Juliana Madrone

Musicologist | Professor | Cellist | Writer

Playing Music – Better Than Vitamins


There has been a lot of press lately about studies like the Harmony Project and the impact of music on our brains. In the face of repeated funding cuts, we are finally finding fuel to argue for music’s importance in the schools that goes beyond providing job security for classical musicians and big-shot conductors. Yes, science once again comes to our aid in providing proof for something most of us have intuitively known. It turns out that when kids learn to play an instrument they are in fact setting themselves up for success for the rest of their lives.

Not only does playing music require the joint effort of all regions of the brain, it also teaches valuable skills like focus, discipline, communication, and collaboration. But the real kicker is that this activity actually causes the physical structure of the brain to form stronger neural pathways – which has been shown to increase brain function well into adulthood, even when playing an instrument is no longer part of the picture. Yes, you heard it here. If your kids play an instrument they will be smarter adults. And, these studies are finding that this kind of musical education can even counteract the effects of the income gap in education.

So, forget the vitamins. Bring on the violins!!!

(You can read a longer version of this blog posted on Medium here.)

Identity: Porous Borders

Architect's rendition of the House of One

Architect’s rendition of the House of One


The crowd-funding campaign for a new church in Berlin has just begun. After an international architecture competition, Wilfried Kuehn’s design was selected – one that incorporates space for a church, a mosque, and a synagogue under one roof, along with a fourth space for secular use and dialogue. Called the House of One, it will occupy a space where some of Berlin’s earliest churches have stood, the last of which was destroyed in World War II. The organizers of the project – a Protestant pastor, a Rabbi, and an Imam – foresee it as a place that will promote dialogue, respect, and nonviolence.

In speaking of his design, Kuehn stated in an interview for NPR’s “The Takeaway” that, “we participated in this competition exactly because we thought instead of thinking about identity as secluded and isolated, you could think about it in terms of something that has to do with encounter, with relation.” Such sentiments bare a resemblance to the formulation of identity espoused by the late nineteenth-century Swedish artistic community, where the construction of a national identity was a somewhat fluid idea; more inclusive than exclusive. These notions found little traction in the rising tide of nationalisms that culminated in World War I. May the House of One have better success with their optimistic project.

Sexing Up Classical Music


I somewhat apprehensively watched Amazon’s test pilot Mozart in the Jungle. How would such a mainstream venue treat the world of classical music, a world that has its own complicated image problems? This glimpse behind the curtain is a decidedly younger and sexier view, full of talented and eagerly competitive artist types. The trope of the audacious outsider – familiar from countless other tales – is put to good use here in the form of a ruthless new conductor. This scenario reflects a strategy that many orchestras have in fact employed in recent years. Other clichés are perhaps too predictable, though as a cellist myself I cannot really complain about an ongoing fascination with the sexy female cellist.

Simple plot devices aside, the show is fast-paced and a better representation of the life that still breathes in classical music than the genre’s image typically allows. On top of that, it’s good fun. The votes are in, and it looks like the pilot has made it to series, so we will get to see what they make of these beginnings. If it means that more people have heard of Fauré and Grieg, then I’ll call it a success.

The Ghostly Specter of Success


I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the role of music and art in our lives. Faced with the constant capitalist push to buy and sell, make something and then make more, I too often find myself arguing for the worth of art in today’s society. This is not just a matter of claiming that art is important, and it is, but of claiming that it is important in ways that cannot be quantified when it comes to the bottom line. This type of reasoning too easily disperses like a ghost when one tries to pin it down.

I was happy to see a recent article in the New York Times supply me with more ammunition for my arguments. The article links musical practice to certain habits of thinking that have proven invaluable for many of the most successful people among us. Not only discipline and the link between music and math that are often cited, but also qualities such as listening, working well with others, and the creative patterns of thought that are able to bring disparate ideas into congruence. Oh, and the nearly obsessive drive to achieve whatever end goal is put forth. Evidence like this ought to remind us that creativity is a skill just as necessary to our survival as food and shelter, and the pleasure gained by that cultivation is a happy byproduct. In my book, the bottom line is accompanied by twinkling triangles and booming double-basses.

Hearing Ravel


In a rather desperate attempt to find some music to play with my violinist friend that is actually written for our instruments, rather than arranged, I happened upon the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello. The CD booklet for my recording calls the sonata “prickly,” and the piece is certainly a side of Ravel we do not often see. But as we dove into the first measures, I immediately understood that another reason for this piece’s obscurity may well be because of its fiendish difficulty. Our first attempts sadly sounded more like a piece from Schoenberg’s expressionist phase than something a French composer wrote in those “roaring twenties.” We packed up our strings and retreated to the recording (by members of the Borromeo Quartet) for inspiration.

And there it was: light and shimmering, a silken weave of melodic lines in the ethereal upper registers, gossamer and delicate and other-worldly. We sat transfixed. There was nothing of our heavy, ponderous attempts in this music. And those resounding chords in the lowest register of the cello were not solid landings, but rather materialized as unexpected splashes and then were gone. I was reminded of the Radiolab podcast “Shorts: Speedy Beet”  and the discussion with Brooklyn Philharmonic Artistic Director Alan Pierson about Beethoven’s tempos. Contentious as it still is, speeding up Beethoven’s symphonies brings to them a dancing lightness, a quality apparent here in the Ravel as well. How many things in life become a revelation when comprehended at a different speed…

Beck’s Song Reader


Well, dear blog, it has been awhile. My only excuse is that it has been a year of transition. Nothing gives one perspective like transition, and while this has been true for me on a personal level, I think it also applies to our musical culture.  (Though when I write that, it occurs to me, isn’t the whole of history a big transition? There goes that lid on Pandora’s adorable little box…)

What sparked all this was a concert, back in the crush of the December holidays, by the Portland Cello Project. With some notable guest singers, they performed the just-released new album by Beck. How is that possible? Well, taking a page from, oh, the 1850s, Beck’s new album, the Song Reader, is actually a collection of sheet music: songs written by Beck and beautifully printed on old fashioned paper, to be taken home and interpreted by all of us lovely people. In one fell swoop he has stuck his foot into all kinds of old debates about the nature of music and its role in society, while at the same time inviting our modern age to return to the act of participating in our daily experience, rather than merely passively witnessing it.

See, music is essentially an ephemeral art, the signs and symbols we use to write it down may represent it in the physical form of an object, but these signs are not the actual music. Centuries ago, the only way to experience music was to watch it live or play it yourself. And the only way to ‘record’ it was to write down these representative symbols. With the ability to record music’s actual sounding tones came a sense that each piece of music had an ideal way of sounding, and effort to perform it became a trial in reaching that ideal. Music lost, to some extent, that ephemeral quality, the freedom to be recreated in every performance by a new voice. Beck’s Song Reader has returned that liberty to us; in refusing to record a definitive version of the songs, they are once again ephemeral, like recipes in a kitchen. And additionally, we are required to participate in this album, to join the conversation rather than sit dumbly by. Bravo Beck, for bringing our modern world, so full of transitions, right around in a cycle to things long forgotten. But that is the nature of things, isn’t it.

DNA and place

There is a complicated term often bandied about the wine world that I’m beginning to think may have an application in music as well: terroir. It’s complicated both because there is no exact translation for this French concept, and also because there are those who debate its relevance. It’s the overarching term for the influence that the place of a grape’s growth has on the resulting wine. The details of a wine’s terroir include everything from the country, region, and soil type to the angle of the sun and whether a certain hillside gets southern exposure and morning breezes or southwestern exposure and evening fog.

Phrases that seem to indicate a kind of compositional terroir have also shown up in writing about music. Musicologists have asserted that a composition has a “typically Russian sound” or that a composer’s “Swedish temperament is evident in his style,” but such assertions are just as ambiguous as the idea of terroir. The parallel is apt because in music not only are these phrases difficult to define, there are also those who question that they signify anything at all.

I am inclined to hear such distinctions of terroir in music, but I too want some evidence. What does it really mean when you tell me that a piece sounds “so French”? I’m still looking for answers. But when I stood on the forested banks of a Swedish lake and watched the surface glint in the eerie half-light of a midsummer night, I began to understand how this terroir might have something to do with that “Swedish sound.” I haven’t any particulars yet, but I’m willing to think there’s something to this. If a place really nourishes you, much like the soil of a vine, surely this is revealed in your own creations?

Get ’em while they’re young!

Michael DiVito/New York Philharmonic


People have been foretelling the death of classical music for decades now. Actually, this naysayer trend is more like several hundred years old, almost as old as the roots of what we consider classical music. But the only art that dies is the one that becomes divorced from creativity, from inspiration, from life.

I was happy to come across this story on NPR about teaching kids to compose, very young kids. We all had the urge to draw and color when we were little, and I’m sure some of you were like me – whistling and humming everywhere you went. (I’ll never forget my grandmother’s stern look at the dinner table, where apparently only speaking was allowed.) But when the arts were taught in school, it was never about creating music, only reproducing it. This story makes me think of how composers must have felt when they first started experimenting with electronic sound: finally all those imagined possibilities could be brought to life. These young kids are given the opportunity to make their imagined sounds into actual pieces, before they’ve learned so much theory and notation that they forget what creativity is. This is definitely one way to keep classical music alive – get ‘em while they’re young!

Tor Aulin, Emil Sjögren; what were you all just talking about?

I’m sitting here in a mundane little room surrounded by shelves and shelves of archival material. It’s strange to think that what looks like bland piles of paper are actually the remnants of someone’s assuredly colorful life. And these remnants are so small and unimportant looking… I am struck by the notion, as I peer at these photos, that my research is less about finding out things and more about trying to get to know these people. It’s like having a conversation across a desert. You can almost see who you’re talking to, but the wind garbles their words, and the heat conjures up false apparitions between you. I think it isn’t possible to really know these people, but holding their photos does impart a sense of their presence.

Topics for conversation…

Photo from christoslists.tumblr.com

Question: Why does no one converse about so-called classical music anymore? In Haydn’s day, even in Beethoven’s day, heck as recent as Stravinsky’s day, the audience for these great men passed judgment with the ease that one passes judgment on the likes of Lady Gaga today. There were of course, the “experts” then too, who proselytized to the uneducated mercilessly. But even said uneducated masses offered up opinions about the issues at hand.

I was just perusing the Sunday New York Times, itself already a badge of self-important elitism, over a cocktail in the light of the fading sun. The article about dinner conversation caught my attention, as I’ve always felt a mysterious importance lies in the ritual of the family dinner. The writer was discussing the traditions of the Foer and Emanuel families (as in Jonathan Safran and Rahm), and how their childhood conversations ranged from opining on the economic policy of the president to civil rights. Engaging your children like this sounds like intriguing advice, but I can’t help wonder, would such a scene ever include opining about John Adams’ latest composition? Much less the latest interpretation of Verdi’s La Traviata, or Beethoven’s 5th?

Somewhere along the way classical music entrenched itself so effectively in the arena of “high art” that it simultaneously bound itself to educated experts whose expounding serves to erase your individual experience and replace it with a right answer. Ask your kids about this at the dinner table – doesn’t it outrage you that classical music is no longer a topic for debate? Shouldn’t you be able to listen to music that speaks to and of the timeless themes of our living experience (in other words, not just the latest pop trend) without feeling like you need help?

Alright, I apologize for the rantings of an entrapped devotee, and leave you with this to ponder: Tan Dun’s Water Concerto