The sound of learning

I’ve just seen Jane Bozarth’s terrific column at Learning Solutions, Content Becomes Its Own Context. As she read David Byrne’s How Music Works, she writes, “I found I could pretty much substitute the word “content” for the word ‘music’ in many of his ideas.” I don’t plan to summarize her article here, so you’ll have to read it for yourself.

I may have to read Byrne’s book. I certain enjoyed Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music, which I wrote about almost five years ago. And like human languages, a phenomenon I use often to highlight the many possible meanings for “learning,” music is both pervasive and evasive.

One of Jane’s insights in her comparison is that capturing tacit knowledge isn’t easy, in music or in the world of workplace learning. Yet it’s the tacit that raises music (or cognitive ability) above the merely routine. Or as Artur Schabel put it,

The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides.

There’s a different sort of problem for exemplars like Schnabel, as he wrote in My Life in Music:

I am attracted only to music which I consider to be better than it can be performed. Therefore I feel (rightly or wrongly) that unless a piece of music presents a problem to me, a never-ending problem, it doesn’t interest me too much.

Part of what that says to me, in terms of learning, is that as a person’s capabilities increase, she’s often less and less interested in the mundane. Not that she won’t do mundane tasks–every job has some of them (says the guy who installed software and tinkered with file backup yesterday). I’d argue, though, that the person with a greater  depth of job-related capability is less and less interested in being trained in the mundane.

The idea of people dying the death of a thousand cuts in some mandatory training experience is almost too common to draw notice. But you don’t get better as a musician by going through high-school marching band instruction again.

You might, as Pablo Casals did, choose to practice scales every day, but Casals played many other works as well, and I feel reasonably sure those weren’t the cellist equivalent of “Kitty on the Keys.”

A month or so back, I had lunch with a colleague I hadn’t seen in far too long, and learned that his wife had taken up not the violin but the fiddle. So I sent him a couple of links to videos of Natalie MacMaster, a dynamo of Cape Breton fiddling. We all ended up at Natalie’s concert here in Maryland last week.

I mention her because it’s a good excuse to drop a video into a post, like this one where Natalie is performing with her uncle, Buddy MacMaster–and you won’t often get to hear two members of the Order of Canada playing fiddle like this.

Natalie and Buddy are exemplary musicians–but notice what’s going on in the video around the 2:00 mark: a whole stageful of musicians, ranging over at least a span of 60 years of age, takes up bows and dives into the music. No one’s tracking them in an FMS (Fiddle Management System); no one’s worried about the failure to capture and embed Shareable Audio Objects. People put time and effort into becoming better at an activity they find worthwhile.




7 thoughts on “The sound of learning

  1. My pleasure, Jay. Natalie’s well worth a journey to see in concert, though I think the nearest she’s got scheduled in your general direction is either Utah or British Columbia. Still, you travel a lot; check her tour dates on her website; you might find a way to have a hell of a good time on an upcoming trip.

  2. Helen, as you have surmised, Natalie’s part of a deep river of traditional music that flows through Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. It’s a small place (Tasmania is 9 times larger in area), but especially for those like me who were born there, it’s like Hemingway’s Paris, a movable feast. Many Cape Bretoners know these Gaelic lyrics, written in the 1840s by Allan the Ridge Macdonald; he’d moved from the island to the mainland and, according to the story, composed the poem while overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence:

    Chì mi bhuam, fada bhuam,
    Chì mi bhuam, ri muir làin;
    Chì mi Ceap Breatuinn mo luaidh
    Fada bhuam, thar an t-sàil.

    I see far, far from me
    I can see across the high waves
    I see Cape Breton, my love,
    Far from me, over the salt water.

  3. Great stuff here, Dave, and thanks for the shoutout. There’s just so much food for thought in this whole music-content-learning conversation. And your closing line: “People put time and effort into becoming better at an activity they find worthwhile.” ? That’s the very definition of a community of practice.

  4. Kia ora e Jane,

    you spoke about a community of practice. I think you are right about the practice bit, perhaps even about the community. However, I feel what you may have overlooked is the most important aspect of the whole – the sharing and participation. This is what makes a community of practice. The event that we witness in the video is a wonderful participatory experience occurring between three sets of people: the stage musicians (namely the two fiddlers), the orchestra that joined them at around two minutes into the performance and the audience who witnessed the whole performance. One of the endemic properties of this type of music (some call it folk, others call it traditional) is that it is dance music to be participated in and shared by everyone. Where are the dancers? Well if they had been allowed onto the stage there would have been a fourth set of people participating here.
    Ka kite

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