23 January 2013

The library in your brain

Piano teacher: "Could you play from measure 25, please?"
Student: "I can't start there."
Piano teacher: "Try from measure 17 then."
Student: "I can't start there, either. But I can start at the beginning!"

If I had an Euro for each time I've seen the above scenario, I'd have enough money to buy a Steinway grand piano. It seems our brains like single entities, patterns and succession. You may have experienced the same issue with the alphabet: If you start with a, you can go really fast, but if you start with a randomly picked letter, it takes a little bit of time for you to gain full speed. The way we've learnt it, the alphabet isn't 26 small items, it's one thing.

The brain also likes repetition of portions - at least for a while, until it gets bored. Back in ye olden days, we used to buy LPs and CDs, one at a time. This was a nice portion of information - it kept us interested until we knew every song by heart. I've also wondered if we learnt the songs quicker because they appeared in a set order on the record, but this is just an unscientific assumption. I never use the shuffle function in iTunes, though. I've always thought "there are too many tangos, if I don't play them in the same order, there's no way I'll remember any of them".

And I still have trouble remembering this music. A tango may sound fine in my head, but when I try to sing it, I realise that I don't really know it properly. I've even found myself singing the A section of one Canaro tango, then switching seamlessly to the B section of another. The way I'm listening to tango isn't optimal for learning. And when we go out to dance, the music is constantly on shuffle.

I guess the orchestras that played at the milongas in Buenos Aires didn't play their tangos in the same order every night. But they did get to play for more than one tanda at a milonga, which allowed the dancers to get familiar with each orchestra's style. Everybody would know how D'Arienzo anno 1938 sounded like, simply because D'Arienzo was playing live throughout 1938.

I'm willing to bet that most dancers knew each tango a lot better than we do. This music was pop music! It was played on the radio, and people bought the records and played them on their gramophones at home. And I'm sure the hits were played often, by popular demand - so it would have been easy to learn each new song. Many tangos were even transcribed into easy piano versions, and people bought the sheet music and played their favourites themselves, at home and for friends and family.

So there's a huge difference between the learning climate in Buenos Aires during the Golden Age and the learning climate outside Buenos Aires in 2013. The budding tango music lover of today needs to find her own way of learning about this music.

To make our brains work with us, it might be an idea to listen to our tango music in realistic portions. Listen to CDs that have an orchestra and year on the cover. Sort your music by orchestra/year/vocalist. Make smaller playlists. Use the shuffle function with care.

Make a library system in your brain, not just in iTunes.

Mentors would also be good. This will be for another blog post though: I'm splitting this topic up because many brains - my own included - don't like long blog posts.

Which, come to think of it, sort of proves my point…