The Switch: My Time as a Left-handed, Right-handed Guitarist

I am left-handed, and grew up studying classical flute, which is generally played the same way regardless of the hand you use to write. But when I was eighteen, I decided to finally drop the flute (figuratively), and learn guitar. But the only guitar around for me to play was a $100 Fender Squire, and it was a righty. At this point, I was mulling over what I was going to major in at university and didn’t suspect that any new musical pursuits would amount to much, so I didn’t think twice about starting out on the wrong hand.

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It turned out that I really liked guitar, and threw myself into it. I took an extra year off before starting school, and in that time used my classical background to catch up on improvisational theory. I ingratiated myself to the local jazz department, who admitted me on the basis of my “potential”. So, I was suddenly majoring in jazz guitar and not too long after, gigging around town. Fast forward one music degree, and I felt stymied. There were some aspects of playing that just wouldn’t come to me, easy or hard. For example, funky strumming—make that any kind of strumming. I could comp pianistically and pluck with my fingers, but the loose, yet controlled, percussive movements required for funk seemed out of reach. My right arm just didn’t want to move that way.

This is a performance of a tune I wrote and arranged for my graduation recital, about 5 years after I started playing guitar.

Continue reading The Switch: My Time as a Left-handed, Right-handed Guitarist

Cross-Cultural Validity is a Philosophy of Science Problem

In 2010, Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan produced an insightful, if damning paper exposing the extreme ethnic, cultural, geographical, and social class biases that pervade most psychology experiments. The authors estimate that virtually all participants are ‘Western, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic countries’, or ‘WEIRD’. As the authors point out, nobody wants to publish in the ‘Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of American Undergraduate Psychology Students’, but even today, few scientists have the grounds to claim their findings generalise across socio-cultural-experiential barriers. And despite a somewhat non-establishment disciplinary foundation, music science is just as vulnerable to selectively representative samples as the next field. Nonetheless, diversifying the subject pool is increasingly recognised as a problem, and one that won’t go away on its own.

But what about the rest of the scientific process? In scientific experiments, we often force choices, or attempt to reveal contrasting features between supposedly objective categories – but do our designs reflect something factual, a physical constant, or a belief we hold because, well, everyone else we know believes the same thing? Does the research question itself reflect a universal human experience, or just ours? I don’t think that diversity in the recruitment process is enough. Rather, considering scientific questions from another cultural (or experiential) lense permits the space and detachment we need to determine what is truly ‘objective’ – or, at least, what amounts to a shared subjectivity across human societies.

Note to Abel Tasman and crew: the Maori are not here to jam with you

This isn’t just an issue for the so-called ‘soft science’ of psychology. Take the concept of species. It doesn’t sound like a topic that biologists would do much philosophizing over, until you examine the term in its historical context, and adopt a data-driven, rather than ‘common-sense’ approach. As Darwin put it, the status of ‘species’ is “one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other”, a sentiment that has only gained credibility as time passes, according to the Smithsonian:

The idea of a species is ultimately a human construct. With advancing DNA technology, scientists are now able to draw finer and finer lines between what they consider species by looking at the genetic code that defines them. How scientists choose to draw that line depends on whether their subject is an animal or plant; the tools available; and the scientist’s own preference and expertise.

By the way, this also applies to hard sex/gender and racial categories; in short, they can be useful—alternatively, destructive, and sometimes deadly—for quotidian communication, and capture or drive many of our social structures and group identities. But these classifications are far from universal or elemental, and should be handled with care in a scientific setting, particularly if you don’t take factors such as culture, experience-driven neuroplasticity (e.g., a lifetime of performing the social role of ‘female’ may unsurprisingly make your brain look more ‘female’), and epigenetics into account when explaining between-group differences. And let’s not forget the effects an experimenter can introduce by unintentionally treating her subjects differently, as a result of her unconscious bias and/or personal stake in a specific experimental outcome.

Anyways. Music science. Continue reading Cross-Cultural Validity is a Philosophy of Science Problem

Applying to Grad School in Europe: A Guide for Canadians (and/or People Who Like Music and Science)

Things have been notably quiet on the blogging front, which is par for the course in PhD-land. But since I’m currently re-installing MATLAB, now is the perfect time to share a few thoughts on applying to and funding graduate school, right? This is something to which I conspired approximately eleven months ago and now it’s seasonally relevant again! Excellent.

Graduating from CambridgeThere is already a lot of really good information on choosing a topic, a city, a department, and a supervisor out there, so I am mainly going to address my own experience as a Canadian making it work in the UK. I also touch upon the unique situation of being someone with a bachelor’s degree in music looking at interdisciplinary or science-oriented programs. I should add that I did not apply to any American schools, and can’t speak to the GRE score or process. But it sounds miserable. So, here are some topics that I’ve been asked about, and some that people rarely bring up to me, but that I think are really important.

I realise from the Contents that I’ve framed much of my thoughts in financial terms. Please believe when I plead this in no way reflects my own views on the natural order of things, but rather is a consequence of the sad reality of austerity and late capitalism punishing the rest of us for not pursuing material gain over knowledge, art, the environment, personal betterment, etc. If you’re feeling TL;DR, scroll to #4, wherein I discuss what I think is the single most helpful strategy that shockingly few people actually seem to do.


  1. Paying for Your Course
  2. Someone Else Paying for Your Course
  3. Improve Your Odds of Someone Else Paying for Your Course
  4. The Importance of Being a Random Internet Person

Continue reading Applying to Grad School in Europe: A Guide for Canadians (and/or People Who Like Music and Science)

The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with Mark Colenburg

From his work with Common, Q-Tip, and A Tribe Called Quest, to gigs with Kenny Garret and Kurt Rosenwinkel, not to mention a Grammy win with Robert Glasper, drummer Mark Colenburg’s resume speaks to his virtuosity and innovative approach to rhythm. I’ve admired his playing for a long time, so I was very pleased to find that he is interested in rhythm cognition and was happy to share some thoughts on his mental and physical strategies as an elite musician and timing specialist. Life as a trainee scientist has been heavy (in a good way) lately, so this piece is a long time coming. Thanks for staying tuned!

ADM: I know you started out really young, but as you developed as a musician, were there any particularly difficult concepts or techniques (e.g., a feel, or maybe a specific series of movements) that come to mind? What was the breakthrough? Was there a mental strategy, a movement, or maybe something like a mnemonic that helped you to finally ‘get it’?

MC: Yes, I did start at the very young age of two. Early on in my development (which is continual), everything seemed difficult. The concept of single strokes, double strokes, and triple strokes, playing those patterns with drumsticks on a floor, was very challenging but so intriguing at the same time. Independence between my limbs, conviction, and tempo control are just a few other challenging concepts that come to mind. My strategy to overcoming some of those humps were intentional quality, effort, learned and unlearned exploring, and time. Using those strategies really helped me to establish a strong foundation mentally, physically and spiritually.  Continue reading The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with Mark Colenburg

The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with James McRae

This interview is the first in a series I’m calling “The Metacognition of Drumming”. Getting musicians to speak in concrete language about performance and other forms of musicking is notoriously difficult, but it’s crucial that artists, scientists, and amphibians dissolve our hard disciplinary edges. To this end, I will share my conversations with drummers (and maybe a lucky few non-percussionists) in an attempt to articulate these very non-wordy things we do when we play music together.
James McRae is a Vancouver Island institution, a fabulous musician, and a stalwart friend. I’m sad we don’t jam so often since I moved to England, but I’m grateful we could exchange some thoughts on the types of cognitive/active strategies drummers use here. If any readers have a perspective they’d like to share, drop me an email! And stay tuned for the next edition, featuring Robert Glasper Experiment drummer, Yamaha-sponsored artist, and Grammy Award-winner Mark Colenburg.

ADM: What is your approach to groove, both as a drummer and as a teacher?
JM: All music has to feel good. If it doesn’t feel good, people are going to turn away! How much of this is based on groove? A lot, probably. The feel changes based on the tempo. Steady tempos are great, but having metronomic time seems more artificial than natural.

Continue reading The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with James McRae