Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The myth of talent

While I diligently practiced the piano growing up years ago, my neighbor down the street easily played a collection of tunes by ear. His style rarely varied, only to accommodate a change in rhythm. Mostly, he vamped away and picked out whatever melody he was looking for. He was in high school. I was in grade school. I thought that he was talented. I tried in vain to accomplish something like it on my piano. But, alas, all I could do was sight read my classical assignments after practicing them slowly at first. I always assumed that I was not as talented as him. According to my upbringing, God had blessed Billy more than me.

Some 30 years later, while trying to keep up with jammers on 'Johnny, Johnny Don't Get Drunk' on the fiddle, the notes came out as if I was channeling someone who actually knew the tune. I had a Portland Collection with me, but rather than wasting time finding the right page, I jumped into the tune without actually knowing it 'by heart'. Occasionally after that, I experienced being able to play a tune that I'd listened to a lot, but had never actually played. Another 'Eureka!' moment. As I gained confidence, those sorts of wonderful moments happened more and more.

My point? I can't say this enough: you learn to talk by talking, not because you're a genius at talking. You don't learn by watching other people who you think are more talented than you. If you'd like to continue to use the excuse that you're not talented, you'll only be delaying the wonderful experience of playing a tune that you hardly know for the first time, and playing it decently enough to enjoy.

Notice, I did not say play it perfectly. More on that next time.


Gabe McCaslin said...

I know what you mean, but I basically try to avoid "jumping into a tune without actually knowing it by heart." It's great when it works, but you can also be left hanging, not knowing where you are. Or you wind up getting the tune mixed up with another and possibly learning the current tune wrong.

But it is addictive when you seem to be channeling a tune effortlessly! That means your musical ear has been up to something.

I like your blog. If you like, check mine out at Music in Munich


Ter said...

Thanks for the link, Gabe.

I'm knocking around some thoughts about 'playing the tune wrong', along with my 'slave to perfection' ideas. Just need to find some time to put it into more words.

Stay tuned.

Fiddling Granny said...

What a great post ...

Ter said...

Glad to hear that you liked it. :-)

Still working on the 'slave to perfection' idea.

bltbanjo said...

Yeah... picking up tunes on the fly in jams... It's taken me a long time to feel like I have some sort of handle on it. What I find to be a good strategy is to listen at least once or (better) twice through the tune (maybe humming quietly to myself), then find the last note of each part quietly on my fiddle (this will almost always tell you the key in case no one has bothered to tell you or you don't "read" guitar chords). Then I try to find the last note of each phrase.

Geekly interlude: In a sense this is learning the tune backward, but these tunes (and for that matter all western music until you get into the atonal stuff) are going somewhere, they want to land on certain notes. The basic chord progression in western music is I-V-I (ex. A-E-A) or for modal tunes I-VII-I (ex. A-G-A) which you don't have to worry about unless you want to. But basically most (say, A) tunes will start out on an A note (or some other note in the A chord) and go diddle diddle diddle diddle diddle doo___, the "doo" being the note the melodic phrase lands on (okay, there'd be more diddles in a full four bar phrase, but you get the idea). (The note it lands on will be in either the IV chord (D in A) or the V chord (E in A), except if it's modal).

So if you have the starting note and the ending note of a phrase then all you have to do is catch the middle notes and really it's not so important to get them exactly right as long as you end up on the right note. I just keep trying to hit more and more of the important notes until (on a good day with a tail wind) I have the whole tune. Sometimes after the tune ends, if there was a part you just couldn't get, you can ask the person who lead the tune how it goes, but sometimes that doesn't feel right and I just figger I'll find a recording (yeah, I'm that person who is always asking, "What tune is that?" and writing it down).

So, that's my 2 cents. And I agree with you Ter - the only way to do it is to do it. The idea of "talent" mostly just seems to keep us from jumping in and doing what we can do and having fun with it. If we let it.

Your Clifftop Neighbor

Ter said...

clifftop neighbor... send me a real email address, eh? fiddlejammer at mac dot com