Achieving fluency

Helen Keller, in her autobiography The Story of My Life, wrote of having a conversation by means of fingerspelling.

Just here, perhaps, I had better explain our use of the manual alphabet, which seems to puzzle people who do not know us. One who reads or talks to me spells with his hand, using the single-hand manual alphabet generally employed by the deaf. I place my hand on the hand of the speaker so lightly as not to impede its movements. The position of the hand is as easy to feel as it is to see. I do not feel each letter any more than you see each letter separately when you read. Constant practice makes the fingers very flexible, and some of my friends spell rapidly--about as fast as an expert writes on a typewriter. The mere spelling is, of course, no more a conscious act than it is in writing.

Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan using the manual alphabet, July 1888.In other words, the listener does not take note of each of the letters in turn and then mentally construct the word once it is complete, nor does she wait to determine the intent of the speaker until all of the words are collected. This is also how those of us who can hear and see learn to speak and read. Our brains are not processing the words and letters in turn, even if they are given to us one at a time. The process happens organically, smoothly, automatically.

Too often, would-be musicians do no more than decode symbols and call this "reading music." But decoding is not reading, and decoding does not create music.

You can spend an afternoon pitting Sartre against a robust French dictionary, looking up each word in turn, but you will not learn anything about existentialism. Language is more than the sum of its parts, and so it is with music.

To read, you have to understand enough of the language to create a context - you can't rely on letters, notes, symbols, or words, but ideas.

Beginners (and toddlers) start with concrete, visible concepts, and build from there. Whenever a more abstract concept is introduced (say, color), it's still tied to something that can be seen ("a blue chair"). Then we learn concepts that can't be seen but are felt in a concrete way (sad, mad, glad). In time, we can think on a higher level because we have both words to express our thoughts and enough context to think forward and backward from there.

When I was a kid, I used to wonder how Helen Keller managed to figure out such things as articles, pronouns, idioms, adverbs, and so on. She did the same way we all do - starting with "water" and "tree", moving to "walk" and "eat," "happy" and "love." Eventually, through listening, reading, writing, and thinking, "justice" and "advocacy."

Too cool to start with "See Spot Run"? It worked for Mozart. This was written for him by his dad.Musicians seeking to achieve fluency (playing, not just reading) might start to think in terms of musical ideas rather than just individual notes and symbols: chords, chord progressions, phrases, sequences, motifs, form, etc. This is achieved by listening, studying, reading, and playing.

While it's definitely beneficial to be exposed to all kinds of sophisticated music, don't expect to be able to play anything you don't understand. The lack of understanding can be technical, emotional, or intellectual. French first-graders are perfectly fluent in their native tongue, but they're not reading Sartre.

Last night I found myself playing a song by singer/songwriter Jesse Harris that I had never tried before. I was amazed as the sophisticated chord progression took shape under my fingers with a minimum of conscious thought - I was observing what I was doing rather than thinking about it. I know that if I had the printed score in front of me, it would have been no different - there was no distinction between playing by ear or reading music, because the ideas were equally accessible either way. I am better at this than I was six months ago, and six years ago I coudn't do it at all.

Where will you be six years from now? If musical fluency is your goal, it will happen faster than you think if you stop decoding and start listening.