Saturday, June 23, 2007

Reexamining Assumptions

I play several instruments of the stringed, fretted variety. Last fall I decided to set the predominant one aside for a while to concentrate on mandolin, with a couple of goals in mind:

* Improve my technique and repertoire
* Relearn how to read music
* Solidify my grasp of music theory

While you'll find few arguments against tablature when it comes to the banjo, plenty of mandolin players sniff disapprovingly if someone should come around looking for a tab arrangement of a tune.

I think part of it is the mandolin's classical heritage, and there's also the fact that it shares the same approximate scale length and tuning as a violin (GDAE), and therefore being able to read standard musical notation opens up a whole world of music which will work on your instrument more or less the same it does on its bowed cousin. There's a great deal to be said for this, of course, and if you can read standard notation and map it mentally to your instrument then you needn't limit yourself to violin music, either.

After seven months (some of it admittedly on-again, off-again) I would say that I've gotten somewhat better at reading music, but nowhere near the place where I can sit down with a new piece of sheet music and pluck a tune out on the first try. I find that it's hard to learn a tune when reading it from standard notation if most of your energy goes to decoding the written information as opposed to figuring out how to play it smoothly.

I've been adrift, really; it's hard to learn an instrument on your own, when you don't know what goals to set and have no external pressure to meet them. Realizing this, I recently began taking some mandolin lessons. At my last lesson my teacher showed me how to play an old-time fiddle tune called Salt Creek. (A quick aside: I just came across that clip by doing a quick search for 'Salt Creek' on YouTube. It's an example of the sort of virtuosity that makes me want to put my instruments in the closet and just give up. Those are two super-talented kids.) No tab was involved in the knowledge transfer: My teacher played a couple of bars at time, and I followed along, repeating each phrase until I could string them together. In the course of about 20 minutes, I was able to play the tune haltingly from start to finish solely by example.

It helped that I was somewhat familiar with the tune already, but I think what proved an even bigger help was the emphasis on picking the tune off of the fretboard, as opposed to picking it off of a staff of notes. Upon reflection, tablature is much closer to that experience of learning by example. Tonight I went looking for some mandolin tabs online, and started fiddling around with Rickett's Hornpipe... there is no doubt that, for me, it is much, much easier to learn a tune from tab, and it has caused me to reevaluate what I've been doing with regards to learning music from standard notation.

There is still a lot of value to being able to read sheet music and apply it to any given instrument, but for learning basic fiddle tunes and developing a repertoire it seems like an unnecessary obstacle. In terms of learning the mandolin fretboard and general music theory, that also is less about reading notation than it is about applying general knowledge to a specific instrument.

So, to heck with laboriously decoding notes off of the staff and putting them onto the fretboard, even if it's the "right" way to do it. I may try a dual-pronged approach where I learn a tune from tab, then use notation to reinforce it, and I will try to make myself continue to work from standard notation (maybe one tune out of every 5 or 10), but my course seems clearer now than it has in some time.

What does this have to do with Freemasonry? I would hold it up as an example of the sort of constant self-evaluation that I understand to be central to the Craft. I'm still excited to think that there's a whole group of people who think critically about things a little bit deeper than who to vote for on American Idol.

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