Comprehensible Bluegrass Input

I’m at bluegrass camp with a hundred pickers and a few grinners. I’ve been studying mandolin with prodigy Tristan Scroggins, who at age 20– with no formal musical training– holds up one-quarter of Jeff Scroggins and Denver Colorado, the outfit his ass-kicking banjo player Dad tours around the world.  What I’m really studying of course is how this kid got to be so freaking good so young, and how people learn bluegrass.

It turns out that young Tristan has gotten to where he is not as you might imagine by obsessively playing chord sets, runs and scales in his room for hours, but by listening.

Scroggins was taken by Dad to festivals starting at age four, where he ripped around underfoot with other kids, soaking up indeterminate thirds and mixolydian scales by osmosis, and when lost his Dad’s distinctive picking was his homing beacon.  At home Dad practised and loads of musicians were always passing through.

Scroggins started banjo at age 12 but didn’t feel good at it, so he switched to mandolin.  In school he’d load his iPod up with tunes, sneak-wire his earbuds in under his long hair, and spend class time listening to music while working on math problems.  Scroggins liked bluegrass, buty also grokked on Broadway show tunes, an influence that still shows up in his soloing and writing.

Like any good American suburban teen, young Tristan wanted and sought adventure, which he found in video games, whose soundtrack for him was more bluegrass.

“So every now and again I’d hear Chris Thile or somebody do something weird.  I’d stop it, put it into the slow-downer, and listen to it at like 30, then 35 etc till I got it.” The slow-downer is software that slows music down (without lowering the pitch) so you can clearly hear what the musician is doing. The numbers refer to beats per minute.  For a rough idea of musical speed, AC/DC’s stomper “Back In Black” is at 96 bpm.   “When I could hear it clearly then I would practice it a bit till I could play it,” he says.  Teachers– sound familiar?

At festivals, Tristan did what we do: sitting around evenings with random circles, chopping along and taking breaks (solos). In bluegrass, unlike Irish music or old-time, mostly you don’t do much. You play along with the guitar player on the off-beat while singing is happening or others solo.  In older country– e.g. Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”– the boom-CHUCK pattern of bass and snare drum is like bluegrass, where mando, banjo and fiddle “chop” by playing where the snare drum’s off-beat would be (there are no drums in bluegrass). The guitar and bass make the “boom” and the mando and fiddle make the “chuck.”

What’s cool here is that most of what happens in bluegrass circles is not playing but listening.  You chop along (or sing and strum if you’re leading the jam) but mostly you listen until you take a break (play a solo).  And it is during this listening that two things happen.

The first is that you hear what other soloists are doing.  Because during soloing everybody else plays simplified and quieter patterns (strum and chop), the solos stand out. You can see what fits, what doesn’t, where errors go, and the literally bazillion other things– e.g. dynamics– going on in music.  You are in a kind of rhythmic trance– Suggestopaedic– where enough of the conscious mind is locked onto simple chording that the other stuff can soak in.  (It is not an accident that whiskey and weed are drugs of choice for many bluegrass musicians.)

Scroggins said that the biggest benefit to jamming circles is not the chance to play but to listen and to see how to fit in.

The second thing going on in circles is input via songs and tunes (music without words), as opposed to instructor talk or practice.  Songs and tunes are to music what stories are to language acquisition: patterned, meaningful mental platforms which are both the means and end of music.  If a song is good and well-played, it will smuggle all of those musical skills into a student’s head without the student having to do much thinking about music itself.

One commentator on the Yahoo Moretprs list made a comment to this effect: “a friend who teaches music said that when people tell him I want to learn guitar, what they *really* mean is, they want to be able to play their favorite songs.  So I teach them the songs and that’s how they learn music.”  So it is in bluegrass (or Irish trad, or old-time, or learning a language). We learn music from tunes, not tunes from music instruction.

Now obviously nobody wants to learn grammar etc for its own sake, and the points of language are self-articulation and communication, but there is a point here. Music acquisition– like language– happens as a byproduct of listening immersion in something interesting and comprehensible.

In an immersion-type environment, a language teacher’s job (as Judy DuBois has noted) is basically to clarify the loads of input they get every day.  This is like Scroggins using the slow-downer software.  Or Scroggins as a teacher, slowing down solos for us to try to copy or elaborate on.

In a regular class environment, the teacher’s job is going to be to deliver stories– the “song” and “tune” of language– while making sure things are comprehensible (by clearing up misconceptions and by going slowly).

I’m also watching people learn tunes here.

To acquire: listen a ton.  No, like really listen:  don’t do anything except listen to the tune.

To learn: video everything, take notes, write music down, and immediately try to play along with the instructor.  One problem: all that playing and recording means that there’s precious little listening– the sine qua non of acquiring tunes– going on in the classes.  I’ve gradually ditched everything except listening.  I’ve found that while I feel slower initially (I sit there while everyone else is playing along), I pick things up fine eventually and I can skip the fiddling with paper and devices.

One of the most irritating new trends in music learning circles is the live-searchable electronic database (e.g. Tunepal for Irish trad). You press record when somebody starts playing the tune, it “listens,” finds the tune online, and gives you sheet music on your device.  The people who have these on their phones will within 30 seconds of hearing a new tune be “playing” along.  Of course, when you do this, you aren’t really listening to the music.  You are participating, sure– it’s amazing how many people at bluegrass fests just want to be in the group, holding an instrument– but what you really need is to have the tune in your head. As old-time mandolin master Thomas Sneed says, “once you can hum or whistle it, you’re ready to make your fingers play it.”  All these devices and notes are busywork rather than the focused listening that the form demands.

I was reminded of Nicole Naditz’s activities for her French class.  Naditz– who is well worth following on Twitter @NicoleNaditz– is an A.C.T.F.L. Teacher of the Year and in terms of practice is mostly in the legacy methods camp (forced early output, etc although she has read Krashen etc and gets that, ideally, one should allow for the silent period, etc).  Naditz says that because of her school’s demands, she must make the kids talk almost immediately (even with true beginners).  So she has communicative pair activities, dialogue assignments and other staples of the “communicative” classroom going on (as do many of our colleagues).  I don’t agree– you can build perfect oral fluency without traditional practice, as the research shows– and my feeling is reinforced here.  Making people do stuff, rather than just having them soak things up, in some ways feels good (for the teacher– “Look!  They are practicing solos/French/whatever!”) and may even feel good to some participants, but isn’t necessary.

Output before listening is the same in language and music: in my view (and according to research) not the best practice.  You need a mental model in your head first.  For a tune, that means being able to first hum its “skeleton” (most basic) version.  In language, that means having what Bill VanPatten calls basic “mental representation” of language, or a kind of gut-level awareness of both what sounds right and meaning.  People who want to play a tune they can’t hum– and fake it by reading sheet music– or teachers who want to make students talk before talk emerges organically, are wasting time.

Last year, my best actor, Mo– whose Spanish handle was “El Chapo Guzman” (the legendary Sinaloense drug lord)– was my main male lead in every story.  He said to me at the end of the year “Mr Stolz, it’s hard for me to speak, because I spent all that time acting and speaking.”  This kid was amazingly fast and fluent, with a killer memory, and he himself noted that speaking is a bad way to learn to speak.  Go figure.

Anyway.  Input, as always, trumps all.  “Practice”– on the fiddle, or with another language– must first be a lot of listening, and only later playing or talking.  And we don’t want to learn “music” or “language”: we want to learn songs and stories.

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