Friday, April 23, 2010


As Iris and I were driving into town yesterday, seemingly out of the blue, Iris asked me, "How do you spell absurd?"

I looked at her quizzically and said, "A-B-S-U-R-D."

She responded, "Oh yeah, it's a D at the end. Now that makes sense."

She paused considering this and then commented, "I just noticed that as I think or speak or listen to others speaking I have this little thing going on in my mind that's spelling all the words. I wonder if other people do that?"

I thought about it and then said, "I don't spell words as I think about or hear them, but I definitely do that with music. Whenever I hear music, there's this little background process that's going on translating what I'm hearing into chords and intervals. I wonder if most people do that?"

We both laughed and thought ourselves lucky to have found each other, imagining that not many people on the planet were having the same or similar discussions on their ways to work.

The conversation got me thinking about the little things we can do that can affect how we learn and acquire skills in a big way.

Let's Start at the Very Beginning
When I was at Berklee College of Music, one of the classes was called Ear Training. In Ear Training, you learn how to take what you hear and translate it into something you can see, written music.

Interestingly, a key to ear training is reversing the process, taking what you see and translating it into something you hear. To do this, we use a musical language known as Solfège. If you ever saw The Sound of Music, then you've heard Solfège; it's all that Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do stuff. Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti cover the basic seven notes of the major scale (all the white keys in the key of C.) To handle the accidentals (notes not part of the major key) there are additional Solfège words; between Do and Re, there's Di. Between Re and Mi, there's Mi.

Armed with the vocabulary of Solfège, you can look at any line of music and speak it. You don't even need to hear the pitch of each note, to pronounce it in Solfège. Independently you can learn to associate each of the words in the vocabulary with a pitch. When you combine the two, you can sing anything you see just by reading the notes in Solfège and pronouncing them with the associated pitch. It's pretty cool.

How Cool Exactly?
To be clear, I didn't always think Solfège was cool. As I sat in class at Berklee being told that we were going to learn to use Do-Re-Mi (like those completely not cool kids in The Sound of Music), I just thought about how goofy the process was going to be. Our teacher then further instructed us that we should begin practicing Solfège every possible moment. He gave us little books of music that we could carry everywhere and instructed us to use every free moment to practice Solfège, riding the bus or the subway, sitting at the pizza parlor, waiting for class.

To make matters worse, he instructed us to always conduct as we sang. So, basically, I was supposed to sit on the bus riding up Mass Ave from Boylston Street to Central Square waving my arms in front of me while singing Do-Re-Me. Sheesh... And of course, being beginners we weren't looking at the manuscripts of some great classical pieces; we were looking at the equivalents of Mary Had a Little Lamb and Row, Row, Row Your Boat.

Suspending Disbelief
I've always had strong powers of denial and an uncanny ability to suspend disbelief. It's never been a problem to completely engross myself in movies that involve time travel, alternate dimensions, avatars and the like. So, why should Solfège be any different. Off I went with my little book of songs.

Now, one of the things I noticed about riding an MBTA bus waving your arms in front of you while singing Do-Re-Me to the likes of Mary Had a Little Lamb is that there seems to be a lot more seating room. In fact, not only can you get a seat, but you even have room to set your backpack down next to you.

Another thing I noticed about the experience is that you start doing the reverse of what you're practicing. I would be standing at the checkout line at the Star Market and notice that I'd been translating the Muzak into Do-Re-Me. As I sat talking with friends, I would notice my hand moving ever so slightly up and down, back and forth as I conducted the music that was playing in the coffee shop. The more I practiced reading and singing Solfège, the more I experienced this phenomenon of translating everything I heard into Do-Re-Me.

Fully Integrated
So often, when we undertake new tasks or begin acquiring new skills, we do so in a way that is not integrated with the rest of our lives. We have time for work, time for family, time to eat, time to work out, time to learn, time to read, etc. We can certainly learn this way, but I would argue that it's not any where near as effective as integrating what we're learning into everything we do.

If you've ever watched people who seem to be able eat anything and never gain weight, it's not because they spend an hour a day on the treadmill; it's because they're always active. They might sit at a desk or go to meetings, but they're still in constant (albeit perhaps subtle) motion.

Similarly, I believe learning rates increase exponentially when we integrate our learning into everything we do. If I want to learn to write, then I begin to read everything from the perspective of a writer or editor. If I want to learn math, then rather than thinking about what I'm having for dinner on the way home from work, I start working math problems in my head. They might initially be the mathematical equivalent of Mary Had a Little Lamb, but it still works.

I spoke with someone the other day about music. He declared that he was ready to go for it, that he really wanted to make music a priority and to become a great player. He mentioned that he anticipated it taking years to become proficient, but that he was in for the long haul.

I responded saying that I believed he could do everything he wants to do quickly, in just a few months. The secret is focusing on the most useful exercises and doing them all the time. So, we now have a little bet going, one that he hopes to lose.

What is that you want to learn? How integrated is it in your life? Do you avoid the "silly" or "childish" or "beginner's" exercises? Perhaps it's time to rethink and fully integrate?

Happy Friday!



  1. Bears usually call my thinking "tangential"- maybe that is it - maybe I just don't speak the language of music, anyway here are my thoughts after reading this blog:
    I love the kids in sound of music! and I love putting on my headphones and listen to my ipod - and I might sing out of tune, but whenever I like the song - and especially when I listen to mantras - I will defently sing along.
    I never paid attention to getting more room in the bus, but I guess that I was just like an autistic kid, in my own world, enjoying the music.
    Btw: I'll get more copies of Kristians Cd's tonight... I love these mantras!v=_wT4gnvpVow&feature=related

  2. I was talking with my son, Luke, last night about Do-Re-Me. He mentioned that he's always had a problem focusing on the simple and easy stuff, being more attracted to the complex and difficult stuff.

    We talked about how the "easy" stuff can be the most challenging stuff. It's fun to think about.


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