Posts Tagged ‘ear training’

As part of my retraining the brain I’m trying to get back into music in a number of ways.  One thing that I’m trying is to train my ear so that I can identify intervals, which is something I never did well at even when spending much more time with a musical instrument than I do these days.  It seems like in some ways that ability is more fundamentally ‘musical’ than building technique on a particular instrument, but perhaps that’s just some weird personal bias on my part.

So I bought a copy of EarMaster® Pro – yes that’s EarMaster®, not Keymaster and I can’t tell if the people that wrote this software are fans of 1980s comedy/sci-fi movies, but I hope so.

Where was I?  Oh yes, there are a number of things that have struck me as interesting about the experience of attempting to train my middle aged brain to do yet another thing that I failed at in my teens.  And I’ve got a couple of them in the queue that haven’t quite fully formed.

But here’s the craziest of the bunch.  You’ve probably seen Rorschach Tests at some point or another – the ink blots that are supposed to let a psychologist dig deep into your subconscious?   Well, I’d like to propose an alternative.  One of the suggestions when learning to identify intervals is to take a song you know that starts (or the chorus starts) with the interval you’re trying to learn.  The folks at  EarMaster supply a chart of suggestions that is useful as a reference point.  Here is the set that I landed on.

Interval Ascending Descending
Minor 2nd Pink Panther Joy to the World
Major 2nd Happy Birthday Three Blind Mice
Minor 3rd Greensleeves Frosty the Snowman
Major 3rd Oh, when the Saints Swing Low Sweet Chariot
Perfect 4th Amazing Grace I’ve Been Working on the Railroad
Dim 5th Maria Black Sabbath
Perfect 5th Star Wars Feelings
Minor 6th She’s a Woman(my love don’t) Love Story
Major 6th My Bonnie Lies over… Nobody Knows  (the trouble)
Minor 7th Star Trek (TOS) American in Paris
Major 7th Take on Me I love you – Cole Porter
Octave (I am) An Innocent Man Willow Weep for Me

Now that has to say something about my personality.  If nothing else the fact that both Star Wars and Star Trek (TOS) themes are in there while not startling if you know me certainly have to reinforce my Science Fiction Geek complex.  And I’m happy to report that not a single video game theme ended up in my list, so I guess there is some good.  And the only TV shows were Frosty and Start Trek.  But Feelings?  Really?  What the heck?

What songs do you know well enough to use for references? What does that say about your personality?

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I’m not quite sure why tap is doing this to me.  I really did just throw in this particular skill as an afterthought in my curriculum more because I’d like to have fun hoofing with my lovely wife if and when I make it close to her league rather than as one of my initial big chunks of brain re-trainings like language or music.  But for whatever reason things in my broader agenda keep clicking while in tap class.  So here is another installment of what I learned in tap this week that is only tangentially related to the dance form.

The teacher asked us to turn our backs on him and he tapped out a rhythm.  We were then asked to do our best to copy the sounds that he created using any technique that we knew.  He started out with extremely simple examples and when he got to just plain simple which resulted in total cacophony from the class, he stopped.  But he explained that this was a way of learning to improvise.  In the tap sense it’s pretty close to some of the ear training that I’ve been doing in music.  And of course back in my youth I really liked the concept of jazz improvisation, but was never all that great at it – probably because I didn’t spend enough time with ear training and building my vocabulary.

Did I just say vocabulary?  Yes, I did!  The thing that really connects everything together for me was that the teacher went on to describe how he thought of improvisation in tap.  He said it felt like learning to speak a language.  Your objective isn’t to figure out the sentence that you’re going to say ahead of time, mapping out the whole structure and then spitting it out.  The idea is that you should have a working vocabulary that is rich enough and natural enough that you can just start talking and you form the thought as you go.  Dance, music, language, choreography, sight reading, speed reading, writing, composing – the same brain does all of these things.  Maybe training in one is actually going to help others.  Who woulda thunk?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about breadth first vs. depth first learning and skill acquisition.  The terms are from graph theory and are used with reference to tree traversal.  If they don’t immediately resonate with you, take a quick look at the graphs on the right hand side of the breadth-first and depth-first search Wikipedia pages – just walk through the nodes in the order of the numbers, that will give you a  good visualization of the conceptual difference between the two.  In any case, the idea that I’m trying to convey here is that I have been a radically depth first person in both work and life.  But now I’m reversing course and going pretty extremely breadth first and I have to admit that it’s freaking me out a bit.

My depth first work:

I got my first job at 13 as a sales and support person at an Apple computer store.  I was lucky enough to land a college work study job writing music theory software for the Macintosh.  I haven’t held a single job since that isn’t computer related.  And furthermore, of my twenty-odd year professional career a clear majority of that time has been spent developing a specific category of programs (debuggers, profilers, and other diagnostics tools).  I have occasionally toyed with trying some kind of service job just to round out my resume, but I don’t really think that will happen.

My depth first life:

When I started doing something other than work in my mid-twenties, I jumped straight into Ballroom dance.  I spent the better part of a decade dancing many hours a week and competed at several different amateur levels.  Ballroom is actually a fairly broad category.   My first year of trying to learn how to dance I took a conventional route of trying to learn a breadth of different dances (Foxtrot, Rhumba, Waltz, Swing, Cha-Cha).  That didn’t work at all for me.  It was only when my teacher convinced me to do an exhibition routine that was entirely swing that I clicked.  I eventually broadened out and learned more competitive and social dance styles, but it was definitely a key to start with one and learn it to a certain level before attempting a second one.

I then took up Kung Fu and spent 2+ hours 2 to 3 times a week in class, plus quite a few Friday evenings learning lion dance, plus time on my own, which was non-trivial although probably not nearly as much as I should have.  Again, I did this for the better part of a decade.  Then I took up yoga – again 2-3 times a week for about 5 years now.  For those of you that may know my age and are trying to do the math, there was some overlap on either end of Kung-Fu.  I’m not quite that old.

In any case,  I’ve generally only practiced one or two hobbies at a time and have practiced them intensely.  And I’ve gotten reasonably good at them.  I always take it as a compliment when other students mistake me for a teacher and a further compliment when another teacher makes that assumption, and that has happened in all three of my depth first hobbies on many occassions.

Switching to Breadth First:

Now of course, without a full time job, I could probably manage a few depth first activities at the level that I was previously maintaining one while working full time.  And at some level that’s what I thought I was going to do when I started this adventure.  But it really isn’t how things feel at this point.  Take, for instance, music.  I set out to learn to play the piano this year.  But when it came right down to it I wanted to take a broader look at music.  So I am playing the piano every day.  But I am also running through an ear training course.  And I just started a singing course as well.  My old self would have allocated more time to piano and not broadened into other music related things until I felt pretty comfortable with my basic keyboard skills.  But I think there is some real value in broadening out earlier.  So we’ll see how that goes.

Of course the music thing is a pretty limited example.  One could make the argument that what I’m really doing is some kind of depth first traversal of a redefined domain.

But then there  is the Spanish thing.  And the tap thing.  And I’ve started learning a different kind of yoga.  And re-learning programming.  And speed reading.  And writing – both this blog and taking a creative writing course.  And there are the dozen other things that I want to start doing this year but haven’t gotten traction on yet.  For instance, I’d like to play with memory techniques.  I would like to take a run at Toastmasters.  I would like to improve my typing speed (and/or learn Dvorak).  I would like to take a run at writing fiction.  And the list goes on.

I’m hoping at the least that trying a bit of breadth first will help with my primary goal of learning and acquiring skills faster, as measured by the net number of hours spent.  I’ll be sure to report back soon.

Keep in mind that the Prime Directive of my reboot project is to get my middle aged brain up and running back at twenty-something spryness. So the specific skills that I have chosen to tackle were taken from a list of things where there is some evidence to justify spending time on them as means to that end.

All that said, I am having a blast getting back into music.  And I’m enjoying the piano in a way that I never did as a kid, which may not be surprising.

Here’s what happened.  Even before I left my full time job, I impulse purchased a package that contained a 6 octave keyboard and the E-Media beginning and intermediate piano methods (eMedia Play Piano Pack).  The box sat in the corner and gathered dust for several months while I struggled with my decision to give up a stable career and go off and do this reboot thing.  Who knows, maybe the mocking keyboard bundle was what put me over the edge?

So when I decided to tackle the piano and re-build the musical part of my brain, I loaded up the software, hooked up the piano and dove in.  I have to say, I was really impressed with the e-Media piano method.  Now admittedly, I had a bunch of piano lessons in my youth and a decent amount of music theory for a non-musician.  So nothing I ‘learned’ in the beginning method was technically ‘new’ for me.  But the meta-analysis of how they set up the system was a blast and as long as I remember to turn that analysis off while actually playing, I think it added to the experience.

One of the coolest things about this method was that they use  several songs that everyone probably knows – my favorite of the bunch is Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”.  They start with an extremely simplified version and build them up to something close to the full version of the song, although at least in the case of “Piano Man” it doesn’t quite get to the complete rich harmony of the original.  First you play a simplified version of the melody and have the option to get the software to play the harmony. This means that  from the get-go you feel like you’re actually playing music.  They start you on C major with hands in a home position and move you through F and G major along with a couple of basic positions for the hands, but they really do keep it simple.  For harmony they teach you the basic I, IV, V7 progression  and then use that in a very obvious way in their arrangements of the familiar music you’re learning.

There is also a very rudimentary ear training component.  A bit of help in recognizing the intervals and chords that your learning to play when you here them is not a bad thing at all and something that I wish I had done more of when learning to play instruments the first time around.

To top it off, you have the midi keyboard hooked up to the computer so the software will give you feedback about everything from missed notes to notes not held long enough or too long.  I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that this evokes the image of my piano teacher when I was ten telling me similar things in a somewhat less neutral way.  More importantly, you start with the discipline of playing with someone (or something) else so you build in the importance of not pausing because something is hard, which was one of the single hardest habits to break when as a kid I went from individual lessons to playing in group.

In any case, I whipped through the beginner method in a bit over a month of running 10 or 20 lessons at a time.  Most of the stuff that was set up to practice repeatedly I was able to sight read through, and the built in feedback gave me some confidence that I wasn’t cheating.  I would be really curious to know how well this works for someone who is learning for the first time, but it was really fun as a review.  And since I have about a 30 year gap since I last took a piano lesson, I feel like some of the well thought out aspects of this method helped me build better habits the second time around.

Now the question is, does this help me with by larger objectives?  How do I measure that?  I’m not quite sure yet, but it has proven to me that picking at least some of the skills for the reboot project as things that I really enjoy is probably a personal key to making this project a success.