Let Sleeping Blogs Lie?

I'm a horrible blogger. I do all the things that good bloggers are not supposed to do. There are enough of them to deserve a list:

  • I write something here only sporadically

  • I don't work at all on building an audience

  • I don't stick to one topic or area, like, say, music, or guitar playing, or technology, or books, or teaching, etc.

  • I'm not selling anything here

  • I don't engage whatever audience there is

  • I never check my analytics and I don’t care much about SEO

Nonetheless, I will still occasionally put something up here as the muse strikes and as time allows. Which reminds me: I never did deliver the promised part two of my Motorcyle Riding and the Art of Lute Playing blog. See what I mean…


Mah Jongg in America

Mah Jongg in America

Introduction and Background

My grandmother was born in Verona, Missouri, moved to Portland, Oregon at an early age, and later ran away to San Francisco where she fell in with a theater troupe and took the literal "slow boat to China." There she met my grandfather, Joe Babcock, who was working for Standard Oil at the time.

I recently became aware of this article she wrote 90 years ago for the The Catalina Islander about her adventures in China and my grandfather's role in introducing Mah Jongg to the United States. He trademarked the name, codified and simplified the rules, and imported Chinese-made Mah Jongg sets to the United States. For a time, it was incredibly popular (Macy's had a Mah Jongg section!).

My grandmother was always a little “loopy" and she demonstrates that here by changing topic halfway through the article to write about bandits (although I think we’d call them “kidnappers" or “terrorists" today).

The “outrage” to which my grandmother referred was the kidnapping of passengers on the Shanghai Express in 1923. (This incident was the inspiration for the 1932 movie, Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich.) Lucy Aldrich (see footnote three below) had the presence of mind to bury her jewels and after she was rescued my grandfather helped her find them and dig them up!

Before I turn it over to my grandmother, I should note that Reynolda House in Winston-Salem, NC is having a course on the "Babcock Rules" to the Fascinating Game of Mah Jong starting on August 12, 2014. There is a connection to the Reynolda House as Joe Babcock's brother, Charles, married Mary Reynolds, whose father built Reynolda House.

An early edition of Joe Babcock’s Rules for Mah Jongg.

I've added a few pictures that were not in the original article, although the one immediately below appeared in a related article in the same issue.

From the Newspaper Archive of The Catalina Islander

April 16, 1924

By Norma Babcock[1]

(Mrs. Joseph Park Babcock, wife of the exponent of mah jongg)

Owing to the interest I find everywhere in things Chinese, and the game Mah Jongg and its origin, I shall try to tell the Islander readers a brief story of this fascinating game.

My husband,[2] when but 19, graduated as honor man from the civil engineering class of Purdue University; then entered the Standard Oil class for foreign service. Within six months after his arrival in China be was given the post as manager of the Standard Oil Company’s Peking office.

Young Joe Babcock in China.

Within the first six months in China he gained a good working knowledge of the Chinese language. In less than a year he was conducting his office without an interpreter. Of course, as we all know, people learn languages much more easily when they are young, and at that time my husband was only twenty years of age.

Even in those early days he went on frequent journeys into the interior. In this way, and because of his knowledge of their language, he was soon initiated into the mysteries of the Chinese tile game. He was always very fond of games such as bridge, and the great American game of poker.

When you add to these an insatiable curiosity, it is easy to see how he became interested in these Chinese games. In Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai, and many other cities of North China and Manchuria, he saw and studied these various games.

Six or seven years ago we were living in the tiny foreign colony in Soochow. There were only twelve people in the community where we lived, but we were only a short distance from the high wall of the Chinese City, which held a population of half a million Chinese.

Situated as we were, in close contact with interesting Chinese people, we had few amusements in our small community of Americans and Europeans. My husband became an expert player and close student of the Chinese game, as it was played in Soochow.

Finally he tried to get the English numerals placed in the corner of the tiles, as you see them today. While there were several small shops where sets of these game pieces were made, not a single workman cared to attempt the making of strange English numbers and letters, which meant nothing at all to them. The Chinese think all of us are a bit queer, anyhow, and to their way of thinking, it was just another mad idea of those weird foreigners, which they would soon forget.

But they did not reckon with the stick-to-it-iveness which is an American characteristic! My husband finally persuaded one of them to try it. It was a great failure, for they had the “E” carefully drawn on the South Wind, the North where West should have been, and many other discrepancies. When told that they were badly marked, and almost all wrong, the outcry, which is characteristic of all Chinese shop keepers, was heard: “Lose money! Lose money!”

After assuring the man that the spoiled tiles would be paid for, he finally consented to try again. After several attempts he eventually succeeded in marking the first set of tiles with the properly placed foreign letters and numerals.

This very man, Wong Liang Sung, is today the acknowledged plutocrat of the mah jongg industry among the Chinese, and I am sure that he offers up daily blessings to the Shades of his Ancestors for one very obstinate American who forced him to change what is known as Chinese “old custom.”

Now let me tell you something about banditry: If any of you are planning to visit the Orient, don’t let these bandit stories frighten you. Chinese bandits are not such bad people, after all. We have been living for the last three years in the bandit-infested province of Shantung, and but two and one-half hours away by rail from Licheng, which was where the outrage occurred last spring. An express train was derailed, forty or fifty white people taken prisoners, and carried into the hills. Miss Lucy Aldrich,[3] a sister-in-law of John D. Rockeleller, was among those captured. One of the bandits aided her in making her escape within a few days after her capture. She was brought to Tsinan, our home city, where she received medical treatment for her injured feet, as the bandits had forced their prisoners to walk over the sharp rocks when they took them into the hills.

She was accompanied by this Chinese bandit, whom she termed “her bandit.” This bandit lived in our servant’s quarters for more than a month and it took a little diversion to get him to leave. He complained that he feared to return to his native haunts and fellow-bandits as he really was a lazy fellow—not like the American tramp. He had found a comfortable home and board, so why worry. My husband finally took him on as a night watchman and it took but three days of this type of work to rid ourselves of him. He said it was too much work to walk every hour to punch the time-clock and on the third day he resigned.

(Editor’s Note—Mrs. Joseph Park Babcock, who has been feted as the “Mah Jongg Queen” by Pasadena and Los Angeles society for the past few weeks spent Sunday as the guest of Mrs. Miles Overholt.[4] The dainty little visitor will leave for San Francisco the latter part of the week. Mrs. Overholt will accompany Mrs. Babcock to the northern city in the interests of mah jongg publicity.)

Joe Babcock teaching Douglas Fairbanks how to play Mah Jongg in the 1920s.

  1. 1890–1981.  ↩

  2. Joseph Park Babcock (1893–1948) went on to attend Yale Law School and became Chief Counsel for General Electric.  ↩

  3. Lucy Truman Aldrich (1869–1955) was the oldest surviving child of Sen. Nelson W. Aldrich and Abby Pearce (Chapman) Aldrich. She never married, and lived in the family home at 110 Benevolent St. in Providence for most of her life, but traveled extensively in Europe and Asia. On one trip to China in 1923, she was captured by armed bandits and held for two days before her release. She was an active art collector, especially in the fields of porcelain and Asian textiles. She donated much of her collection to the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art, and was a member of its Museum Committee as well. Her sister Abby married John D. Rockefeller Jr. (This information courtesy of the Rhode Island Historical Society.)  ↩

  4. Mrs. Miles Overholt’s was born Alma Staheli in Switzerland in 1889 and moved with her family to California in 1919. She headed the publicity department for Catalina island from the 1920s until WWII. She wrote a book called, The Catalina Story and was a correspondent for the Los Angeles Examiner. She died in 1972.  ↩


Comments and News

The comment engine I had been using at pristine madness—JS-Kit—discontinued its service on October 1, 2012. I missed the six month transition period and all previous comments on this blog have disappeared. There were a few lively discussion, especially about the post on Bach’s Chaconne, and I’m sorry to lose all those.

I’ve switched to the Disqus commenting engine today. There may have been a way to migrate the old comments to Disqus prior to October 1, but it’s too late. Sorry…

In other news, I have totally redesigned and updated christopherberg.com. Included are full recordings of guitar and lute music—some live, some recorded— of more pieces and I’ll be adding to these as time goes by. I also hope to post web versions of more of my printed articles, and I’ll be adding information about upcoming concerts. I hope to make it a less static site than the old one, which was designed in 2000—antediluvian in the Internet world.

Deliberate Practice

Perhaps the biggest problem I’ve encountered with the hundreds of guitar students who have played for me in master classes or who have auditioned for entry into the guitar program at the School of Music at University of South Carolina, is the assumption that practice and performance are the same. The result is that they often mistake the final goal for how to get there, which means they do what they believe successful performers do: only play their pieces. But this is as nonsensical as trying to infer the existence of a pig from seeing a sausage.

In general I find discussions of how many hours to practice scales, slurs, arpeggios, etc., rather tedious, as the practice of these will vary according to a student’s playing level, and, more importantly, the level of awareness about what the real problems to be solved are. If I had to distinguish between practice and performance, the blurring of which is the cause of a great many artistic, technical, and procedural problems, I’d say this: In practice we create the conditions for a later spontaneity and freedom. Anything that would impede spontaneity and freedom in performance must be discovered, examined, and overcome. Practice and performance are two distinct activities: in practice we turn experience into ability; in performance, we turn ability into experience. And on and on.

So the goal of becoming a better performer is really fulfilled by developing the ability to dedicate oneself to the right kind of work. A recent article [link updated 2014-08-16] about deliberate practice and chess grandmasters has inescapable relevance to the mental work musicians must master in order to devote themselves to the right kind of work.

Before offering the brief summary and commentary on this article that I sent to my students, I thought it might be instructive to mention two not uncommon approaches to studying the guitar that have resistance to deliberate practice baked within:

Personal Revelation (Solipsistic)

  • A self-centered self cannot become more complex. The result is an inability to grow beyond a certain level. An example of this is the self-taught player who believes that formal instruction might somehow contaminate or inhibit artistry.
  • Characterized by investment in the confirmation of rules the self had made up
  • Occasionally creative

Received Wisdom

  • Often unexamined: investment in orthodox ideas that may never have been true or things that may no longer be true
  • Usually imitative: maestro so-and-so does this, so I will! This is the master class model and is characterized by uncritical acceptance of whatever is offered.
  • Sometimes wise
In my own work as concert guitarist and teacher, I find that the work of critical thinking to discover what is a problem and what is a symptom in order to excavate the real problems to be solved, is the work that leads one to more deliberate and productive practice. I address some of this in my article “The Virtuoso Teacher, but the synopsis below serves as a complement to that discussion.

Deliberate Practice

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours (see his book Outliers), although a necessary condition for becoming excellent at your work, are not sufficient. The way you practice is the lever upon which your artistic world may be moved. Great musicians from all eras have known this intuitively (and some, consciously).

Study the traits below to see how your work may be improved. I’ve added a few comments after each item and the link to the original article is below:
  • It's designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don't do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
Part of this “stretching” is to ensure you’re increasing your accuracy and attention to detail. If you’re going too fast and adding errors to your work, you are not stretching yourself. Here the carpenter’s dictum can apply: “Measure twice, cut once.” Sometimes learning to be more careful in the early stages of study is the “stretching” that needs to be done. And sometimes the “stretching” that needs to be done is to experiment with unconventional phrasing ideas.
  • It's repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
There’s no getting around the fact that deliberate practice must occur every day.
  • Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn't what counts.”
The idea of the musician who practices to fix notes or rhythms that were learned incorrectly is anathema to high-level and rapid development. If practice is devoted to fixing things, as opposed to developing something or expanding the ability to focus, progress will stall at a certain point.
  • It's highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
Those who have developed the ability to visualize that which is to be performed have found that their span of concentration and focus have become deeper and more reliable, i.e., mindful.
  • It's hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
One must continually find ways of approaching the things that are uncomfortable, difficult, or obscure. This means overcoming our investment in confirming the ideas about ourselves that we have made up. Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to this as the “confirmation bias” in his book, The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010. p. 59).
  • It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”
This should be common knowledge to everyone in the guitar program: The goal is not playing J. S. Bach’s Suite, BWV 1006, but the goal should be studying it well. The more distant goal of performing that work will flow effortlessly from having mastered a series of goals that will lead to performance.

You can find the original article here. [link updated 2014-08-16]

Motorcyle Riding and the Art of Lute Playing

Motorcycle Riding and the of Art Lute Playing (part one)

I've long been fascinated with the mechanics of learning—if mechanics is even the right word—and have been a keen observer of what my brain is doing when I'm learning something, at least as keen of an observer as my brain will allow. This interest extends to observing my students: sometimes I see resistance, sometimes arrogance, sometimes confusion, sometimes erroneous default assumptions, but sometimes I see effortless assimilation. Good learners, like Tolstoy's happy families, are alike; inefficient learners are inefficient in their own individual ways.

One of the secrets possessed by good learners—in addition to humility and openness to change—is a willingness to do the right thing consistently, but then to stand back and let brain and body absorb the new skill, information, or concept without the stress that accompanies striving too hard. All too often this over-striving contaminates the ability to sense an easier path. It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that the pedagogy of our teachers, whether these teachers are ourselves or others, must be finely honed and possessed of humility, clarity, and the ability to adapt to the student. I thought of all of this over the weekend as I took a 200-mile motorcycle trip to the North Carolina shore. But before I write about this, a digression into lute playing is in order.

I studied and played the lute almost exclusively from 1995 through 2001. The lute requires a technique that's different from that of the guitar, as well as using different tunings and notation systems. It was fascinating and liberating to be a beginner in many ways while knowing what it felt like to play music on a high level on another instrument.

Lute music is written in tablature. In the example of French tablature below (also called Elizabethan tablature), the six horizontal lines represent the top six courses (pairs of strings played as one) of the lute and the letters indicate upon which fret to place the fingers of the left hand: "a" = open string, "b" first fret, "c" = third fret, and so on. The top line represents the top (highest pitched) string. To non-lutenists this notation looks impossibly inscrutable, but to a lute player it's pretty easy to read. There are numerous facsimiles of early lute publications and manuscripts available and it is from these that I studied the music.

But there's a huge repertoire of music written in Italian tablature, a system that differs from French tablature. In the example below, the six horizontal lines represent the six courses, as in French tablature, but the top line of the tablature represents the bottom (lowest pitched) string of the lute and the numbers represent the frets, which is quite a bit different from the other system.

One summer I set myself the task of learning to read Italian tablature. I knew enough about practice to go slowly and work consistently. I crawled through the music painstakingly slowly as my brain made the necessary adjustments to flip things upside down and read numbers instead of letters. This went on for weeks.

One day a remarkable thing happened: there was a single moment in time when my brain flipped a switch and I acquired the new skill not by degree, but in toto and fully formed: all of my reading skills of standard notation and French tablature were applied to Italian tablature and a vast library of music became available.

What can this possibly have to do with riding a motorcycle?

to be continued…