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    Perfect Pitch

    Like generations of musicians before me, I have always wanted to have perfect pitch. Wouldn't it be just wonderful to be able to tune a band precisely without having to use a piano or some other instrument as a reference point?

    Like generations of musicians before me, I have always wanted to have perfect pitch. Wouldn't it be just wonderful to be able to tune a band precisely without having to use a piano or some other instrument as a reference point?

    Years ago, I thought I actually saw this happening. A conductor friend was standing in front of his band at the beginning of the rehearsal, giving instructions to various players as they attempted to tune to concert B-flat.

    "You are too flat!" he said, pointing to one trumpet player. "You are just slightly sharp," he told a flute player, and so on. Closer inspection, however, revealed the truth. Obscured by his wide girth, was a small electronic tuner!

    Perfect pitch, of course, is the is the ability to identify by name or re-create (by singing) a given note without the benefit of an external reference. It is an innate ability that - despite the claims of some educators - cannot be taught.

    That said, there is some evidence to suggest that people who are exposed to music at a very early age sometimes learn to associate particular sound frequencies with particular pitches - much like we associate different electromagnetic radiation frequencies in light as constituting different colours.

    This idea is supported by research reported in a 2009 article in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. It noted that the proportion of people who have perfect pitch is higher in populations that speak tonal languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese. Those concerned must, however, be fluent native speakers. Sadly, my ability to speak conversational Cantonese - diligently studied during a 10-year sojourn in Kuala Lumpur long ago - hasn't helped.

    Many people who have perfect pitch are not even musicians. It is often not until they show some interest in music and are asked to identify key changes in aural tests that they realise that they don't have to concentrate. They just know the key of the final chord. Another point to note is that tonal recognition relates to the pitches that you grew up with. If the piano in your house was a semitone flat, for example, then your perfect pitch would always require some adjustment.

    Perfect pitch is not necessary for success in the musical world. A number of great musicians, among them Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, did not have it. Many blind musicians, however, do.

    But perhaps the strangest thing about perfect pitch is that musicians like me who don't have it wish they did, while those who do have this amazing ability often wish that they didn't!

    A piano or string player with perfect pitch, for example, would have great difficulty learning to play a transposing instrument. Playing a written C on a trumpet and hearing a "wrong" concert B-flat instead can be very disconcerting. Knowing the pitch of a car horn heard in the street, or realising that your kettle sings an off-key E-flat when it boils is not particularly useful either.

    Then there is the observation of composers such as Richard Todney Bennett that perfect pitch loses its accuracy in middle age. "You start hearing what you think is a half a tone higher than it is," he told a magasine interviewer in 1994. "If I hear a pop song in F sharp minor, for instance, I know I must adjust". For him the whole thing was a nuisance. "I find myself checking the pitch of muzak tunes in lifts".

    Well, maybe the rest of us really are better off without perfect pitch. What do you think?

    Latest Focus

    A Dream Fulfilled

    A poor but talented Indonesian E-flat tuba player who wants to study music in Singapore's prestigious Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), is very close to realising his dream.

    An impossible dream?

    When Joe Darion wrote the lyrics to the famous melody written by Mitch Leigh for the 1965 hit musical Man of La Mancha, I don't suppose he spent much time thinking about the ambitions of E flat tuba players.

    Are musicians more moody and prone to suicide than other people?

     

    Many people believe that musicians are more moody and prone to suicide than other professionals, and that - as a result - a greater percentage of them end their lives in mental institutions or are fated to live emotionally tempestuous lives. Musicians are also commonly suspected of being over sensitive to criticism, having delusions of grandeur and other neurotic traits.

    The statistics fail to bear this out, although it is possible to find enough examples to make the case in front of those unfamiliar with Western musical history. Like actors, politicians and others obliged to face the public on a regular basis, musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. However, such problems do not constitute evidence of neuroticism.

     Musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. 

    Beethoven was known for his moodiness, but this was probably closely related to his growing frustration as he began to go deaf. Among the famous composers, only Schumann and MacDowell ended  up in mental institutions. Musicians probably have no more suicidal impulses than the rest of the population. But should a prominent musician decide to take his life, it is likely to get a good deal of publicity.

    Perhaps the most morbid suicide was planned by the pianist Alexander Kelberine, who arranged his last concert programme to consist only of works dealing with death. He then went home and took an overdose of sleeping pills. Schumann jumped into the Rhine, only to be rescued by a fisherman. Rezso Seress composed Gloomy Sunday, a work that was once banned in Europe because it triggered a wave of suicides by young people on Sundays. Seress himself committed suicide by jumping out of a window. The vast majority of musicians, however, die of causes that reflect the state of medical knowledge in the particular historical period in which they live.

    Some musicians certainly had sad lives. Mozart, perhaps the greatest of the composers in the Classical Period of music, died a pauper. The pianist Chopin, a Polish nationalist and tormented lover, was terrified of large audiences. He died of tuberculosis when he was 39. Bizet, a French composer who died when he was 36, was beset by crises of self-confidence and emotional upheaval. Unlike Chopin, his works only achieved widespread recognition after his death.

     Wagner had the emotional maturity of a spoilt child. 

    George Gershwin only had a short life, but it was a good one. He died of a brain tumor when he was 39 after a rags to riches story that made him one of the most well known composers of popular music in  the United States.

    Others lived long and had much success, despite treating others abominably, including many of their friends. Wagner considered himself a genius as a playwright, poet, stage director, and philosopher as well as a composer, and was not shy about letting others know it! Although not particularly handsome, his personal magnetism was such that he had numerous affairs, usually with married women, despite the fact that he was married himself. His biographers describe him as having the emotional maturity of a spoilt child, complete with tantrums if he could not get his way. He died at the age of 70, widely acclaimed as one of the greatest composers of his time.

    The pianist Franz Liszt's dashing good looks enabled him to have numerous affairs with many woman. He died of pneumonia at the age of 75. Contrast this with the fate of Schubert, who was short, fat, bespectacled and naturally shy. He died of syphilis at the age of 31 after his friends encouraged him to visit a brothel. Those who knew him well described him as having a warm and friendly nature. Somehow, it doesn't sound fair.

     The life of J.S. Bach must have been very boring. 

    The majority of musicians now and in the past lead fairly quiet lives. Edward Elgar, a largely self-taught musician, rose from humble origins to become the first English composer in 200 years to gain international acclaim. He had a stable marriage, and was regarded by many as a typical English gentleman. He died at the age of 77. Sergei Rachmaninov, the Russian composer, also had a good life despite being out of step with his country's politics and music. He died at the age of 70.

    The life of J.S. Bach must have been the most boring of all. He spent almost his entire life in the same small region of Germany where he was born. And nobody took much notice of him either. It was not until about 80 years after his death that his works attracted the attention they deserved.

     

    Concert Nerves

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    FOR a country of 240 million people, Indonesia’s Western music scene is surprisingly low key. There are only two well-established symphony orchestras, well-designed auditoriums are rare, and few Western-trained musicians can find enough work to make a decent living.

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