Friday, August 21, 2009

Music Lessons

A few weeks back, Fabio Rojas posted some examples of guitar playing he had found on YouTube. That post was an inspiration. I had already been toying with the idea of using the process by which we learn how to play a musical instrument as a model for teaching academic writing. One of the most important features, sometimes avoided in writing instruction, is the direct evaluation of a performance of the relevant competence. Another is the essential role of practice.

I am embarrassed to admit that Fabio's post was my first conscious encounter with the work of Andrés Segovia. Here are some excerpts from a famous masterclass he held in 1965.

If I am not mistaken, what he says at the end is that the good artist displays a "delicate lack of respect for the rhythm" (my emphasis); this, he says, is the source of the "nuances" of the playing. It is the sort of thing that only a master is allowed to say, because only a master will know when the apprentice will understand what it means.

I play guitar myself, albeit at a very recreational level. After reading Jonathan Mayhew's new book about Lorca, I got curious about the Spanish style of playing. So I did what anyone would do; I searched YouTube for instructional videos. When I play, I normally just practice various vamps, some of which I've been taught by others, some of which I've cribbed off pop songs, and some of which I've made up myself (if that's possible). So I was happy to find the following video.

At 2:35, after running through the relevant scale, he points out that there's "a lot of music to be found" there. I thought that was a very good way of putting it. In fact, I've been finding the music in that scale ever since, slowly expanding my range of expression on the guitar.

I think there are equivalent lessons in writing academic prose. The teacher can demonstrate forms of argument and figures of speech, sprinkling in some occasionally cryptic remarks about what produces the "nuances" of a truly great style, and the student can be left to discover the knowledge that is "to be found" there. The communication of that knowledge is, the student will discover, supported by forms of expression that were shaped by a long craft tradition of "prosing the world". That craft can be developed only by practice.


Christian Wymann said...

If writing only were (always) as fun as practicing or playing an instrument... What about making it fun, enjoyable, or even being 'addicted' to writing (as one can be addicted to getting better playing an instrument)? Not that writing is never fun but how can the fun part become a permanent companion? Any suggestions?

Thomas said...

Well, I would say that those who find playing their instrument only fun (never a chore, never difficult, never frustrating) are not learning anything. They aren't developing their craft. It was probably not much fun to sit in front of the great Segovia and demonstrate your abilities.

The trick is to work at it regularly (ideally, every day) whether its fun or not. That goes for writing as well.

That said, I can't imagine get really good at something that doesn't dependably give you pleasure. Writing isn't enjoyable for everyone. I'm not sure what can be done for those who must write but really don't enjoy it.