photo of Henry Ando playing the clarinet
credit: Henry Ando
December 20, 2014

Music's Effects On Learning

Music may not make you smarter, but many researchers say learning to play an instrument can help with other abilities. 

University of Illinois journalism student Amelia Mugavero produced this report. 

 

Editor's Note: The last name of the student in this report is pronounced Ando. We apologize for the error.

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Cellist Matt Haimovitz made it big in the classical music scene as a little kid.
(Stephanie Mackinnon)
October 03, 2013

Studying The Science Behind Child Prodigies

Matt Haimovitz is 42 and a world-renowned cellist. He rushed into the classical music scene at age 10 after Itzhak Perlman, the famed violinist, heard him play.

"By the time I was 12, 13 years old I was on the road playing with Israel Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and some of the great orchestras. So it was pretty meteoric," Haimovitz says. "I grew up with a lot of classical music in the household. My mother is a pianist and took me to many concerts."

But nothing in his family history explains where Haimovitz got his extraordinary talent. And that's typical, Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College who has studied prodigies, tells NPR's David Greene.

"People are fascinated by these children because they don't understand where it came from. You will see parents who say, 'I wasn't like this, my husband wasn't like this.' It seems to sometimes just come out of the blue," Winner says.

 

It's not clear whether a prodigy's brain is any different from the brain of other children, in part because there have been no studies comparing the brains of prodigies to those of average people.

"But I believe that anything that shows up so early, without training, has got to be either a genetic or some other biological basis," Winner says. "If a child suddenly at age 3 goes to the piano and picks out a tune and does it beautifully, that has to be because that child has a different brain."

Children who are extremely gifted tend to be socially different, too, Winner says. "They feel like they can't find other kids like themselves, so they feel kind of weird, maybe even like a freak, and feel like [they] don't have anybody to connect with."

Gifted children are more likely to be introverted, Winner says, and spend more time alone. "On the other hand, they also long to connect with other kids, and they can't find other kids like themselves."

For his part, Haimovitz says he didn't have many friends as a child, mainly because he was so focused on the music.

"There was no time afterwards to party. I would at the time practice four or five hours a day and I'd have to get my homework done, but I didn't feel like I was missing anything because this is what I wanted," he says. "I chose it. But certainly in terms of friendships, they've been few and intense."

As Haimovitz got older, his friendship with his best friend – his music – began to change. He became frustrated creatively. He wanted to play other kinds of music but felt constricted by the image and the expectations of the boy prodigy who played classical music and filled concert halls.

"When you start that early, you suddenly start to grow up in public, and I wanted to experiment," Haimovitz says.

So he took his cello into punk rock clubs and coffee houses. He played Bach and Haydn and Hendrix.

"My teacher, Leonard Rose, we never played any 20th-century music. He didn't like it. But once I was exposed to Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and others, I couldn't really turn back. I wanted to know more," he says.

Bow in hand, he even took a stab at Led Zeppelin.

What Haimovitz did may have been exceptional, even for a prodigy. Winner says as prodigies grow up, they struggle to advance their talents.

"The skill of being a child prodigy is the skill of mastering something that's already been invented – whether it's Western math, classical music or realistic drawing," Winner says. But adult creators actually do something in a new way. "That's a very different skill, and most prodigies do not make that leap."

It's also hard for prodigies to grow up and suddenly not be so special, she says.

Haimovitz says he's been able to navigate all of this. He has a very full life – a wife, two children and music.

"I rarely look back, honestly, because there's so much going on in the present and the future. But those moments when I am in the car and I happen to hear an old broadcast or recording, occasionally I am struck and say 'Wow, I did some good things back then,'" he says.

Winner says that it's often the adults in a prodigy's childhood who determine how they'll fare when they grow up.

"I think it all has to do with how many expectations were put on you as a child: You're a genius. You're going to be a genius when you grow up. That is really dangerous," she says.

"But if you say 'You're terrifically musical and you're going to have a wonderfully musical life,' that's a very different kind of message to give to kids, and a much more positive one."

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George Harrison and John Lennon,
(AP Photo/File)
September 16, 2013

Ill. Governor Dubs Saturday `George Harrison Day'

Illinois' governor doesn't want a southern Illinois city's observance of its connection to late-Beatle George Harrison to be just a local thing.

Gov. Pat Quinn has proclaimed Saturday to be ``George Harrison Day'' statewide. That coincides with Benton's plans to unveil a historical marker to commemorate Harrison's 1963 visit to the 7,000-resident city.

Harrison's 1963 stay in Benton was to see his sister, Linda Harrison Caldwell. It occurred while the Beatles were soaring up the charts in England, but before they made their ballyhooed trip to the United States. 

Illinois State Historical Society executive director William Furry says obscurity in America allowed Harrison to walk Benton's streets, jam with local musicians, visit record stores and even camp in the Shawnee National Forest without being hassled by fans.


June 21, 2013

Taste of Champaign-Urbana Begins Friday Night

On Friday, the annual Taste of Champaign-Urbana kicks off at West Side Park in Champaign.

At this year’s event, there will be live music, art work, and food from about two dozen vendors. The Champaign Park District’s Laura Auteberry said people who come to the Taste should nott hold back on the food.

“Remember that they are eating guilt free because this is the park district’s major fund raiser each year for our youth scholarship program," she said. "What that does is it allows us to provide fee waivers to children in our community whose families might not be able to afford to pay for day camps, swim lessons, or sports programs.”

Auteberry said she hopes to raise about $15,000 for the cause.

Also, this is the first time in the event’s 43-year history that people will be able to drink beer. Beer sales will be contained in the main entertainment area, and there will be increased security.

The Taste of Champaign-Urbana goes from 5pm until 10pm on Friday, 11am until 10pm on Saturday, and 11am until 6pm on Sunday.


Libyan presenters work at the studio of Radio Zone in Tripoli, Libya, in 2012.
June 18, 2013

Libyan Radio Station Promotes Democracy, One Rap At A Time

Many of the militia fighters who rose up and ousted former dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 have refused to lay down their arms and are still challenging the post-revolutionary government.

Yet the militias are facing a challenge of their own. They now come under verbal attack on one of Libya's newest radio stations, Radio Zone.

Bassem Arady, a presenter at the station, says pretty much whatever's on his mind. He's unafraid of militiamen, government officials or his boss, who sits nearby on a recent day, quietly laughing as Arady makes fun of members of congress, who were caught with whiskey and women the night before.

It's quite a scandal in this conservative Arab nation.

Arady uses the colloquial Libyan dialect instead of the formal Arabic typically used in television and radio newscasts. It's as if he's talking to a friend, and he invites his listeners to call in and voice their opinions.

But his work is about more than informing the public, he says.

"I'm doing this for Libya, for my people," he says. "So if anybody have any problems with me, please, he's more than welcome."

Arady says he wants people to know that there's no reason to be afraid to speak out about the problems in Libya and against violence. He names names and doesn't worry about the fallout.

The owners of Radio Zone are no strangers to threats. One of them, Nabil al-Shebani, has been kidnapped twice for criticizing the armed groups.

Shebani says it's incidents such as his kidnappings that give this new station a cause: to make sure his kid's generation doesn't think that guns are the answer.

Radio Zone is only about a year old; the studios are still being built. The staff members, mostly 20-somethings, broadcast in one room while construction goes on in the other.

A young, tattooed composer sits in the offices downstairs putting together tracks.

He goes by the stage name Pixie, and he's working on a new song that uses gangster rap to rap against what he sees as the gangster behavior of Libya's militias. The lyrics were written for his musical partner, Yousef al-Shebani, whose father is Nabil, the Radio Zone co-owner.

The 13-year-old Yousef shot to fame during Libya's revolution with the song "We Want to Live in Freedom."

"We want the darkness to go away and justice to prevail," he sings. Yousef's father wrote the lyrics, which the older Shebani says still hold true today.

"We need a life as a human being," Nabil al-Shebani says.

Ali al-Abbar, the co-owner of Radio Zone, is in charge of the music side of things. He's working on bringing Libyan artists with a social message to the station. It's music, he says, that will lure young people, rather than lectures about gun control and violence.

"We present ... Libyan music, but Libyan music in a modern way," he says. "When you hit a message to any generation, a young generation, you have to hit it by the way they like, to satisfy and deliver your message in a clear way."

Abbar and Pixie, the young Libyan composer, got together after the revolution. Pixie had worked with international hip-hop stars in Turkey, where he grew up. Now he's home, hoping to make a mark in his own nation.

In many ways, Abbar says, Libya is a mess. But despite all the difficulties, Libyans now have the right to speak freely.

"Before, we were controlled," Abbar says. "But now we can do whatever we want."

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Ray Manzarek (far right) stands with fellow members of The Doors
(Express/Getty Images)
May 20, 2013

Ray Manzarek, Founding Member Of The Doors, Dies

Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist and a founding member of The Doors, died Monday in Germany. He was 74.

A statement from publicist Heidi Ellen Robinson-Fitzgerald said Manzarek died in Rosenheim, Germany, after a long battle with bile duct cancer.

Manzarek and Jim Morrison founded the iconic band after meeting in California. The Doors went on to become one of the most successful rock 'n' roll acts of the 1960s — and continues to have an impact decades after Morrison's death in 1971.

In an interview with NPR in 2000, Manzarek recalled the band's influences and its music:

  •     "We were aware of Muddy Waters. We were aware of Howlin' Wolf and John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Plus, Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys and the surf sound. Robby Krieger brings in some flamenco guitar. I bring a little bit of classical music along with the blues and jazz, and certainly John Densmore was heavy into jazz. And Jim brings in beatnik poetry and French symbolist poetry, and that's the blend of The Doors as the sun is setting into the Pacific Ocean at the end, the terminus of Western civilization. That's the end of it. Western civilization ends here in California at Venice Beach, so we stood there inventing a new world on psychedelics."

Here's more from the publicist's statement:

  •     "After Morrison's death in 1971, Manzarek went on to become a best-selling author, and a Grammy-nominated recording artist in his own right. In 2002, he revitalized his touring career with Doors' guitarist and long-time collaborator, Robby Krieger."

"I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of my friend and bandmate Ray Manzarek today," Krieger said. "I'm just glad to have been able to have played Doors songs with him for the last decade. Ray was a huge part of my life, and I will always miss him."

Manzarek is survived by his wife, Dorothy; his brothers, Rick and James Manczarek; his son, Pablo Manzarek; daughter-in-law, Sharmin; and three grandchildren.


Kevin James at his home studio in New York City.
(Bruce Wallace)
May 17, 2013

Composer Kevin James Finds Music in Disappearing Languages

Kevin James is a musician and composer in New York City. For the past few years, he’s been working on The Vanishing Languages Project. He starts with recordings of endangered languages—ones with very few or, in one case, no remaining native speakers. He uses these as inspiration for extended string and percussion pieces. He recently debuted his latest work in Brooklyn and San Francisco.

James first started thinking about the power of endangered languages when he was in his teens. It was the ‘70s, and he was watching a PBS documentary about these Australian Aboriginal land rights trials. In the documentary, an aboriginal man prepares to testify. The man is the last native speaker of his language, and he insists on giving testimony in his language, without translation.

“It was beautiful,” James says, remembering the documentary recently in his Upper Manhattan home. “At the end of his testimony it was clear that everyone in the courtroom was very moved. And the judges seemed to come to the conclusion that it was better to hear it given in his own language than it could have been translated. Mainly because of the obvious emotion and the sense that this was the last person who could speak this language and it was such a lovely language; such a really beautiful language. The sense that this was going to be lost along with his land. That his culture and his language would be lost as well. It came across as a gift to have heard this language spoken one more time.”

James began working in earnest on the Vanishing Languages Project six years ago. He says he was motivated in part by how current the concern for disappearing languages felt. “I like for my music whenever possible to capture a moment—a historical moment. A time on earth, and this was timely. We expect to lose at least half the world’s languages before the end of the century,” James says.

He started poring over the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and focused in on four languages: the Quileute language from the Pacific Northwest, Dalabon and Jawoyn, two Aboriginal languages from Northern Australia; and Ainu from Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. For the first three James tracked down the handful of remaining native speakers of the language and spent time recording them talking to each other or telling stories. There are no native Ainu speakers still living, so he relied on archival recordings of those.

He then picked through the hundreds of hours of recordings looking for particularly musical passages, keeping an eye out for qualities like cadence, melody, and inflection.

“The concept behind this project was to take those qualities—to take the inflections and use those as the basis of music,” James says. “Rather than most music is based on physics-how many divisions of a second can you make, and how do you count that time. And it’s regular, that time is regular you beat out a beat, you keep that beat, you can make it a little faster, a little slower. But when we speak, the inflection is much more fluid. And the same is true of the melodic aspects of a lot of language, in terms of how much register they cover.”

James built an extensive series of ragas, or small musical phrases, based on precise transcriptions of the rhythm and melody of spoken phrases. These ragas are the building blocks of the four Vanishing Languages compositions.

“In each of the pieces the musicians are asked at certain points to mimic actual words or actual sounds of the language,” he says. “But the mirroring of the language was the springboard—it was the jumping off place. The point of the piece was to extend that musically and to take those phrases and see how far they could go with them.”

James doesn’t provide translations of the languages he uses in his compositions. “I really do prefer that the audience experience be as pure as possible,” he says. “For me my first experience was not understanding, and nobody understanding what was spoken, and that being a very pure and revealing experience. I find people when they don’t have a visual to back up audio, that they go searching, and that they assign their own meanings. And I think that’s a more meaningful experience than them listening and picturing somebody cooking. I think it’s more meaningful for them to find their own…their own… place for that, their own visual for that, their own set of contexts in terms of their own experience.”

James is currently working on getting recordings of the project out into the world. And, sometime soon, he’s hoping to bring Vanishing Languages Project back to Australia and Japan—the ancestral homes of Dalabon, Jawoyn, and Ainu.

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