I was at Steve and Kim’s last Saturday, and when their kids’ bedtime came, Uncle Stolzie got the chance to read to Jasper, 4, from his new book, while the parents put Calder (20 months) to bed.
So we snuggled up on the couch and I started reading the book. I’m a pretty good reader: I can do different voices and accents, and I’m verbally quick. I would read a paragraph or two, and Jasper would ask questions about the pictures. He liked the reading. After about twenty minutes, Jasper was sleepyheaded and off to bed.
And then I realised that I had no idea what I’d just read. I was so focused on the reading, voices, dialogue, going slow, etc, that the story itself eluded me. I know there was a squirrel and a toad, and that was about it.
So it made me think about language performance. If we make kids read aloud, how much do they actually understand? Can you speak a foreign language– in my case, a totally new book– and know what you are saying? Can you read and speak well, and sound good, and not know what you’re doing? Does output help us learn things? When we “get through” a performance, have we experienced something like what a reader or viewer has?
I’ve been playing Irish music for ten years now. So how do you learn? Well, primarily you listen. Irish music is played in sets. A reel will have an A part (played twice) and a B part (ditto). The whole thing is played three times, then you jump directly into the next tune, then another, etc. The music repeats a fair bit, so you have many chances to pick it up.
When I go to sessions or festivals, I see people hear a tune (from teacher or session group), use Tunepal or Shazam to identify it, then look up the sheet music, and then start playing along. I wonder why. Until you know the tune– i.e. you can hum or whistle it– there is very little point in playing. And the only way you can really learn a tune is by listening. Yes, you have to practice, because making music with mouth and fingers, unlike speech, is not something the brain is prewired to do.
Learning tunes by playing is like learning a language by talking: sure, you’ll pick something up. But it will be slow, and you’ll be so busy working on sounds and notes that you won’t really process what you’re hearing.