Fiddling with learning

I met violinist and musicologist David Greenberg a few years ago; he performed as part of a music group that includes cellist Abby Newton. I’d gone to the concert because I’d long enjoyed Newton’s album, Crossing to Scotland.

Cape Breton Island, Nova ScotiaI learned that Greenberg was a local — as he said, a nice Jewish boy from Rockville, Maryland. I also learned about his passionate interest in the fiddle music of my native Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

I just came across a report from the Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp in Decker, Colorado. Cape Breton legend Buddy MacMaster performed at the camp and gave classes — assisted by David Greenberg.

Buddy’s a true traditionalist, preserving a style of music reaching back to Scotland 200 years ago. Greenberg’s formal training combined with his love of this music (not all that easily found in suburban Washington DC) reminded me of Ruth Colvin Clark’s thoughts about building expertise.

Here’s Greenberg talking about mastery:

If you’re coming at it from age 30 from Mississippi or wherever, you’ve missed thirty of the most important years, especially that first ten, not listening and being immersed, in a natural way, to this music. So it’s not part of your first language….

You can’t just say, I’m going to listen to recordings and I’m going to figure out how they’re doing the rhythms. First you have to say, I’m at a huge disadvantage here because I’m learning something like Sanskrit. You just can’t say this is all fiddle tunes and it’s all basically the same. You’re never going to get it that way….

That’s why most people do believe you have to have it in the blood and be brought up there — because that’s the only natural way of doing it.

He’s not saying you can’t learn, but he’s acknowledging the depth of skill, the muscle memory, the deep structure. To me this relates to language learning: you can become competent in a language at any time in your life, but the late you start, the more elusive native-speaker fluency will be.

You could phrase that the other way, of course: although true fluency may be difficult, you can become competent in a language.

As Dave Greenberg points out (he’s pretty good at performance analysis for a violinist), the “natural” way isn’t the only way to learn, and for most of us it’s not even an option. It’s one approach, and there are others.

(To tie this together, an MP3 clip of David Greenberg playing Niel Gow’s Lament on the Death of His Second Wife, from Puirt a Baroque’s album Bach Meets Cape Breton.)