Ear Training/ Mnemonics

July 31, 2009

This is more for me than any of my readers (do I have any??)

At almost 32 years of age, and with more projects on my plate than I can handle, I’m considering beginning a serious new training in developing my musical ear. My theory is: one builds coordination between


And the more each of these is developed, or pairs of these, the higher functioning the musician. Most of us can sing relative pitches in our favorite songs, and I suspect that there are ways to develop perfect pitch, even if you’ve been told you do not possess it. So one necessity for becoming a successful (read: competent) musician is to develop fluency with an instrument you already possess with voice. This will take years and a lot of practice. I do not have the most developed ear, although I play difficult pieces on piano, and am slowly learning to read notes on guitar, as I learn chords and rhythm patterns. I am deciding on a single voice instrument and I will begin learning to play it as an extension of my voice, completely by ear. I’m split between recorder and oboe/English horn. The recorder extends whistling, in a sense. It is simple and easy to carry and is featured in a lot of baroque ensemble music I enjoy. The oboe has such a beautifully distinct sound, a very solitary sound too, and is beautiful to look at and hold. Judging from this beautiful range chart http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Range_(music) the tenor recorder and the oboe have about the same range, but the oboe wikipedia page shows the range of the oboe going a bit higher. As I have wanted to play double reed instruments my whole life I think I may go with an oboe.

A simple, well designed ear training program should be very easy to write and should be easily available, though I haven’t found one. I’ve been working with big ears today, working almost exclusively on the minor 10th. I have given each of the 9 minor 10ths a name, corresponding to something the interval reminds me of.

C to Eb LOW [self explanatory]
C# to E NAMELESS [the last one to be named]
D to F AWKWARD [don’t know why]
Eb to F# PENTATONIC [they’re both black]
E to G FUGUE #10 [bach, of course]
F to Ab MOZART [f minor broken chords in K333]
F# to A GOLDEN [trying to recognize the pitch A whenever I hear it!]
G to Bb STANDBY [G minor is my default key for improvisation]
Ab to B HARSH [this B sounds distincly more harsh than the other notes]

So this is one of my favorite things to do: invent far more theory than is necessary or relevant. I love mnemonics (see for lack of a word). I hypothesize that I will learn the difference in these 9 minor 10ths by identifying them according to the mnemonic that pops up in my head when I hear each. We’ll see how this goes. I want to keep expanding this, and soon I want to be able to sit down with an oboe and play any melody that I can sing, or that I’ve just heard. This is my goal.

While I’m at it, let me share with future me a note to Maggie about teaching Ella piano, along a similar vein.

My take: the method books are garbage. Analogy– SCALES and ARPEGGIOS:MUSIC as PUSHUPS:KICKBALL. What’s also garbage, in my snotty opinion, is books that teach insultingly banal songs to children, such as go tell aunt roady, pop goes the weasel, etc. Kids who learn from those books will appreciate that music is to be appreciated, but they won’t appreciate music. I think the music should be rich enough to be incentive by itself, and as children easily learn very difficult piano, the praise and attention incentive is also there with serious classical music, and is not there with the two line steam boat willy strut.

I started Ella reading a chopin mazurka. I was careful to find an A minor piece, as key signatures take some work, but my philosophy is a good teacher can teach advanced material because
a) there is something to take away from it, even if it’s not a polished piece. Especially if the teacher ENJOYS the music, and can share some of that.
b) kids, Ella especially, are super fast learners.
c) the teacher being proud is an incentive to a student like Ella, and being proud cannot be faked. Setting the kid up to surprise you a bit is a good thing.

I try to teach a whole lot at once, but mainly: proper fingering and reading intervals, occasionally I would discuss a symbol such as ff, or a sharp sign as need be. I found one thing absolutely critical:


so I will say at some point “big step down,” or “stretch and 2, stretch and 3, and finish the arpeggio” or “thumb goes under and walk up to 4”
The actual descriptions matter a lot less than the consistency, 1) in saying exactly the same thing at the same place, and then 2), if you can manage, try to be consistent about saying “big step down” about some fixed large interval, i.e., each time you come across it. The latter point is not necessary and having a few descriptions for the same interval is probably good.

I’ve found that using natural language like this fools my student into thinking I’m just talking them through it, as opposed to always saying “a 3rd down” “a 4th up” “3 consecutive major seconds down” which would get repetitive and tiresome. But the consistency allows the student the ease of having mnemonic devices, subconsciously handed to them.

I started actually jotting down phrases in the margins of the mazurka, so that the same phrase could be recalled a day or two later, at some specific spot. Also, I played with abbreviating and finally omitting some of the comments. They are training wheels after all.

Fluency of reading is important at this stage, so just allowing her to build that transparent relationship where she sees intervals and almost instinctively jumps the right amount is good. Discourage learning each of the notes and where they are on the keyboard, that skill is a detriment to her development. Encourage singing, identifying pitches, thinking ahead to work fingering out herself, and furnish her with questions and comments about what the musician is doing. If you can make that sort of dialog fun you will set her up to be a pupil with the brightest and the best teachers, because that is what they will do. I’d say finally never let her get bored with it, since there are a thousand things to be fascinated with, but also don’t be afraid to be less of her best friend and more of her teacher when you are teaching her. Teachers who respect their students have high expectations, and my hope for her is that she learn a bit of the self-discipline that is required to make it far into music.

I can send music for her to listen to. She might want to hear some pieces and pick something not too difficult to play. It’s important that she only play music she cares about.

My challenge now is to get good enough at oboe and get Ella good enough at piano that the above is more than just bullshit.

Blah Blah Blah

July 24, 2009

Blah Blah Blah
or why I hate ideology.

I spent many years around ideological people, mostly the young liberal revolutionary anarchist feminist variety. Occasionally a libertarian. The media will bombard me with ideologues and eggheads and flapper faces from the right, when it gets the chance (I made that last one up, it’s pretty meaningless).

I am an artist (read: aesthetics and quality of life are important to me), and a bit of a hedonist. I can spend a long conversation delighting in a completely alien political system. Here the conversation is interesting; it is bonding myself and my peers together; it will change the way I see the world in a minute yet permanent way. I can even get upset with or against my colleagues, as has happened, but I’m very critical of politics for the sake of politics and more so, of arguing for a completely different system, from the ground up. Finally, I am the most critical of those who act as if arguing is what will make it so.

I can understand radical collectives and political strata of subcultures on a variety of levels. Some are more favorable, of some I am more critical. I like that kids have choices in music that get them thinking about politics, for example. I am thinking of the band Crass. But I don’t have much patience for blatant hypocrisy, and usually ideology and blatant hypocrisy go hand in hand (the example of Crass not withstanding this allegation). Further on I will argue that it makes sense for us to care about those things we understand and can impact. If you have lived your life following a dozen newspapers and understand history and politics like few others, then your game might very well be extremely general and, from your propositions, might look as if from scratch. I abstractly respect Chomsky, for example, and Buckley and many others in the same weight division. I respect Tolkien too, and Raoul Dahl, though their game is much different, they have reasons to world build, as well, and they honor those reasons by being good at what they do. I’m a bit of an elitist in this regard. When someone with dubious education and questionable thoughtfulness espouses a radical solution to life on earth, I worry that details have not been accounted for. Furthermore, I look more at them and less with them, if you get my meaning. I’m more inclined to psychoanalyze, to the extent I can, the person and their motives. I’ll understand them more as a sociological phenomenon and less for their content. As well I should.

This here is a bit of a style guide I have offered in the face of what I am calling ideology. Some of it is just about politics and about conversations you’d rather not have about politics.

context determines importance— one cannot demand attention simply because the topic is of dire importance to someone. If you find yourself sharing a 12 pack and a stupid political conversation with a friend, where it would almost seem the fate of the world is dangling by the outcome of the conversation, remind them that the point of drunken conversation is fun, not world policy making. Because X is important it does not follow that discussing and deciding on X is automatically important. The factors contributing to race wars in Sudan are important. That I don’t know what those factors are is not. Am I making a case for ignorance? I don’t think I am, but we pick our battles and if yours is pontificating to random american party goers about Sudanese politics over beers then I think you probably picked the wrong battle. What’s all this talk about beer? Well, I like beer. It’s a battle I have chosen.

ethics is ugly— sitting around dreaming up hypotheticals that involve people in great pain is frequently gratuitous, unilluminating and often grotesque. For law makers, for citizens in general, occasions come up to discuss details which are unpleasant. Sometimes we indulge merely out of fascination. An airplane goes down in the Andes; some survivors eat others to live; a movie is made about it; you see the movie; after the movie you talk about similar dilemmas over a latte at the cafe–okay. Not everyone needs to know in advance what they think about cannibalism. See *to have a thorough ideology is impossible.* I have chosen a mild example, to avoid blatant hypocrisy. Fill in what your imagination (or experience) will. If you want to talk about something unpopular, go right ahead. I would and do. But with reason. Only certain demands on your audience are reasonable. Others are not. Weddings are frequently not the best place to settle the problem of AIDS deaths in Africa. I mean, maybe, but probably not.

“slippery slope”— when I hear this phrase I cringe. What is not a slippery slope? Binary, the difference between 0 and 1, for example. In natural language, in politics, in economics, in philosophy, we scrutinize the fuzzy boundaries. Take away the slippery slopes and you’re frequently left with something idiotic. Use binaries all across the board, by all means. I don’t argue that they are inherently too rigid. But for god sake don’t tell me something is a “slippery slope.” Instead, make a judgment. I think we’re so indoctrinated not to be judgmental that we try to delegate judgment to ideology. If I’m okay with A then I must be okay with B, and I am certainly not okay with B, hence A fails by “slippery slope.” Uhh, usually false. This must be a classic fallacy. So I’ll shut up.

“necessary evil”— another one I don’t have much appreciation for. I like solving problems. When I’m not all shits and giggles I like being effective and responsible. How can a solution like prison or the federal government be a “necessary evil?” It’s stupid, right? We don’t say “an umbrella is a necessary evil, because it’s better if it doesn’t rain.” You can, but I think it’s sad. I’d rather buy myself a styly umbrella and be glad I did, or go without and enjoy the rain. I’ll grant one necessary evil, just one: evil. It is necessary, because life is meaningless without it. There are no others.

style is not irrelevant–one cannot ask for an audience and then belabor their ears with incessant politics simply because the topics are important to someone (sound familiar?). You can distinguish idea from polished essay, as you can distinguish math from poetry. Sometimes you get clunky and awkward just to get an idea across, sometimes a beautiful idea. (Could I be guilty of hypocrisy with this very piece of writing? Probably on a few different counts). Still, style is something to aspire to. Style is respect for your audience and their quality of life. It’s the best way to ask for an audience. Style is Fun.

to have a thorough ideology is impossible— You might find webpages where diligently democratic citizens list their views on every political topic. This is like a bullet list, and depending on the sophistication it will have between half a dozen and a few dozen bullets. Abortion. Gay Marriage. Border Policy. Prison. etc. Okay, yay for critical thinking, but it strikes me as artificial that each of these people has a paragraph, a decisive paragraph, on each of what are being considered the topics that matter. I don’t think policy for a nation of 300,000,000 people is that simple. Policy for a household of 4 is complex enough that it can consume as much time and thought as you’ll give it. But other things… You know about things you care about, your passions; the place you work and its politics; medical conditions that effect extended family members, and policy around those medical conditions; something as trivial and insignificant as policies that your local museum holds that will be encouraging or prohibitive to your favorite artist(s). I happen to care about gay marriage. I have reasons to. I don’t care much about genocide in Sudan. ohhh, genocide bad. fat cats bad. military bad. Well, I am suspicious of people who care about everything and anything that sounds worthy of care. How can you care about something you don’t know about? By making things mind-numbingly simple, then you can enlist young angry people to join in. Likening political figures to Hitler, that’s one we all still enjoy. When a ballot comes out, that is an impetus in itself to care specifically, but even then I vigorously defend my right not to know enough about any particular topic to care.

Is that enough? and, I’m done.