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Switching to Elgar | The Power of Synesthesia in a Time of Need


A quintessentially English cup of tea... the precursor to this tale!

Like many English expats, I’m affected by Elgar’s distinctive symphonic and chamber music. It gives my synesthesia a real workout! Harps and percussion tingling, strings like soft wool blankets, starry woodwind moments, and brass like the noblest, warm gold. Such fun!


Synesthetes often link their colourful experiences to strong emotions—and I’m no exception.


Here’s a story of an impromptu symphony performance that paints the picture of synesthesia’s unique power


Colours in Concert: The Art of Adaptability


The lights dimmed and the audience quieted as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra took their positions on stage. I eagerly anticipated hearing former Orchestra colleagues play Elgar's First Symphony under the guidance of the distinguished Conductor Laureate, Nicholas Braithwaite. After a refreshing cup of tea during the interval, I settled back into my seat, ready to be transported by the music.


Suddenly, the Hall’s back door few open. The Orchestra’s breathless manager came running in and I followed her backstage—a very public run.


We had mere seconds to consider:

  1. My current clothes (luckily, black, but over a red top...!)

  2. Available instrument options (a German brand with an unfamiliar fingering system)

  3. My lack of hearing protection (essential!)

  4. The idea of joining unrehearsed… as the audience and radio waited.

In a rush, somebody handed me a reed box with a single instruction: ‘reed on the left’.


“Onstage I went, with the worst possible preparation. Elgar is virtuosic, orchestral writing, and to attempt it with many handicaps—not least the lack of warm-up for the instrument in our dreaded Town Hall draught! It was like joining a Wimbledon Final unprepared, cold, with a strange racquet, and borrowed trainers…”

Most evenings, a spare instrument wouldn’t have been available. This was a lucky coincidence. Without a cor anglais part, the performance would be full of holes. Elgar’s mastery of orchestration uses all available instruments brilliantly… it was me or cancel.


Onstage I went, with the worst possible preparation. Elgar is virtuosic, orchestral writing, and to attempt it with many handicaps—not least the lack of warm-up for the instrument in our dreaded Town Hall draught—was like joining a Wimbledon Final unprepared, cold, with a strange racquet, and borrowed trainers…


Alas, Conductor Braithwaite stepped on stage, offered a sympathetic wink, and we began.

English composer, Sir Edward William Elgar, 1st Baronet, OM, GCVO.

The Show Must Go On…


From the smooth, velvet green clarinet opening, through flashing stars of harps and percussion, to the cartoon cotton candy floss of the huge Scherzo came a riot of lilac and charcoal…


All at once, a silver runway of oboe and cor anglais (B flat!) penetrated the textures, and I realised I could be in flow. I focused on the colour of each entry—observing texture, shape, direction, and precision. With synesthesia, I take in information on harmony, voicing, and dynamics clearer than dots on the score.


I focused so intently on this floating map against the ornate ceiling, I had time to admire its intricacy and colour. Compare it to the sequences in The Queen’s Gambit, where Beth plots her chess moves on the ceiling.


“All at once, a silver runway of oboe and cor anglais (B flat!) penetrated the textures, and I realised I could be in flow. I focused on the colour of each entry—observing texture, shape, direction, and precision. With synesthesia, I take in information on harmony, voicing, and dynamics clearer than dots on the score.”

The emotion of this experience is like shouting, “How cool is that?” My brain arrived there because of synesthesia, deliberately researching all my available memories on this work—and in shock.


From then on, it was easier.


Luckily, I knew the piece in Technicolor. The orchestra played well and I felt them relax, knowing they found it nerve wracking—how would I manage, with no rehearsal? But I understood the music intimately, and synesthesia unlocked pinpoint focus.


The floating colour map—part archeological foundation, part a light show like long-exposure traffic, part a detailed and unique diagram—was utterly fascinating.


The performance went off without a hitch, with everyone appreciative of my emergency appearance. I’m adaptable and managed on the new instrument, but I needed 48 hours to stop my brain speeding—flying with rainbow colours, fragments of memories of phrases and conversations with London colleagues. I even found myself pondering bowings from violin discussions.


Synesthesia is such a powerful tool... I only wish I knew how to switch it off!


Despite a lifetime in colour, I will always treasure this new experience—time paused while rushing—such a shame we can’t do it again!


To experience the all-encompassing sensorial experience of live music for yourself, join us for an Exclusive Musical Soiree with the Tarrawatta Trio and emerging ballet dancer Chloe Hurn on Wednesday, 17th May at the picturesque North Adelaide Baroque Hall.


Tickets are available via Humanitix.


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