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…