field in A.I., the problems with the A.I. (search space) technique, entrance of statistics (VC, generalization errors), parallel development in neural science, up till the present day.  With this, the researcher can better plan his strategy to maximize success in the long run.
2. Also the broader context of the development of scientific thoughts.  Scientific revolution, paradigm shifts in scientific progress.

Similarity between orchestra and basketball team

Last Tuesday I was playing basketball and then went quickly to my weekly university orchestra rehearsal.  As much as the two different crowds can be, there are some striking similarity between these two activities.

On an individual level, each player on a basketball team or in an orchestra must maintain individual technical proficiency.  The musician practices his/her instrument by spending hours on scales, etudes, and concert pieces to build better facility and musicianship.  The athlete spends hours on drills, to improve shooting,dribbling, defending, endurance.  Both require tremendous discipline and dedication.  On a side note, both also suffer from performance anxiety (like performing at Carnegie Hall or taking that fateful foul shot when you have 5 seconds left in the game)

There is also similarity in the team dynamics.  In an orchestra, each musician subjugates his/her individual interpretation of the piece and tries to blend with the whole group.  Each musician is also given different parts thus different roles.  It can be the solo melody, simmering background accompaniment, or a grand tutti.  The violinist must pass off the beautiful theme to the woodwinds and play pianissimo trills so that the entire orchestra can make music together.  The basketball player need to pass the ball selflessly and sacrifice your own personal glory for team victory.

On a last note, there is the coach/conductor.  Their job is to make sure mend personalities (musicians can have sometimes bigger egos than basketball players) and dictate the team strategy / musical interpretation.

How can PhD in engineering help in music performance?

In the fourth year of my PhD now and just writing a blog piece about some of my changing habits in violin playing/practicing after grueling through some serious academic research.
PhD students are trained to research. To find interesting solvable problems in existing knowledge, explore and make some advances. The whole process is very amorphous and self-directed. First, a large amount of time is spent finding a good problem. This is very fortuitous and often happens at a "Eureka" moment. Over time, the PhD student develops the ability to seek out interesting problems that are solvable. This is similar to a musician picking a piece that interests him/her and is within the reach of his/her technical ability.
After finding a problem, you are required to analyze it into smaller projects that can be tackled.  It also involves a certain about "diagnostics" in the implementation phase, to figure out what stage of your solution has broken down.  A violinist must also analyze his/her target piece.  Usually there would be two phases, a technical analysis and a musical analysis.  In the technical analysis, one must discover trouble spots and usually design efficient and clever "mini-etudes(studies)" to overcome such difficulty.  These difficulties can include

  1. Left-hand: lack of finger pressure, side of fingers touching nearby strings, lack of finger dexterity (especially on the fourth finger), dreaded intonation (especially on double stops), getting a nice wide vibrato (difficult on double stops)
  2. Right-hand: awkward string crossing, spiccato, upbow staccato, fast whole bow strokes.  Overly noticeable bow changes.
After technical analysis, the musician has to think about phrasing, composition background, balance, dynamics etc.

On the whole, my playing is more rigorous and I have gotten better at figuring out how to practice for a difficult piece.  (Waxmen Carmen fantasy and Devil's Trill right now)