Stepping into the shed

This month I’m taking a course with violinist Zach Brock called ‘In the shed with Zach Brock, Structuring Practice for Spontaneous Performance’. I first met Zach when were were both students at Northwestern University and I still have a cassette tape he gave me of the Turtle Island String Quartet. (that’s a link to them playing Night in Tunisia, have a listen) He said, hey these guys are cool. They are indeed.

My musical training started with dots on the page, and has moved from all dots to far fewer dots as time goes by. I don’t mean that I play fewer notes, but that the quest for expression and communication has taken me off the page and more and more into the realm of plasticity and personal control over the different components of expression under my fingers. As a classical player, there is endless scope for expression with tone quality, colour, nuance of tempo, connection between the notes, vibrato, and dynamics. I am sure you could add to this list. However, in classical music the notes are one parameter of the music that is relatively fixed.

I have become more and more interested in how the mind maps without the dots in front of you. We each have different minds. The possibilities for both studying the brain and music, and implications for life and health are staggering. Below is just one diversion to show just how intense and diverse the research and the brain can be. I would LOVE to do something with a cello in an MRI scanner. This is the first experiment of its type with a cello:

Learning theory and self-regulation, metacognition, and skill acquisition all interest me very much (along with self-efficacy of course!). I have traced my own learning and explored the differences (in me) when I learn classical music and when I learn non-classical musics. For example, I learn singing without dots. No dots at all – just listening, and that means the mental conception of the music and all its components start from a different place inside, a different vantage point somewhere in the brain. I don’t quite have the words to explain it, but it’s a bit like following a map and then later learning your route as opposed to actively finding your way through something and perhaps the map emerges, but it might be made of different clues beside the road names.

Up to now I have pretty much done dots on the cello. I dabble without the dots on cello – I compose and record music, usually for films/documentaries, as improvised music that I never score, and work out the layers as I go, but I don’t ‘name’ the chords or notes, just play. For example here’s the end of a little jingle I wrote this for a friend last week:

I’m also comfortable in certain keys, with certain scales, or with a limited vocabulary. I stress the ‘limited’. I’m still in the children’s section of the dot-free library. Maybe dot free is free range music making, or conversational music. Whatever it is, I know that it is a different skill set, a different part of the brain (for me) than learning a classical piece. What really interested me in Zach’s course is his thinking of course, his music making as well, and personally the systematic approach is hugely intriguing. I have never systematically learned┬á how to work without the dots on the cello. With singing, yes. With cello, maybe I wasn’t ready. I am now. (That’s where the self-efficacy kicks in – turning what may have remained potential, into something possible. No guarantees on the results, but I am willing to take that step.)

I very much looking forward to stretching my brain, crossing over, and lighting up some new places in my brain.

Featured image CC BY-SA by Photos_by_Angela

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