A Familiar Refrain from Research with the Learning Disabled

by Joyce Morton

Keynotes, June 1997

I recently read of research with the learning disabled that I thought has applicability to musicians. While I'm not suggesting that we are learning disabled, I'm sure there are times when each of us must have felt so as we tried to perform some musical task such as at a piano playing eighth-note triplets with the right hand and eighth-note duplets with the left while depressing the pedal on the first and third quarter notes of the measure and releasing the pedal on the second and fourth.

When I told my teacher about this research and my thoughts about its applicability, he suggested that I write this article. You can't imagine how thrilled he must have been at having such an opportunity. Having me write about this is akin to having an acrophobic write about the joys of skydiving. (I guess some days just bring unforeseen gems!)

O.K., first of all for the research findings. Although results are mixed, some speech pathologists have reported "remarkable success" in treating children with language impairments by using computer games that "train" the brain to correctly process auditory information. The experimental psychologist who conducted the original research leading to the development of the computer games believes that children who have trouble comprehending what is said to them have trouble distinguishing between the very short sounds of regular speech, sounds such as "ba" or "da." The games slow sounds so that students can understand them, and then gradually increase the speed of the sounds as the students are ready.

One neuroscientist familiar with the therapy has said that the computer serves as "eyeglasses for the ears," bringing into focus sounds that were once poorly processed by the brain. Once trained, students are much better able to process the sounds of normal speech.

You're probably ahead of me by now as you realize before I state it how this applies to our practice. No doubt, you have heard many times, as I have, "You can't play what you can't hear."

Slowly, stubbornly, over years of recent study, I have discovered the truth of this advice. You really do need slow practice, especially with unfamiliar or fast passages, to hear the pattern of sound in a way you cannot hear it when it is played fast.

Of course, the slow practice trains the muscles in the fingers and arms, but I am now convinced that there is something that also happens in the brain that cannot occur without it. My supposition is that slow practice clearly delineates the pattern of sound in our minds and that after that pattern is clearly laid down, then the tempo can be adjusted up or down at will.

Without the slow practice, the pattern is often too fuzzy, too amorphous to allow us to exert an equal level of mastery. Slow practice also allows us to hear all the "voices," or lines of melody, some of which you might otherwise miss hearing and, thus, miss conveying.

If you're not well acquainted with this technique, try it on a tricky passage that has been heretofore unyielding or unsatisfying. You may be surprised at the results! By the way, this could also be a good time for some metronome work.

Gosh, am I ever entrenched now! I have the feeling I won't be allowed to forget this.

Copyright 1997 Joyce Morton


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