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…

Crises of the Humanities Officially Arrives

Stanley Fish’s post on the New York Times’ Opinionator blog yesterday documents the inexorable decline of the humanities in higher education and the evolution of administrators who themselves are indifferent to higher learning. (The State University of New York at Albany announced that they were eliminating their French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater programs.)

Imagination without taste

Nothing is more fearful than imagination without taste.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Indifferent to higher learning

Sometimes when I’m reading or going over notes I’ve made I encounter ideas that complement one other. This happened over the weekend as I was dipping into Michel de Montaigne’s (1533-1592) Essays, Jacques Barzun’s The Culture We Deserve: A Critque of Disenlightenment (1989), and Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1991).

The essayist Michel de Montaigne said it simply: “It is not enough for our education not to spoil us; it must change us for the better.”

Jacques Barzun, who was born in 1907 and is living still, has had an unusually long career in higher education and possesses an unmatched perspective on the changes in higher education, their origins, and their implications. After decrying the loss of any institutional memory of the need for a rigorous and sustained humanistic education—but not without explaining what lay behind this amnesia—Barzun looks at a talk given by Woodrow Wilson in 1910 to the Association of American Universities on “The Importance of the Arts Course as Distinct from the Professional and Semi-professional Courses.” Wilson had been president of Princeton University from 1902-1910 and saw the self-interest of specialized training crowding out the values created by a solid foundation in the humanities. This, he thought, was “the intellectual as well as the economic danger of our times.” “An intellectual danger,” Barzun writes, “because the merely trained individual is a tool and not a mind; an economic danger, because society needs minds and not merely tools.” Wilson feared that specialization would so immerse a man in the narrowness of his one special interest that he would eventually become unable to understand his country and the age in which he lived.

Christopher Lasch, writing eighty-one years after Wilson’s speech, thought that “[t]he bureaucratization of the business career… made the acquisition of educational credentials essential to a business or professional career and thus created in large numbers a new kind of student, utterly indifferent to higher learning but forced to undergo it for purely economic reasons.” Wilson’s fear that people might become unable to understand their societies over time was rendered both fulfilled and quaint by a new reality: many in college were simply resistant from the start of their academic careers to learning anything that they couldn’t see to be of immediate financial benefit.

Perhaps I should repeat Montaigne's warning: “It is not enough for our education not to spoil us; it must change us for the better.”