Posts Tagged ‘music’

By the most strict definition, it’s been 9 months since I started this reboot project.  But for various reasons I’m going to write off about three months of that time and call this my six month check-in.  Not the least of which is that I hadn’t really gotten to the point where I felt like a top down check in made sense in April…

Here is a paragraph from my very first post which I need to keep coming back to as it is way too easy to get lost in the details:

I’m taking a minimum of a year off of full time employment to dive into this experiment, if this ends up being a year of self-improvement and self-discovery, I’ll count it as a success but not be thrilled with the outcome.  My overall objective is to accomplish the brain reboot and in the process discover my next big thing, which I hope will be a project/career that will both improve the world around me and provide a sustainable living.

And to do this I developed a what I can only describe as a self-directed curriculum.  I’m going to just blatantly cut and paste my original ‘curriculum’ post from October here, as I didn’t really remember it in detail and I’ve been living it…


—–Begin Excerpt—–

Because I am fundamentally a reductionist, I am going to divide my efforts into three broad categories.  One is large goals that I intend to spend something measurable in hours per week over the course of the year to achieve a specific objective.  Another is what I’m thinking of as tools and techniques – experimenting with different methods of learning on small things or specifically aiming at acquiring a particular skill that I believe will help my ability to execute on my larger goals.  The final category is the scatter-shot learning of anything that strikes my fancy.

Well that’s completely amorphous, you say?  Let’s dig a bit deeper.

I’ve already mentioned the top four big things:

  1. Learn a language – there are two major questions to answer here. The first is the language, I’m leaning towards Spanish, but some of the other contenders are Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, French, Latin, Gaelic, and Ancient Icelandic.  This certainly deserves at least one blog post of its own, so stay tuned. The second is technique. I’m not even sure where to start with a discussion on how to learn a language (although I’ve been accumulating ideas from various sources) so again, stay tuned.
  2. Music – While my initial measurable goal is to learn an instrument to some level of mastery, I’d also like to dig more into music theory and develop sight reading skills. Contenders here are piano, guitar, violin, clarinet, saxophone, ukulele, harmonica, vocals and upright bass.
  3. Programming – I’m not even going to try to attack this in a small paragraph.
  4. Writing – Well, let’s start with blogging, perhaps more will come of it.  Although I did just notice that nanowrimo is next month. Hmmm…

And some of the skills that I’m hoping to develop:

  • Speed reading
  • Memorization techniques
  • Analysis/Critique – If nothing else I am going to start reviewing books and teaching company courses that I read and listen to.
  • Math – there is certainly room for a ‘big’ learning subject here as well, but my initial interest is in exercising basic math skills to see if that help stretch my brain and make some other activities easier.
  • Physical skills – Keep doing yoga and dance and perhaps re-introduce an eastern martial art of some kind – I am certainly strongly planted in the strong body helps a strong mind camp.
  • Typing?

I’m not sure that the last category is actually a separate thing, but I’m including it as a reminder to myself to  strike a balance between a disciplined approach and making sure that I have a blast in the process.

—–End Excerpt—–

And of course I gave myself full permissions to morph the curriculum as I went (including calling 9 months 6 months, just because).  So where am I now?

At a very high level, I feel both very good about what I’ve accomplished and pretty frustrated at the pacing.  But a large part of the point of this whole exercise is to get better at learning in general and while it’s very hard to measure that explicitly, I feel some movement in the old noggin’ so that has to count for something…

At the next level, I have stuck with my top four major objectives but would say that physical skills which I had originally placed as a minor player actually ended up getting elevated to top tier status.

And for a quick brain-dump style status report, here’s what I’ve got:

  1. Language: I landed on Spanish and spent some time listening to Pimsleur audio + their minimal reading writing accompaniment.   It was slow progress at best.  I certainly wasn’t able to absorb this information without reviewing multiple times per lesson.  So I broke down and signed up for a small class size Spanish 1 at a local school.  This seemed to get me over a bit of a hump.   I’m just starting level II and fell like I’m making real progress.  I think there is some chance that I will hit at least minimal functionality sometime in the foreseeable future which is definitely further than I’ve ever gotten before with a language other than English.
  2. Music:  I landed on Piano + some ear training supplemented with a bit of music theory.  I made it through a level one piano book quickly as it was mostly review.  I stalled out a bit on the level two stuff but can see myself getting back to that soon.  I am pushing hard on the ear training as it feels like a breakthrough on that would be more fundamental in my general brain training than incremental improvement of keyboard skills.  I am also having a lot of fun going through the Billy Joel songbook (and will add Brubeck as well) – this is definitely not an example of deliberate learning, but may start slopping into flow.
  3. Programming:  I’ve some thoughts on branching into iOs and Android programming, but for now I’m playing with some ideas that have been floating in my head for years for some dance music tools, and I can do initial implementation of that nicely in the Microsoft universe.   In fact as I’ve started spending a bit more time on this it’s pretty easy to get lost in it and not want to do anything else, which is great.  Also, I signed up for a volunteer gig to teach intro to computer science to high school students, so I’m busily training to teach this stuff.  There will definitely be more on that here shortly.
  4. Writing:  Most of my writing has been in the context of this blog.  Alicia and I took part of an online fiction writing class, but stalled on it as we both manage grammar pretty well and there was a bit too much emphasis on basics in that class.  But one of these days some fiction may escape me…
  5. Physical Skills: I’ve had a blast starting to learn to tap dance, which is something I’ve never tried before.  Learning a new physical skill has definitely been a key part of helping me think about how I learn in general.  I’ve also dug deeper into yoga, adding a vinyasa (or flow) style to my practice and spending more time working with poses on my own rather than just pushing through them in class.  This is definitely a place where I’m playing with deliberate practice, but I certainly have a long way to go.

For the small random things, I’ve spent considerable time on speed reading as I think that’s the biggest bang for my buck.  And of course I upgraded physical skills to a major skill.  I haven’t been great about attacking small projects though and that’s a little disappointing.  Although if we were to add cooking and canning into the mix, they might count.

And of course my progress on the top level of what I want to do when I grow up is on the slow side.  But re-awakening my joy in programming and taking a stab at passing that on to others in a new way has to count as a good start, right?

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?

I just finished re-reading This is your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin.  It’s a general overview on how the brain processes music and includes a number of deep dives into things like his theory about the evolutionary basis of music, how one becomes an expert musicians and how music interacts with our brains.

I first read this in 2007 when I was hip deep in frustration at work and remember the biggest take-away being the wistful sense that I’d like to start playing an instrument again.  But perhaps it was an early seed for my reboot project. The brain is a strange an mysterious place and I certainly can’t be responsible for understanding my motivations 100% of the time.  Sorry, but it’s true.

In any case, on a re-read I realize that this was the book where I first encountered the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to expert status hypothesis that I had most tightly associated with Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers.  And this figure keeps cropping up.  Not just in the two books I’ve already mentioned but also in Moonwalking with Einstein that I mentioned in my Okay Plateau post.  And a friend who I swear I didn’t prompt brought the 10,000 hours to expert subject up at lunch last week.  While eating Pho. So I decided to go hunting up the source.  It looks like all of the references that I’ve cited lead back to K. Anders Ericsson and his work. (I wonder what the “K.” stands for?)   So now I probably have some heavier reading to do.

But in the meantime let me attempt to drag myself screaming back to my original point.  The point that I almost completely lost sight of in the process of looking up dates and following sources.  Which is, how in the heck am I going to find 10,000 hours for each of the several things I’m tackling this year?  Oh wait, I guess that’s physically impossible.  Huh. The rough math is that it takes about 40 hours a week for 5 years (40*50*5) to get to 10,000 hours, or 10 hours a week for 20 years…

Which is the point where I have to forcefully remind myself that I’m not actually trying to attain expert level for most of these things.  If I can hold a reasonable conversation with a Spanish speaker I will count that as good.  If I can enjoy my own piano playing that’s great (I’m actually almost there for this one). If I can have fun with tap dancing and maybe pull in a bit of improvisation that would be really cool. I don’t have to be good enough for other people to enjoy watching me dance much less make a living at it.

So I’m all right with my breadth first learning for now.  But I think there is some hope that there are generalized learning skills that I can hone over the course of the next year or so that will make me more effective in whatever I do next.  I’m certainly going to dig into the “deliberate practice” part of Ericcson’s work, because perhaps 1000 hours of deliberate practice is what I need to get where I want to go with a particular skill, rather than 10,000.

If nothing else, forcing myself to write on a regular basis has got to be useful, right?

I was telling a friend (who I think can be characterized as a reasonably successful musician) about learning to play the piano.  His immediate question was “who are you studying with.”  Which threw me for a moment, because I hadn’t actually considered starting up with a piano teacher yet. (Check out my post on learning to play the piano if you’re interested in the gory details of how I’m going about this).

But that got me to thinking about the general question of where self study is most effective and where other more formal education might be more appropriate.  I was inspired to start this reboot project in part by Chris Guillebeau‘s guest blog post on Powell’s site where the thesis was directed self study could be more effective than going to grad school (and cheaper).   While I’ve used the post as a touchstone, my goals are considerably different than his were and so what I’ve actually ended up doing has borne at best a passing resemblance to his suggested curriculum.   So why not diverge in method as well?

The quick answer is that I have already, and in fact I never really though about not taking more formal classes for some parts of my curriculum.  For instance, I didn’t consider trying to learn to tap dance without taking class.  On the other hand, I did take a run at learning to speak Spanish from audio lessons and books.

So where do you draw the line?  What things are best learned solo where you can make your own mistakes in the privacy of your own home, which things are best done in a class setting, and what things are better with a tutor?  And to add another twist, at what point do you get more out of teaching something to someone else than by taking more classes yourself?

For myself, learning a second language without some direction from someone fluent in that language has been pretty much a bust.   I broke down and signed up for an introductory small class course at a local language school.  We’ve only had two sessions so far, but I’m reasonably certain that was the right thing to do.

Has anyone out there learned a language without the direct help of someone who speaks it already?  If so was it your second language (or third or fourth or fifth)?  What method did you use?  And would you recommend it over taking a class or hiring a tutor?

I just finished reading (actually listening to) the book Moonwalking with Einstein.  It’s a description of how the author gets involved in the U.S. Memory Championship and goes into great detail about how he studied to compete in the championship as well as many entertaining stories about the personalities of the current people on the world memory scene and the history of memory techniques.  I highly recommend the book and I’m trying to decide whether or not he convinced me to spend time working on specific techniques to enhance my memory.  I’ll get back to you when I figure that out.

The thing that stuck with me the most though was Mr. Foer’s description of what he calls the Okay Plateau.  The general idea is that for most skills, you learn rapidly for some period of time and once you’re good enough you don’t get any better.  His main example is typing – many people ‘practice’ typing for longer each day than I’m spending on most of the skills I’m currently trying to master.   Yet they aren’t any better than they were shortly after they learned to type.

Now I don’t know that I’m going to add typing to my list of things to improve.  Especially because once I started talking to friends about it the suggestion came up that I learn the Dvorak keyboard rather than trying to incrementally improve my QWERTY skills.  Which is interesting enough that I’ll have to do some further research to decide which way to go, if any.  And also probably a comment on how off the wall my friends can sometimes be, that’s what keeps life interesting, right?

Since I am actively working towards acquiring a number of new skills this year and improving some old ones, I am very interested in avoiding the okay plateau.   By my reading, the idea is that once you learn a skill sufficiently to meet your needs, you start ‘practicing’ in in an automatic way that requires less concentration but that also precludes much improvement.  The suggested methods for breaking out of this ‘Autonomous’ mode are to do three things.

  1. Spend more time practicing outside of your comfort zone.  An example is that the best figure skaters spend more time practicing the jumps that they can’t land while mediocre figure skaters practice the jumps that they can.
  2. Make sure that you are practicing in a way that you can get immediate feedback.
  3. Act like a scientist – examine what you’re doing and how you’re learning and try to figure out what you’re doing that is good and what you’re doing that is sub-optimal.  Of course, I still maintain that doing to much of this while actually practicing can lead to issues.

I think the above are all things that are worth considering while learning a new skill.  But here’s another thought on breaking out autonomous mode.  I think that changing between depth first and breadth first learning could shake one off the okay plateau.  My canonical example of this is my experience with yoga.  I spent a number of years practicing the standard bikram series of poses and while I think my learning curve didn’t necessarily plateau at a zero degree angle, it had settled into a very gentle slope.   For reasons not directly related to trying to improve my Bikram practice I ended up practicing a very different kind of yoga and lo and behold I started seeing breakthroughs in bikram poses that I hadn’t improved in months or even years, even though I was spending considerably less time on a weekly basis doing those poses.

I’m hoping that doing things like learning some music theory, ear training and singing while tackling the piano will help keep me from even entering the okay plateau of music.   Now I need to decide if I’ve got enough breadth in some of my other endeavors.

I am also struggling with the relationship between these principles and the concept of flow, as I feel like there is a contradiction between these two ideas that I can’t quite reconcile.

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.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about focus lately.  It’s one of those things that I started thinking about  a bit a while back and is now popping up at every turn.  I’ve generally been very good about being able to focus in very closely on a task, but I’m now convinced that this is an overlearned skill, at least for me.  Or perhaps it’s a borderline hyperfocus issue, although I really do try to avoid self-diagnosing psychological disorders, otherwise I’d drive myself crazy.

There are about a dozen aspects of this concepts flying through my head (so much for being overly focused), but lets start with three.

Speed Reading:

I am interested in increasing my reading speed.  I mean, geeze, there are like a million fiction books on my to read list and then there is all of the technical reading that I can’t seem to keep up with.  And that doesn’t even count getting lost in the internets for extended periods of time.

One of the techniques I’ve seen that makes a lot of sense is to learn to scan down the page rather then scanning each line horizontally.  This would involve learning to de-focus enough that you register an entire line at a time.  Now to add a bit of weight to this idea, one of the fastest readers I know says that when reading a old fashioned paper book (remember those), she would routinely register spelling errors on the right hand page while she was still reading the left hand page.  Pretty impressive, no?  In any case, I’ll take that as at least anecdotal evidence that a particularly speedy reader is utilizing a wider focus than I.

Sparring:

I spent nearly a decade practicing Kung Fu.  One of the core skills is to be able to spar.  It was never my favorite part of the class, I was much more interested in learning forms – the choreographed set of movements that at least in theory one could then decouple and use whilst sparring.  In any case, while I was never great at sparring and I’ve heard many times that some people are ‘fast-twitch’ and some are ‘slow-twitch’, one thing that really helped was to defocus my eyes.  Just look at in the general direction of the person I was sparring, not at any particular part of them.  Or looking at it slightly differently, focusing too much on a particular aspect of your opponent is a really good way to miss some other part of him or her heading your way.

Sight Reading:

As I’ve mentioned before, I am diving back into music after half a lifetime  of not practicing.  Or perhaps I’m just sticking my toe in the water to check the temperature?  No, I’m pretty sure I’m doing a cannonball.  Anyway, one thing that I was never very good at was sight reading, so I’d like to correct that this time around.  Sight reading on the piano is quite a task.  Here’s just a very simple sample of  a piano staff with lyrics for those of you that don’t read music.

Piano Staff

The notes on and around the top five lines or treble clef are generally played by the right hand, the notes on the bottom five lines or bass clef are generally played by the left hand and the words in the middle are sung (okay, duh on the last part).  It’s not uncommon for a number of verses to be written in the middle so that the distance between the clefs is greater.  There is also a common variation where the melodic line and the lyrics are written out above the piano part, but I think that’s generally intended for someone other than the piano player to be reading.  It’s relatively easy once you’ve got the basics down to read any of the three components.   It’s a matter of practice to get fingers (or voice) to reproduce what is written.

The thing that I’m obsessing about right now though is the ability to follow all three things at the same time.  I know people who can do this cold, so it’s definitely humanely possible.  I have no doubt that there is a large component of practice in that ‘cold’ is a bit different for someone that has been reading music for decades than someone who is just starting (or restarting).  If for no other reason than that as a beginner focus has a tendency to shift to one’s hands on the keyboard and then all hell breaks loose. But it seems like there is some fundamental ability to track those three things slightly separated on the staff that I should be able to get to click.

So that’s where I am.  I need to figure out how to defocus.  I’ll probably not go back to sparring, but I am going to take another run at speed reading training to see if I can find a tool or program that works for me.  And I might take another pass at improving my touch typing speed while I’m at it.  After all there are all those books out there just begging to be read.

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.

The second of the ‘big’ things on my curriculum for this year is to learn a musical instrument.  As I noted in my initial curriculum post, I’d like to not only learn an instrument but also dig into some music theory and include sight reading and playing by ear as part of my overall musical training.

This is in many ways the opposite situation from the language learning that I’ve started.  Whilst I’ve tried and failed at language acquisition on a number of occasions, I actually have a decent amount of musical background, just unexercised for twenty plus years.

Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Piano lessons from 3rd grade – 9th grade
  • Clarinet lessons from 5th grad to 12th grade
  • Concert band, Marching Band, Jazz Band, pit orchestra up through high school (and just a touch into college)
  • My college work study project was writing music theory software for the Macintosh

So, I’m not starting from square one – but that still left me scratching my head as to a where to reboot my music practice.  My initial instinct was to pick up the clarinet again as it was the instrument that I the highest level of proficiency back in the day.  But that just wasn’t clicking for me.

So then I thought maybe I would try guitar, since that was an instrument that I’ve always wanted to play and never really tried.  Or even start with the ukulele. Less strings has to be easier right? Also I’ve been listening to Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs and enjoying them a bit too much.

But sight reading, ear training and music theory are large parts of my objective here.   So, I think,  maybe the violin. That’s one of the fundamental instruments that people start with, and it has a strong ear training component. Of course the piano is a better instrument for sight reading, since if you can sight read harmonies on both clefs, sight reading for a melodic instrument like the clarinet becomes almost trivial.  And there’s nothing better than the piano for digging into music theory.

When it comes right down to it I have to  admit that my parents were right when they told me that if I want to play the guitar I should start with the piano.  So Mom and Dad – this one’s for you – I’m a gunna larn to play me the pee-an-er.