Friday, September 29, 2017

On music, mathematics and teaching.

I'm a perpetual student when it comes to my guitar-playing. I started off learning acoustic guitar, and taught myself a little bass in college. When I was in the college band our music advisor played some classical guitar and that got me hooked.

I've had a number of teachers through grad school and beyond, but I've always plateaued out at a level where I'm competent but no better. At some point I realized that what motivated me to play was the right kinds of music (this I also learnt when watching my children learn an instrument), and that inexorably led me to my new quest: learning flamenco guitar.

Flamenco is a very passionate style of playing - and classical guitar can seem bloodless and sedate in comparison. It also requires many different right hand techniques that are not common in classical guitar problem.

The net result is that I'm back to being a beginning student again - struggling with mechanics, hand position and note playing. It's a lot of frustration with the occasional moment of transcendence. I whine at my teacher in the way students whine at me, and he's sneaky enough that now he just asks me "so what would you tell your own students" and that shuts me up.

Which brings me to the point of this post (what??? posts need a point?). We spent a lesson last week talking about extracting expression and feeling from the instrument. I kept asking him about what tools I could use (beyond the usual tone control by moving up and down the fretboard and using volume) to express more emotion, and what emotion that would be. His response was first to show me this beautiful video of an interviewer "talking" to Paco De Lucia's guitar


and then explain to me that I have to dig deep within myself to find the way I can relate to the music. 

And then it hit me (painfully). Aditya Bhaskara and I are running a theory seminar on reading classic theory papers where (much like my previous seminar) there's a strong emphasis on getting to the core ideas and intuitions that drive a result. I'm constantly exhorting students (even more so than Aditya - I think it's interesting to see how different people absorb messages from a paper) to find the core intuition in the paper and be able to express it in a short "story" almost. 

And that's essentially what my teacher is exhorting me to do. In both cases, the expert is trying to get the student to transcend the purely mechanical aspects of (reading the paper/playing the instrument) and get to the deeper (mathematical/emotional) truth of the (paper/piece). And it's hard precisely because the student in either case is still struggling with the mechanical, and doesn't yet have the facility with the tools to let them fall away. 

Does this mean I'll be a more enlightened teacher? I doubt it :). But I do have a little more sympathy for my students. 


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