Getting Past the Bits
It’s only when I listen to my youngest son that I realize how ridiculously hard it is to learn to read. He has to work out the sounds of each letter, then string them together. If he’s lucky, the result will sound like a word he knows.
The word “choose” isn’t going to sound like anything unless I explain to him that “ch” makes a special sound that is neither “c” nor “h”, that two “o’s” make “oo”, that the “s” sounds like a”z” and the “e” is silent. Four rules for just one word…how is he supposed to remember all that? And why do some rules change, like “oe” which sounds different if the word is “shoes,” “does” or “moe’s” (and “does” could be one of two words)?
Our mind’s condensing power and pattern recognition eventually saves us a lot of time and trouble, and it works as long as things are generally arranged in a recognizable order. It’s our recognition of word-shapes, and beyond that, the dance we do with expected cadences of phrases, sentences and even paragraphs, that allow us to read at a pace that brings the meaning of language alive.
Music is similar in this way. The two separate but related tasks of playing an instrument and reading music from a sheet are both bedeviled with problems for the beginner. The separate, innumerable steps to comprehension or performance can slow someone so badly as to completely shut them down.
Music must, after all, be perceived as a seamless whole. It can be very difficult for the beginner, who is just as often an adult, to get past the “bits of information” stage. I like to try to get my students into some kind of flow, even a basic one, as early as possible.
When I was young I constantly dwelled at the level of bits of information. The catch-22 was that I had to experience flow in order to improve, and I couldn’t experience it because I hadn’t improved enough. This kept me from reaching my potential in nearly every subject, and it’s a wonder that I managed to succeed in anything (see my previous blog about how I can’t give up!)
I did have flow in some places like free improvisation, but the kick was that because I’d never had to work to get it there, I didn’t have a path to follow. For this reason, flow in certain areas such as bebop jazz still evades me, although I am getting closer. Ironically, it was being in situations where I was forced to transition from bits to flow, such as teaching school and learning to chant Torah, that finally began clueing me in on the mindset, the process, and the results of doing the work necessary to go from bit to flow.
I have been learning patience, of course. I also am learning to set goals and be honest about my progress as I move towards them. Most importantly, I continue to learn to tolerate the frustration of the process, rather than attempt to spirit it away by pretending I’m already “there.”
The things I’ve discovered and continue to learn, however painful they may be, make me a better teacher. I see these issues in my students them all the time, and I’m glad to be able to help them through a process I resisted despite so much good advice along the way. Can you tell me in my comments about whether you’ve dealt with this as well, and how you’ve managed it?