Music and Senescence

There are two ways to make music. First, you can physically play an instrument. (For simplicity we’ll lump your throat and mouth in with the other instruments.) Instead, you can record it, most likely using a computer. What you’re recording may be a physical performance on an instrument, or it may never have been physically performed.

I do a fair amount of computer-based recording. I also play the piano and the cello. Each activity has some real attractions, and also some limitations. As I get older, the limitations become more glaring.

I’ve become very frustrated by my cello playing. Quite often it just doesn’t sound the way I want it to. And this is only partly because I’m an amateur player with professional tastes. More important, it’s because I’m 73 years old.

One of the things that happens when you get old is, your hands lose tensile strength, that’s the first problem. The little finger of my left hand, a finger that is extremely useful, doesn’t always press down hard enough on the string, or it arrives on the string a little late because the muscles are slow to respond to nerve impulses. When this happens, the beginning of the note will be either scratchy or flat in pitch. As the pad of the fingertip sinks more firmly onto the string, the tone will firm up and the pitch will rise.

The second problem is coordination: Sometimes the messages from your brain get tangled up on the way to the muscles, so that the muscle doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. Playing any instrument is a matter of millimeters. If your finger is a couple of millimeters off kilter, bad things can happen to the sound. When the music calls for a quick move from one string to another, your finger may brush the wrong string. Or your bow arm may rise or drop to the new string a little late. Ugly noises ensue.

The third problem is, sometimes the brain gets a little mixed up. I find that occasionally I just skip a note, for instance. This is not a brain-to-muscle communication issue, it’s a mistake that is happening within the brain. The pattern of notes is not being cued up properly.

I hope I still have a few years ahead of me before I have to give it up. I’d like to have five years, but there are no guarantees. It might be five months, or five weeks, or five days.

Augmenting my frustration is the fact that computer recording doesn’t suffer from this sort of problem. I don’t record my cello or piano. (Recording the cello is possible, but playing the cello in a small home studio while wearing headphones is about as much fun as changing a flat tire.) I record synthesizers using MIDI.

This is a wonderful technology, and one of the things that’s wonderful is that what you record is perfectible. Notes can be lengthened or shortened after the fact. Their pitch and tone color can be changed with great freedom.They can be made louder or softer. And any changes that you make stay put! When I’m playing the piano, a phrase that I’ve played perfectly a hundred times can unexpectedly fall apart. This happens mostly when my concentration wavers — and when you get old, your concentration is more likely to waver. Also, I’m pretty sure there’s less margin for error. A small lapse in concentration can have larger consequences, because the network of neural connections that are assembling the music before sending it out to your fingers is thinner than it was 20 years ago.

Imagine if your computerized MIDI recording of a phrase reverted, suddenly and spontaneously, to an unedited version that you fixed weeks ago. That never happens. It can’t happen. Well, not unless your hard drive crashes and you stupidly didn’t make backup copies of your files. It’s preventable. But because playing a physical instrument is a real-time activity, the potential for a train wreck is never far away. No amount of practice will guarantee that a given run-through of a piece will be error free.

Why not just stick with computer music, then? Well, that idea falls prey a whole other set of age-related phenomena. Using the mouse to edit MIDI tracks or make tiny adjustments in on-screren knobs is a physical activity. If I do it for a couple of hours, and that would be absolutely routine — an ordinary session of creative work — my hands and wrists are not happy. I’m ambi-moustrous; I can mouse with either hand, and I switch off from time to time. But neither hand can be relied on never to lurch into the zone of pain due to over-use.

And my hearing? The highs are gone. This is not a problem, so far, with the cello or the piano, because the tone of the instrument is whatever it is. With computer recording, you have to be able to hear how the various instrument sounds mesh together. Maybe I’ll get another five years’ use out of my ears. Maybe.

I figured I’d write all this down and put it out there because I don’t remember anybody explaining it all to me when I was young. When you’re young, old age is something that happens to other people. You may try to help them when you can, or they may not say anything to you because they don’t want your pity. Or maybe they’re trying to convince themselves that they’re fine, that it’s all really just the way it has always been. For whatever reason, it’s not quite real to you when you’re young. When it’s happening to you, the details come into sharp focus.

I have a friend who played drums professionally for many years. He can’t play at all anymore because his spine gave out. I can still play, pretty much, but it’s becoming clear that no amount of daily practice can turn back the clock.

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2 Responses to Music and Senescence

  1. George Oliver says:

    Very thoughtful post Jim. I’m curious (and don’t mean this suggestion as a ‘fix’ for the issues you describe) if you have or have tried one of the newer midi controllers like a Haaken or Linnstrument? They seem to have some nice affordances for people in the acoustic and electronic world like yourself.

    • midiguru says:

      I tried an early version of the Haaken Continuum about 12 years ago. As an amateur pianist, I found the absence of key dip (the travel downward of a key when you play it) really difficult to deal with. Also the absence of tactile feedback, such as you get when your finger brushes the edge of an adjacent key. These are important ergonomic considerations. I haven’t tried the Linnstrument, and since I no longer write product reviews (or at least very seldom, and not of hardware) I would have no reason to ask Roger Linn to send me one. But I suspect the same considerations would apply there. Tactile feedback is important!

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