open letter to my teacher 3: language

Dear Mr. D,

I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but sometimes I laugh at you. It’s not a bad thing! It’s when you non-chalantly toss out phrases like “I would use a locrian scale over that” or “I hear a someone about 20 cents flat….I think it’s you” – I can’t help but chuckle. At those moments I become conscious to the fact that you are speaking a different language. It’s like when language learners realize suddenly that they understood something in a foreign language without registering immediately that is foreign.

Then, in class the other day, whilst all of us were transcribing some chords so that our jazz band could say we all contributed to the arrangement of a particular song, I clicked through some of your other class folders and found some of the AP Theory test recordings. Upon listening to one, I discovered that they sound exactly like the listening portions of language exams: the narrator is slow and somewhat friendly, repeats things twice, and instructs you to report some meaning from what you hear. It became official to me, at that particular moment, that music is indeed a foreign language, and I’ve become an intermediate learner.

Since I love language, feeling as though one of my hobbies could just be a third vocabulary to practice is fascinating. It makes me think, “Hey, with some practice, I could be speaking fluently in no time!” When I give a blah solo, even the jazz greats who live in the area can dig it: because even though I may have “misconjugated” some chords a little here and there, they understood what I was going for. They speak the language.

My time in band class listening to you speak Music can be condensed into one single lesson: It’s a language. One starts learning it by listening to it and studying the vocabulary. Interestingly enough, one could add an extra clause to that sentence: It’s a language, as is everything else.

Most disciplines are meant to communicate in different circumstances. History, with the obstacle of time; sports, with the goal of scoring points and obstacle of physical movement; music, with the circumstance of using only tones and timbres in an organized theory (which I like to think of as “musical grammar”); German, with the circumstance of throaty Rs and seemingly arbitrary grammar… It seems like all these things we humans do started as just a question of “I wonder if we can still communicate with each other if we throw this and that in the way.”

Furthermore, each discipline is practiced virtually the same way: observe those who are already proficient and learn the vocabulary. If the discipline was, say, cooking, I’d say get to know the ingredients and eat a lot of food. If it was drawing, I’d say sketch stuff and look at other artists’ work. If it was film-making, I’d say watch movies and futz around with a camera. Improving takes time, sure, and there is really no end to practice, but there’s a starting point for every discipline and it’s the building blocks and observing other proficients that one learns from.

This idea has spread to how I look at the world and myself. I skip around between hobbies every few years and I used to look down on it as fidgety, indecisive behavior, but now I realize I’ve been learning the building blocks – just enough to understand – and now I can talk to so many people who practice any sort of discipline and know enough to have a decent conversation. I can learn so much more by learning the basics.

I guess even though I was supposed to have been learning about music during your classes, I learned more about life as it is refracted through the lens of music: life is a lot like music. Playing music helps one become better at other things. Let’s all be rock stars and quit our day jobs!!





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