Learning with notation

Learning to play Zimbabwean marimba and then mbira was a profound experience for me. It was the first time I consciously took on learning something so complex without a visual symbology. Soon after joining Sheree Seretse’s class at Seattle’s Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center, where we learned by listening and watching, I came to her with printouts of a tablature I’d created for the song we were learning. Instead of praising my effort, she looked me sternly in the eye and told me never to do that again. Thank you, Sheree! for this lesson and so many others.

It soon became clear to me that by listening and watching someone play I was able to learn much faster, get the music more deeply, and remember it more solidly than I had thought I was capable of. In early learning a written notation can be a barrier to letting the “flesh” learn. Musical notation, an abstraction taken in visually and interpreted cerebrally, attempts to funnel a large complex body of information through a thin pipe. What a revelation to find that I could pick up more and more complicated parts really quickly just from being in the room where they were being played!

This was a sea change for me, although it shouldn’t have been – most of things we learn early and then throughout our lives are necessarily learned without notation – talking, singing, standing, walking, running, dancing, riding a bike, driving. We learn best by doing, when we’re using the full intelligence of our whole bodies and not just a part of our brains. The success of the Suzuki method for learning violin and the vast oceans of music transmitted from grandparent to parent to child throughout the world support this idea.

Once we gain physical, emotional, and intellectual proficiency, notation can be an effective means of communicating across space and time, for example the only option for people who are geographically isolated or learning something transcribed long ago. Once in a while I’ll pick out a song on an instrument from notation when I don’t have someone to show me and when I can’t figure it out from listening to recordings alone. These days video lessons might come closest of all recordings to the real thing (in-person learning) but of course one of the first things you learn to do when learning a new mbira-based song is how to play it with the other complementary parts, and that give-and-take of playing in duet and ensemble is nowhere as rich if your playing partner is an unhearing video.