Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Monday, June 30, 2014

Temp Check 2/13

So, the little tally sheet right there to the right says that I need to write more, right? (Heh, see what I did there?)

This week throws us an interesting juxtaposition. At the end of Week One, I showcased Amanda Palmer's Ukulele Anthem and mentioned how it threw "a great big pile of Chaotic Neutral all over my nice, neat Lawful Good spreadsheet" and the M in WARMER, my ukulele practice. Since then and now, I have read Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age by Gary Marcus, who comes at the topic of making music from a whole different angle than the punk goddess.

Marcus, a professor at NYU, decided at age 38, after a totally nonmusical life, to learn how to play the guitar - and further, to figure out how people learn how to play the guitar. Not a bad little sabbatical project, I'd say. And since he is a cognitive psychologist and hangs around with Steven Pinker and that lot (and I am sure has a squad of grad students digging out his research), the result is a well-connected and well-sourced explanation of how the brain apprehends music, learns tasks, and creates music, bouncing from references to clinical studies old and new to interviews with rock stars, classical musicians, and music teachers.

There's a lot of good stuff in here. Marcus examines evidence on all sides of  the various theories around music: the connection between language and music, the correlation between age and learning, the nature of talent. He summarizes and synthesizes the information clearly and concisely, and clearly identifies his own conclusions based on his analysis of the ongoing conversation; I would love to take a class from him and could easily use some chapters of the book in English 102 as an example of how to write from sources.

Unfortunately, the dust cover promise - "Marcus translates his own experience into practical advice" - is the weakest part of the book. While his explanation of the science behind his learning is crystal clear, his personal journey lacks detail and specificity. Although it started out strong with particulars about his process and advancement, it quickly lost that focus and became like one of those parody "How to Draw A..." strips, that start with a lot of basics but then skip the important middle bits. I got a real good sense of Marcus as a neophyte, but he wasn't onstage much as learner, so it is a bit of a surprise at the end when he plays in front of 200 people: some sense of his journey gets lost along with way.

In any case, the contrast between Marcus and Palmer couldn't be greater. From the get-go, Marcus approached both his book and his learning to play as scientific experiments, and his conclusions revolve around practice (not the Gladwell 10,000 hours schtick, but practice specifically focused on improving weaknesses). Palmer, of course, exhorts us "do not practice daily" and just wants people to jump into the visceral joy of making art and somehow it will all work out.

Maybe the first song I should learn chords for is Stuck in the Middle...

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