Plagal makes perfect

Tuesday, 16 October 2007 — 5:36am | Jazz, Music, Pianism, Scrabble, Tournament logs

9-8 (+512). This is the third consecutive time I’ve finished the 17-round Western Canadian Scrabble Championship with a 9-8 record in Division 2—an indication of a personal plateau if I’ve ever seen one. Here’s the photographic evidence for your inspiration or mocking amusement, depending on how good you are.

Every year, the month of October hits me upside the head and I come to the sudden and unwelcome realization that I haven’t studied or practised in months. The fact that I’ve been letting my word knowledge atrophy is probably the biggest reason my rating has been hovering around the 1300 zone for years now, and cramming the week or the night or the morning before the tournament doesn’t tend to help—because after all, what should you cram? With this in mind, the preparation I did for the tournament amounted to a lot of sleep, a lot of tea, and several hours at a Yamaha grand.

Did it help?

Perhaps it did, though it’s hard to determine a causal link without a controlled experiment, and I’m not about to jeopardize my performance in a major tournament by testing the control case of “nothing resembling any preparation whatsoever”. I speculate, however, that there is a certain intangible benefit to organizing the mind in a way that is amenable to perceiving patterns and permutations, especially when you are about to fumble around with anagrams and board geometries for a span of three days. The spiritually inclined might refer to it as “meditation”, though I’m not convinced it’s quite the same thing. I like to conceive of it as being more like the alignment of magnetic domains.

I should clarify that I hit the keys with a specific aim in mind. In my own assessment, one of my greatest weaknesses as an improvising pianist is that I am grossly right-handed, and I’ve largely trapped myself in the standard idiom of framing interesting harmonies in the left hand and leaving the linear melodic figurations to the right. Part of this is because I haven’t trained my left hand to be quite as naturally dextrous, or to play melodically by habit, as I haven’t practised the likes of Bach for several years now. At fast tempos (like the 200-some beats per minute typical of bebop and rhythm changes) my ability to consciously do something musically interesting in the left hand virtually disappears, and the difference between what I can do and what a horn player can do becomes effectively nil.

So I decided to do something different, and make a stab at contrapuntal improvisation—for example, playing slow ballads in three voices, and making the middle voice as continuous and hand-independent as possible. I’ll have to record a sample sometime. I can’t emphasize how necessary a good and properly tuned acoustic piano is in order for this to work, because much of the immersive, meditative effect comes from leveraging the resonance of the strings to define the harmonic space.

Speaking of grand pianos, the other thing I’ve been trying to do in my solo playing is develop a natural feel for the sostenuto pedal, so I can achieve the clarity of articulation appropriate for maintaining a jazz-like rhythmic feel while letting the harmonies ring. As someone who grew up playing an upright, it’s not a skill I’ve ever really developed—and it’s not like it’s something that comes in extremely handy for the kind of repertoire you are likely to encounter as a beginning student of classical music.

Lately I’ve been listening very carefully to Brad Mehldau, who is arguably the defining jazz pianist of the past decade, and in my estimation, the best jazz interpreter of the Beatles on any instrument. He’s also produced a trove of articles about music, which are a real pleasure to read. I recommend the liner notes from House on Hill, in which he discusses the dissolution of the harmony/melody boundary in the context of the relationship between composition and improvisation, illustrating his discussion with examples from Bach, Brahms and Monk. It’s a phenomenal article, accessible to anyone with some basic music theory: you don’t need to know about jazz, or even listen to the record, to pick up on his finer insights.

Part of why I hold Mehldau in such high esteem is that he exhibits an exemplary flair for contrapuntal thinking in his improvisation, which is why his style lends itself so well to the rich countermelodic writing in the Lennon/McCartney oeuvre. (Listen to his renditions of “Martha My Dear” and “She’s Leaving Home” off Day Is Done and you’ll immediately know what I mean. Or watch this YouTube video of a solo performance bounded by Mancini’s “Moon River” on one end and “Dear Prudence” on the other. It unfortunately cuts off at the end, but it’s still worth a look.)

Mehldau is clearly the primary influence on my little contrapuntal project, although I don’t pretend to be anywhere near him in either technique or imagination. For me, it’s all part of a larger initiative to develop a mind that can operate spontaneously on several parallel tracks, though the satisfaction at its terminus comes entirely from the music itself.

It’s worth pointing out that a staggering number of top-tier Scrabble players are musicians, mathematicians, or some combination of the two. The combinatorial relevance of mathematics is obvious, although math is not by itself a sufficient cause for quality performance in the game any more than physics is to curling. However, the question of whether musical proficiency translates to good Scrabble is an open question that’s come up before, and you’ll hear different answers depending on who you ask.

Some would argue that a musical background accustoms an individual to the discovery of a creative spark, a mode of perception that gently nudges a chaotic scramble of atomic units (be they letters or pitches) into the elegant lattices of a finished jigsaw. If we think of music as a form of language, then this is actually just a specific case of the general debate about whether your available means of communication determine the limits of your thoughts and behaviours—the best-known formulations being the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Newspeak in George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty-Four.

Or as I like to put it: did Tchaikovsky have two hundred motifs for “snow”?

I’m not saying, of course, that I’m developing musical skills for the purpose of playing better Scrabble. I’m developing musical skills for the purpose of playing better music. But I’d like to think that the benefits of any creative or intellectual activity bubble over to everything else you do in life.

As for the Scrabble-playing itself?

Considering that my wins and losses only differ by one game, a point spread of +512 is rather massive: it goes without saying that I won by considerably larger margins than I lost. As usual, part of it is luck, but I also got the distinct sense that I’ve improved in certain respects—namely, shutting down the board when I’m ahead without destroying my own scoring opportunities, and scoring at a consistent pace every turn without depending too much on getting bingos down. As a result, I’m holding onto my leads and turning over more tiles (which often leads to picking up the good ones, creating the perception that I’m getting away with a good run of luck), although I’m still having trouble coming back from big deficits.

On the downside, poor time management is killing my endgame; I lost one game by 6 points because of the overtime penalty. I also lost another one by 15 because I was in a situation where there were two bingo lanes open with two tiles in the bag and the nearly unblockable DEIINRST? unseen (my opponent held EIINST?), and I had a choice between “blocking both lanes while creating a new but unlikely one” and “blocking the more bingo-friendly of the two lanes”, and really should have gone for the former, but didn’t. Now that I look at the board again, there was actually a blocking play that would have worked, but I missed it completely—again, probably because of pressure from the clock, or just bad judgment in general.

Realistically, I expect to be a 1300 player until I dedicate some serious effort to not only doing vocabulary exercises again, but also playing more games and testing my ability to make decisions in challenging, high-pressure situations. And I think much of that is going to come from understanding the patterns beneath how championship players assess and react to these scenarios. It’s not unlike listening to someone like Brad Mehldau—really listening—and picking up on the subtle creative decisions that make him stylistically unique, the minutiae of spontaneous reasoning that impel him to find the best plays in an established aural position.

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