Written Rhythm: Notation

Loosely raise your left hand. I am writing from the crook of wrinkled skin between your thumb and index finger of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, the land of my great and grand parents, bearing the rolling hills to which my great-greats immigrated from Scotland some 200 years back. My grandmother grew up in a big family squeezed into a little house, but now it stands empty but for the yearly occupation by my foursome family when we trek “down” from Boston to the old wooden farm house that has become our beloved teacher-summer home.

It’s from this island, and from the preceding Gallic island of my great-great-grandparents, that my feet spring. The Gaelic College, a Scottish arts summer school, lies a dozen kilometers down the road. After a few summers of enrollment in a once-a-day Highland dance class, one young year my parents kindly yielded to my request to find a teacher back home in Boston. Laura Scott–a teacher and performer of integrity, curiosity, and expertise–and I happened to be in the same place at the same time. I arrived in Cape Breton this week directly from teaching at Laura’s own summer Scottish camp in Maine, 24 years after our first encounter.

Laura’s family of five are all musicians, dancers, and Ivy-league graduates; and all brilliant, kind, creative humans. While I was teaching with them last week I started considering the role of notation in a much more complex light.

Laura tells me how when her daughter Lilly was taking piano, Lilly’s teacher instructed her parents never to play a certain Brahms piece at home–recorded or live–that Lilly was learning. The teacher maintained that if Lilly were to hear it played, it would ruin her own understanding of the piece. Laura and Ed, musicians themselves, honored the request, yet were struck by this unusual edict. The instructions perhaps worked–time has overgrown their memories of the specific outcome–and Lilly is indisputably an exceptional musician. But Ed–a fiddler–Lilly, and her brothers learn the wealth of their music by ear; notation in Cape Breton and Scottish tunes certainly exists but is variably employed. New tunes are often learned communally in “sessions” or at parties. Looking back, Lilly’s piano teacher’s emphasis on notation as the sole method to accompany instruction suggests that notation engenders artistic independence.

I am drawn to this role of notation in education, especially as I approach my teaching courses this fall. Would it be best for my jazz and ballet students to see a notated movement score during training? What would this score look like? When would it be optimal to see the written cues? What about seeing the musical score to which we’re dancing? My plans have been to teach through a variety of time-honored physical and verbal cues, but as I build my syllabi I wonder what helpful role may live in written words, pictures, and other notations. I am curious both about how documents shape our imagination and also our ability to remember-and what elements we remember because of it. I like taking a local hip-hop class taught by Sharon Udoh in Columbus, and she recently tracked our accumulating phrases on a chalkboard during class, a means of creating a shared nomenclature, and of giving the words their own constant visual space. How would it alter the memory and execution of the phrases were she to use pictograms instead, or to have handed out on paper another version of notation before we even began? Were we stuck depending on the visual cue instead of on our independent memory?

Without access to the Internet or a library here in the rural village, I am left to sift through my memory of research on this topic. I have an embarrassingly vague recollection of reading about an ancient but continuing aural tradition of memorized performances of religious Indian texts that have never been written, comprised of hours-worth of recited script. I recall the suggestion that it is easier to learn such sizeable texts aurally. Might memorizing from written text reach a quota in our capacity for memory? I imagine musicians who learn by sight would have plenty to contribute to this topic, both on memory and where artistic interpretation enters.

I am evidently approaching this theme preceding my first semester of “analysis,” which will include Laban Movement Notation. I am aware that thus far I have had a habit of privileging the idea of aural learning over sight-reading, perhaps because I feel such regret over having felt a failure at the former. When I was eight I started violin lessons, which I liked, and continued for several years. That training now inhabits only hazy memories, however, as I ended around age twelve or thirteen. While I was becoming less interested in violin, I was becoming more attached to my Scottish Highland dance classes. My teacher’s husband is a fiddler and a fiddle teacher, and so it seemed natural that I would shift from the Suzuki method to taking Cape Breton and Scottish-style with Ed. Suddenly I had no music stand and no score, and I was in lessons learning uniquely by ear. Once a month I attended a Boston kids session in which we learned a tune in a group, also by ear. I was both the oldest and the slowest. I was discouraged. I stopped. Of my childhood regrets, this one is greatest: to have given up violin. And yet I have some forgiveness for middle-school Anna, facing a loss of confidence on many fronts at a vulnerable age. Feeling bad at music wasn’t helping.

Since then I have missed music in my life, and once I began seriously choreographing I found I was repeatedly drawn to working not only with live music, but also often in equal directorial pursuit with musicians, especially percussionists. After I learned the adminstrative ropes at OSU, I jumped on the opportunity to take percussion lessons as independent study, a lovely academic term for “free private lessons.” My favorite hour of the week included copious attempts to correctly connect my hand to leather. Conga gave me direction and challenge, and I was measured against no one but my own inconsistent ideas of how fast I should learn the alignment of my slap or the quickness of the tempo. We used musical notation to begin my learning of each new pattern, and I was curious whether this first written contact with the rhythm impeded my progress–sometimes I felt my eyes were slower than my mind-to-hand, and it felt like there were one too many translations: from page to “brain” and from “brain” to hand, rather from aural(hearing the rhythm)-visual(watching the teacher) to, well, to brain, to hand. Perhaps both methods used the same number of translation points, but I found if I focused inward on the rhythm and outward on mimicking my teacher, my ability to execute the pattern seemed to come more quickly.

I’m feeling how preciously timed this conversation is as I mull over these ideas before returning to the Ohio State University in a few weeks, where I’ll be teaching and taking once again. I wonder what experiences you have had enlisting or eschewing notation. I’d be delighted to read of your own thoughts. Feel free to send along a note to share!



As I’ve been writing these thoughts, I turned to talk with my mother this morning about today’s prose, who told me her own recent version of eschewing aural learning for visual. She’s been taking singing lessons for fun, and prepared to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in recital. My father downloaded his recording for her, and my mother said she was shocked–she had never heard it before–and was dismayed to hear such a different rendition from her own, one she felt she could never succeed in mimicking. She wished then that she had not yet heard it, though she realized once she had his recording, that her own “version” was just that–an interpretation.