An ideal book review should be just that – a disinterested, third-party opinion about the book’s technical and aesthetic merits. The ideal reviewer should not have any overt professional or personal ties that might influence them to support or detract from the author’s opinions. In Natalie Hodges, the author of debut memoir Uncommon Measure, I’ve found what until now I’d considered impossible. I’ve found a literary doppelganger.
Both of us were talented violin students as children. Both of us competed and performed as soloists during our teenage years, then continued chasing our dream of becoming professional musicians through the first years of college. Our paths diverged after that, only to reunite when we both began writing to process the events that ended our careers.
I disclose this background information, not to distract from Hodges or her work, but to give you maximum insight into the review you’re about to read. I’ve done my best to evaluate this book like I would any other, but I have both greater knowledge of the subject and greater emotional involvement. That being said, Uncommon Measure is an unusual book that may allure general readers, by its eccentric approach. Hodges relies on a trio of apparently unrelated entities – time, neuroscience, improvisation – to investigate the neurobiological routes of performance anxiety, and how they crippled her career.
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of Uncommon Measure is its ability to draw readers into its niche subcultures. Professional classical music, which we usually see represented by a tuxedoed orchestra, or a pianist tossing off a concerto in a dazzling gown, has very little to do with such images in daily life.
Hodges begins by depicting her childhood violin lessons in a Suzuki group class, then leads us through her high school years as a gifted teenager who practices into the wee hours of the morning 364 days per year, only to arrive at her defining moment as a budding violinist: an unfortunate lesson with a coach at prestigious music festival. The common thread linking Hodges’s unusual adolescence to the general reader is her performance anxiety. Even if you took lessons on a different instrument (or no lessons at all), you’ve probably experienced some version of Hodges’ oscillations between perfectionism and self-doubt, be it at school, work, or some other high stakes situation.
This assumption that her readers share her musical or scientific background on some level also hints at why Hodges includes physics in her memoir. She ponders the technicalities of how physics plays with time, then compares that to how music stretches and contracts time to express emotions. Hodges dwells on rubato (the performer speeds up or slows down part of a previously-written composition as an artistic choice) and improvisation (the performer “composes” on the spot as he plays), as well as a pilot fMRI study on a current performing artist. These sections may be interesting if you are already musically or scientifically inclined. If you are neither, you may find yourself floundering amid unfamiliar jargon or flipping ahead to where her “real” narrative resumes.
Although It’s easy to call Hodge’s common-ground assumptions risky, It’s these same assumptions that give Hodge’s musings emotional resonance. We’re used to celebrity tell-alls, or Cinderella stories of average people succeeding against all odds. But how often do we read stories of average people who didn’t “make it”? Contrary to what we’d expect, reading about Hodges’ unfulfilled dream is refreshing. She doesn’t question for our true selves, or guilt-trip us for failing to reach our highest potential. Uncommon Measure is the story of Hodges learning to embrace herself as herself, instead of hating the truth or slaving to overcome it.
As much as Uncommon Measure speaks to our emotions, there are still two elephants in the room: violin and physics. How should general readers relate to two subjects that are foreign to so many? As mentioned earlier, Hodges does an excellent job initiating us into the obsessive-compulsive world of violin performance, beginning with her earliest memories of violin class as a five-year-old, then leading through her decade-plus battle between performance anxiety on the one hand and symphony solos on the other. All this prepares us for the violin festival that changed her life. “I returned from Meadowmount hating the violin…And yet at the same time, the violin embodies and expresses all that I am and have been. When I play it’s a way of inhabiting again, even for a moment, the person I was.” (136).
This “love-hate” relationship, this nostalgia for the good ol’ days, and fear that you inrreparably let the good one get away – these are emotions we have all suffered, whether it was for a first love or an eighteenth-century Italian instrument.
Hodges also does her best to initiate us into theories of physics and neuroscience, even going so far as to summarize an fMRI study on the neuroscience at work during improvisation in classical music. For example:
The difference between memorized performance and improvisation, it turns out, lies in an area of the brain called the default-mode network (DMN), a sprawling system of functional connectivity between regions of the brain that, loosely put, modulates the many facets of the self. (60)
The general reader may still struggle to connect with such a passages, in spite of Hodges’ efforts. Perhaps that’s because we can empathize with a shared human experience like her performance anxiety, while the sciences remain mostly cerebral. This dissonance is exacerbated when Hodges omits the expected climax where music and physics would have converged, instead landing the denouement after the dust has settled.
Uncommon Measure is an uncommon book, both in topic and technique. Its sketchy ending may be the only concrete downside, since our holistic reading experience will depend on our individuality: our curiosity, our preconceptions, our imagination, our motivation for choosing the book in the first place. While this could be said of many new releases, it’s especially true of a debut memoir examining the neurobiology behind failure in a discipline that’s existed for at least five centuries. Even with my own two decades of experience as a classical violinist, I couldn’t help falling in love with Natalie Hodges’ bittersweet nostalgia, dry wit, and seductive, “backstage pass” point of view.