Posts Tagged ‘programmed learning’

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 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?

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.

I  purchased an Amazon Local deal for two level one earworms courses even before I was certain that I was going to embark on this reboot adventure.  I have already grabbed the Spanish course as my first choice, and listened through it.  It seems at minimum to be a fun way to add some vocabulary and phrases, but since I’m going scatter shot at this by trying a bunch of different things I can’t tell how well this would stand on its own.  So it seems like it would be fun to give a run at a ‘third’ language using this technique.  Probably after I have some traction on Spanish.

In any case, I have to redeem the second coupon by the end of the month and can’t decide which language to choose as my ‘third’ language.

Since t I didn’t do justice to my full list of options for a second language in my last post, I thought I’d take this opportunity to do a quick run through of why those options landed there and then post a poll of the available earworm languages as a poll to get your opinion.   If I get in a minimum number of votes (say 10), I’ll abide by reader’s choice on this and use my coupon for that language lesson.

Here’s the list that I originally used:

  • Spanish: I believe I covered this sufficiently in my last post
  • Mandarin Chinese: One of the most spoken languages in the word and highly represented as a native tongue by people around me.  It’s probably the most useful language for me professionally.  And finally, I tend to the big challenge and given the FSI take on difficulty of languages for a native English speaker to acquire, Mandarin Chinese would certainly be a challenge.
  • Japanese:  The multiple writing systems in Japanese seem like they would be a blast to wrap my head around.  CodeView, The product that I spent the early part of my career working on was translated first into Japanese.
  • French:  I have two years of high school French, perhaps that would give me a head start.  Whilst I feel like I’ve retained nothing from those early lessons, it turns out that when I turn down my filter to search for a Spanish work, sometimes a French once pops out.
  • Latin:  Well, if I’m going to learn any of the Romance languages, maybe I should just start with the root of them all.  Although if I start going that direction, I’ll probably end up trying to learn Proto-Indo-European, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to get there too quickly (it might make a good 20th language to learn, right after I get a doctorate in linguistics in some alternate universe).
  • Gaelic:  You have seen Highlander, right?
  • Ancient Icelandic: I took a syntax course in college that covered Chomsky’s Universal Grammar and the professor frequently held up Ancient Icelandic as the sole known exception to whatever generalization he was trying to make of grammar rules.  My favorite linguistics professor of recent times, however, has stated on a number of occasions that this particular theory has fallen out of favor, so I guess I’ll pass on learning Ancient Icelandic.

And here’s the poll:

And yes, there is not complete overlap between the two sets, feel free to choose any of the earworm options.   I can understand why they don’t have Ancient Icelandic, but come on, no Latin?