Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Making sense of music--what happens when you learn

Folks... This isn't my usual Wednesday search challenge post.  I was away all last week, NOT thinking about search challenges.  But I did do a bit of music, and spent more than a few hours trying to make sense of what I'd been taught.  

SO here's an essay on what happened last week.  Or at least one part of it.  

-- Dan -- 


I’d slept in and the sun was already up as I came up from the watery deeps of sleep.  As reality faded in I heard harps in the distance.  This worried me slightly. Had I passed-on unexpectedly in the night and ascended to a celestial palace with angels in attendance?

My eyes opened and I recognized the inside of my tent—all blue and gray ripstop nylon.  I somehow doubted that heaven would be so camplike, so I figured all was well, and I was still corporeal.

Memory also came drifting into focus.  I was at music 
camp and the heavenly strings were merely the morning celtic harpers class practicing a bit.  We were all at a place hidden deep in the redwoods of Mendocino; a place that was quiet, cell-phone free and wifi absent; a place defined by the woods and the music. We camp in tents, walk to the dining hall for meals, use portapotties and live off-the-grid in a world shaped by acoustics, wood, wire and vibrating air.  If your idea of a vacation is high-count Egyptian sheets, foie gras for your amuse bouche and hot tubs flowing into an endless pool by the edge of the sea, this is probably your personal vision of hell.  But if you want to hear Irish sessions tunes spinning off endlessly into the night while there’s a light mist in the air and a silver flask on the tabletop, then this is just about perfection.
Lark Camp is a music camp that serves up world music on a scale you’ve probably not seen before.  I certainly hadn’t.  There just aren’t too many places where you can, as I did this past week, sit in on classes for Balkan accordion, kihoalu (slack key) guitar, ukulele performance, Irish flute, pennywhistle, Galician dance, Syrian drumming styles, oud, old-time banjo, bodhran drumming, Cajun fiddle, Highland bagpipes (bring your own chanter) and Uilleann pipes.  It’s not just that there’s a wide variety of world music, there’s an overwhelming abundance of it.  One can scarcely swing a cat without striking a person playing an instrument you’ve never heard of, in the  indigenous style of a country you’ve never visited and can’t pronounce.

Here’s how it works.  Several hundred people get together and take over an old WPA/CCC campground in the forest east of Mendocino.  I was surprised to learn that the WPA/CCC actually built a bunch of these camps in a socially progressive effort to get people out of the cities and into the woods on the principle that “back to nature” would bring families together and promote social engagement.  Now, 75 years later, only the Mendocino campsite still operates with anything like the original intent—the others have either gone to wrack and ruin, or just vanished.  Which goes to show either that social engineering is supremely fickle, or that there are some people who just can’t let a good thing disappear.  I suspect 
Lark Camp is the latter—after all, these are people who are all bent on playing traditional music (where “traditional” means before your oldest memory), and so a traditional New Deal WPA constructed campsite is just the thing.

I somehow managed to miss the music 
camp experience as a kid, so I’ve seized the chance to recover my missing childhood with a week immersion in music.  And that’s exactly what it is—7 full days of music from the moment you wake up (hence, the harps in the morning), all through the day, and then as you go to sleep, music in the distance plays you to sleep.

My favorite class was bodhran drumming, mostly because I’m so bad at it.

It’s one of those things—I think it’s a good idea for everyone to study, at least once a year, something in which they have no skills and no background.  And although I’ve played tympani in a few college orchestras, I was never really a drummer.  Some people are, some aren’t—and I’m not.

But a bodhran is different—it’s a drum with a pitch that you can change my moving your hand up and down on the drumhead.  You can actually play a tune.. if  you’re good.  So it sounded pretty appealing.  I love Irish music, and love the sound of the bodhran, and it only has one stick to master, so why not?

Turns out that it IS simple, but as with most simple-sounding things, it’s actually easy to be really bad at it and tough to be good.  Because it’s so simple, everything—and I mean every little sound—is completely exposed.  So we spent two days learning how to hit the drum with the stick.  Now really, how hard can it be?  Hold the drumstick (called a “tipper”) like a pencil and wave it back and forth, making sure the top of the arc strikes the drum on the beat.

Except when you do that for a few minutes, suddenly everything falls apart, and somehow, amazingly, you miss the drumhead, which is odd because you’re holding the drum pinioned between your ribs and your left hand.  How could you miss?

But you do.  So you practice, and practice.  And finally, the hitting-the-drum-thing stabilizes and you can do it for many minutes without an error.

Sounds simple, but it’s not.

Then it’s on to triplets—again, a very simple sounding idea where you hit the drum three times (the triplet) in the space of one beat.   1-2-3-4-triplet-3-4…  (Except you play 3 beats where the word “triplet” appears in that sentence.)  Again, it sounds supremely simple, until you try it and discover that if you do it wrong, you’re heading down the fast track to RSI injury, and if you do it right, then it’s hard to make them even… which is kind of the point.

Here’s the thing.  And you know this is true, but this is why studying something you don’t know is so good for you:

      Practice makes perfect.

Duh.  You knew that.  But you forget about is the corollary:

     Practice is painful.

It doesn’t actually *hurt* or anything, but you feel like a complete idiot every time you try to hit the drum on the beat and miss.  Happens all the time… and that’s the biggest lesson of all—you have to be willing to sound like an idiot to get to the happy side of good.

So that’s the key—a willingness to look foolish, repeatedly, until you finally, after hours of practice, begin to merely seem incompetent.

Here’s the other thing.  As you practice, eventually you’ll get it. It’s not a cognitive process, but a non-introspectable internal figuring-out.  After a while, the 1-2-3-4-triplet-3-4 pattern actually comes out right!

And then it disappears again.  Damn.  And that’s the way it is for the rest of the week while you’re at 
camp.  The skill suddenly falls into place, then vanishes for a while.  You *know* you can do it, it’s just that your body can’t quite figure it out.

Now I’ve read the memory and expertise acquisition literature. I know about practice effects (both massed and distributed) and so all of this comes as no surprise.  But it’s something else when it’s YOUR dumkopf hand that can’t make the simplest of bodhran beats come out right.

Once again I re-learn the most elemental of lessons about expertise.  You have to practice, and you have to be willing to let the skill come, then go, then re-emerge.  You have to be okay with sounding like a fool, and you have to realize that it takes time—there’s no magic here.

Realizing that made the rest of my stay at music 
camp visible through a different lens.  When I watched professional musicians learning skills they didn’t have (such as the professional fiddler player who was also in my drumming class), I saw that they were just as incompetent as I.  But (and this is a big point)—they knew how to practice.  They’d didn’t try to overanalyze, but went with what they could do.  That’s when I realized that what they’re actually expert at is *practicing*.

The single most remarkable thing about music 
camp is the amount of practice you hear.  People working on lick by themselves, people in small groups going over and over a single tune until they have it right.  It’s a magnificent obsession.  It’s true, as a member of the Julliard quartet once said, “epiphanies come in practice, not in performance.”

Lark Camp was many things, but discovering once again that you can be a terrible player now, but on the road to expert performance, is freeing.  I CAN learn.  And I can learn anything.

Postscript:  I just had to say that while there are many wonderful moments at music 
camp, one of my favorites was at a concert of Balkan music being held at 1AM in the dining hall.  One of the performers left her instrument back in her tent, so she asked the crowd “Anyone have an extra tanbur I could borrow for this song?”   And within two minutes, she had one.  Ah yes, this is that kind of crowd!


Definition:  tanbur-- The term tanbūr (Persian: تنبور) can refer to various long-necked, fretted lutes originating in the Middle East or Central Asia.  

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