Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Say, Moose and Squirrel


As a kid, my dad didn't like for me watch television, specially cartoons. There was one exception: The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. More than not minding my watching the show, my dad insisted that I watch the show. He watched with me.

This was back in 1964. I was seven. The show ran in black & white (at least on our TV). The cartoons weren't particularly well done. Nonetheless, the characters and writing were great. The show clipped along at a fast-pace. There were layers of meaning embedded in the stories and dialogs. This made it possible for the show to appeal to both me and my dad.

Although the heros of the show were Rocky the flying squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose, my favorite characters were Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, two eastern-block spies who were always out to get Rocky and Bullwinkle. They spoke with Russian-like accents and often dropped the definite article when speaking about something, e.g., Boris might say something like, "Vee must stop Mooce und Skveral."

I loved it when Boris said, "moose and squirrel". The actor performing Boris' voice would make each word something to savor. 

Others have apparently enjoyed Boris' rendering of this phrase as well. Over the years, on various occasions I've heard someone ask someone with a Russian accent, someone whom they've just met, "Say, moose and squirrel, just once."

Of course the intent of the request would be completely lost on the person being asked. 

"Why do you want me to say, moose and squirrel?"

"Oh, that was great! Can you say it again? Just one more time, please."

"Hmm... moose and squirrel."

One person is delighted, the other mystified. The first could explain to the second, but it wouldn't really help all that much. The facts would be there, but not the intuition. In many instances, even if the person whose native language is Russian were to understand the point, he might not actually hear the difference in his pronunciation and that of someone whose native language was english.

Knowing it's there, but not actually hearing (or seeing) it is a tricky challenge to overcome. How do explain something to someone who can already explain it to you, but who still doesn't quite get it? How do you even get them to see that they don't get it?

Let's call this the Moose & Squirrel Phenomenon or MSP. It's challenging and it's pervasive.

During rehearsal the other day, we began working on a basic funk beat. The beat was tricky because the bass drum (played with the foot) has an off-beat sixteenth-note pattern that doesn't coincide with anything being played by the hands. In most patterns, the bass drum (or kick) is played less frequently than cymbals and other drums. Drummers become quite comfortable with this. The introduction of a pattern where the kick plays more notes than the hands throws off drummers who've never done it.

So we spent time getting down the basics. The kick plays: ONE-e-and-uh, two-e-AND-UH, three-e-and-uh, four-e-and-uh. The snare plays: one-TWO-three-FOUR. The high-hat plays: ONE-and, TWO-and, THREE-and, FOUR-and.

The bass guitar locks in with the kick. The electric guitar ties into the high-hat. We start to get down the basic beat. Everyone can explain what we're doing. Yet, we're still not grooving. We've encountered MSP.

We stop to discuss it. As we do, I realize that there are four categories of MSP. There are 1) those  who don't hear that we're not grooving, 2) those who hear that we're not grooving, but can't identify why, 3) those who hear it, can identify why, but can't explain it, and 4) those who hear it, can identify it and can explain how to correct it. 

As we talk, I contrast in my mind how we were playing with what I hear internally. The contrast tells me what's missing. First there's the problem of misplaced accents. The sixteenth pattern requires emphasis on the first of the two notes, not the second. Second, neither the guitar nor the high hat is consistently hitting the eighth notes; this leaves dead space that causes the groove to stall.

I think of little techniques to convey how to play what I hear, techniques that are independent of what we're doing, but can be used within what we're doing.  We try them out and slowly, we start to groove.

Well, one case of MSP overcome.

Of course, MSP isn't limited to sonic phenomena. There are people in every discipline who can explain something without having an intuition for it. MSP is everywhere. The trick is seeing it, identifying the root cause, and figuring out a way to explain it.

Where do you experience MSP?

Happy Tuesday,

Teflon

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