Blindfolded Rubik’s Cube world champion sets the score (on violin)

January 30, 2023
Stanley Chapel Rubik's Cube. Image credit: Jeremy Marble, Michigan News
Stanley Chapel Rubik’s Cube. Image credit: Jeremy Marble, Michigan News

The Rubik’s Cube. Many of us grew up finding the colorful 3×3 block to be an infuriating, and largely impossible, puzzle of frustration. But for one University of Michigan student, the cube opened doors to international travel, a Guinness World Records entry and multiple world championship titles.

In 2016, one month into learning how to successfully solve a standard Rubik’s Cube, Stanley Chapel, a violin performance major at the U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance (SMTD), was entering local cubing competitions. Within a year or two, he was winning those competitions and setting his first world record.

Stanley Chapel Rubik's Cube. Image credit: Jeremy Marble, Michigan News
Stanley Chapel Rubik’s Cube. Image credit: Jeremy Marble, Michigan News

By 2019, Chapel was a world champion in solving a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded, and not just the standard size cube, but a 4×4 and a 5×5 cube (yes, he is the record holder for both). Including time to review the scramble of the cube ahead of donning his blindfold, Stanley completes a cube in roughly 17 seconds.

“A lot of people are very surprised when they learn that I excel in two fields that they see as very highly distinct, with violin being seen as a very creative medium, while cubing might be seen as a more static field,” Chapel said. “There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between creativity of artistic expression in music as well as certain processes that I am working on in cubing” that allow him to build unique solutions in blindfolded solving.

Most days, he carries a backpack with 12 cubes inside, and in his hands, a classical 18th-century Gagliano violin.

With a similar confidence—and as with cubing, maintaining incredible speed—Stanley performs the Presto from Bach’s G minor Violin Sonata from memory. To provide context, “presto” means “extremely fast” with quarter notes beginning at 160 beats per minute (before metronomes existed, Bach and other composers and performers referred to clocks and heartbeats to calculate tempo)—a heart rate one might reach during strenuous exercise for adults of average health, according to the American Heart Association.

Stanley Chapel Rubik's Cube. Image credit: Jeremy Marble, Michigan News
Stanley Chapel Rubik’s Cube. Image credit: Jeremy Marble, Michigan News

Chapel says the creativity used to interpret a composer’s work and the creativity needed to improve his cubing speed past a certain point are not as different as one might think. With over 2,700 algorithms to learn and apply to cubing, the creativity comes in when developing unique algorithm sets to push his cubing speeds to the next level.

“Both music and cubing share this trait of having different finished products,” Chapel said. “What I think of as the parallel in cubing to having a polished piece to perform in music is completing the development of an algorithm set and being able to release that and get feedback from the cubing community—it has the same quality to it as the first performance of a piece on violin.”

Another finely honed skill that Chapel benefits from is his understanding of group theory—a field of math that is essential to cubing and high-level method development, and is also directly present in music.

SMTD professor and musicologist Leah Frederick explains, “In the subfield of music theory called transformational theory, music theorists employ mathematical group theory to capture relationships between musical elements, such as notes, chords, or scales.

Broadly speaking, in this application, group theory serves as a tool that allows music theorists to highlight and describe the many patterns and symmetries that underlie relationships in music.”

So, what does Chapel see as his advantage over others in his two worlds of performance?

“I would say the difference is that I never stop learning,” he said. “I’ve never reached a point where I’ve felt like I know enough or I’ve done enough in either music or cubing, and I think that having the motivation and drive to continue, no matter how far I go, is kind of what sets me apart.”

Being years-to-a-decade younger than most of his competitors at cubing world championship events and having his violin performance career still ahead of him, Chapel is truly his own toughest competition.

Luckily, he is motivated by improvement over winning.

“The satisfaction of taking something that people have done before me and improving it to a level that nobody has ever even thought to be possible is incredibly fulfilling,” he said.