Learning notes: If Paganini wrote the “All Things Considered” Theme

Session Notes (from most general/abstract reflections to more technical, musician-specific)

The above is a sliver from almost 1 and a half hours of practicing this and other music. We’re about 85% of the way there–I probably need another 45-90 minutes before I’ll play it with the full character and over-the-top pizzaz that Paganini’s music is known for.

On a Mind Full vs. Just Being:
When you try too hard, and know you’re already capable of what you’re trying to do, you’re sometimes better off shifting focus onto staying relaxed. If you listen early on, you can hear I’m using too much bow & force to play the arpeggiated 16th notes which make messy and exaggerated accents during those runs.

Productivity & Processing:
Educators and productivity optimizers know this–people learn better and tend to be more productive and learn better when they have time to process what they do. They often create breaks (or even naps [0]) between their activities. For anyone interested, here’s a classic research review paper on the role of pauses for higher cognition in learners from Kennith Tobin back in 1987 to back that suggestion up [1].

Plus the Pomodoro productivity method (as described by Lifehacker) also emphasizes the notion of intentional distraction–30 or 45 minutes on-task, 15 minutes doing whatever you want to do) [2]. Another approach, “real-life pomodoro” [3] encourages us to fit our blocks of work & practice into the timespan of other existing events.
i.e. work for the amount of time it takes to do a load of laundry or in my case, practice until the lights go out.

(A side note: this idea of using other events to frame your work touches on behavior change. I’ll explore this further in a future post, but BJ Fogg’s work from Stanford on Tiny Habits [4] might be a great place to start if you’re curious)

I was trying to internalize the piece in proper rhythm before the end of the night but the lights turned off shortly after this attempt around 1:00 or 1:30am so this was the next best thing. I still felt a bit jittery and distracted even as I played this (you can see I close my eyes a few times to re-focus on just doing the music).

For “mindfulness” (or to just clear your mind), running earlier in the day or giving priority to even 5-10 minutes for clearing your mind can have good effects if you’ve spent a great deal of energy and time trying to learn and do something that’s challenging or overwhelming.

On the benefits to creating and attempting to do very challenging things:

In my case, I do have some practical purposes for choosing to create this piece–but if you’re willing to consider playing as a manageable and complex challenge it requires a diverse enough range of technique that I know I benefited in other areas of life too.

Of course, there’s a degree of privilege that comes with choosing challenges to pursue on a recreational basis.

Whether you’ve been through something very challenging by circumstance or by choice the skills used to bring yourself through a situation with parameters that challenge you can often be broken down into several basic skills which you might not realize you improved until you’ve looked back.

On “literacy” for composition:
Composition is a process for organizing ideas. Whether writing an argument for an essay, a melody for a piece of music, or the lyrics to a rap, it creates tangible patterns for you to see and arrange.

While I’ve had the piece in mind and played it for many years off and on, I rarely had a clear sense of the note values (for non-musicians: how long some of these notes should last or how quickly they should be played compared to other notes in the same piece) until this evening.
e.g. Whether I was bowing & plucking in triplets, eighth, or 16th notes–basically I never wrote down the piece so I didn’t have a “literary” understanding of the composition, which made it more challenging to understand whether it would be accurate to interpret the way a Paganini caprice would be played as well.

Thus, being able to write music down (or at least know how written music works) proved its value.

Technical note for DIY string players on artificial harmonics:
I started making an effort to keep my pinky finger only on one string–which allows the other strings to resonate more when the finger stays clear of the strings it doesn’t cover. I’m still working on not letting it collapse as I play artificial harmonics though.

I originally “drafted” this interpretation in 2008 and finally returned to the piece to get the musical nuances in full character before officially recording it.

A moment for context for non-violinist/non-musician readers and non-National Public Radio’s All Things Considered listeners:

Among violinists, Paganini is known for ridiculous, often challenging to play music made for showing off. At his peak (somewhere between the late 1700s to mid 1800s when he lived), he would saw parts of his strings so that they’d snap as he played a concert to show off and arrive in a black cloak, black stage coach, with black horses drawing the carriage.

NPR’s All Things Considered is a news  radio show with a theme (that whistling sound on the violin is the basic theme) that many listeners have created their own version to submit for the show to use.


What it looks like when you know you’ve still got a ways to go but are okay with pausing to enjoy where you’re at.

Cited & References:
[0] Napping may increase learning
Sleep-Dependent Learning Review and Memory Consolidation (review paper)
Comparing the benefits of Caffeine, Naps and Placebo on Verbal, Motor and Perceptual Memory
(Naps do better than not naps, but maybe not much difference compared with caffiene)
It’s Practice, with Sleep, that Makes Perfect: Implications of Sleep-Dependent Learning and Plasticity for Skill Performance

[1] The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning

[2] Pomodoro productivity technique

[3] Real Life Pomodoro

[4] BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits approach to behavior change

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