Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Baby Scat

Playful babble before coherent speech. This is the example I always give in my workshops illustrating the way we learn everything— a period of free exploration, messin’ around, getting a rough draft feel for the skill at hand before settling into the precision of vocabulary, grammar, syntax. Alfred North Whitehead calls it the stage of Romance, a necessary prelude to the stuff schools care about. It’s the kindergarten before the first grade, the playing with blocks before engineering school, the scribble-scrabble before the accurate portrayal of a house, the free play on the recorder before Hot Cross Buns, the courting before the marriage. From that foundation, we’re ready for specific techniques, conceptual and systematic ideas, mastered repertoire, but if we skip to those too soon, they’ll fall short.

Whitehead simply noted Nature’s way. Not only does every baby have to babble before talking and totter before walking, but as “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (go back to your high school biology notes) suggests, our whole species may have had a long period of musical proto-speech before settling into a language that communicates more specifically. That is Stephen Mithen’s theory in his book The Singing Neanderthals and a fascinating study it is. But not more interesting than the real deal— hanging around 16-month Zadie as she babbles her way toward an eventual Shakespeare term paper.

I’m having fun trying to teach her a couple of new words, but more fun yet just letting her sing and trying to echo her phrases and scat syllables. Not easy! And sing is accurate, as her gibber and jabber constantly leaps between speaking and clearly-pitched high singing tones. I wonder if anyone has recorded the babble of babies from different cultures and noted the difference in phonemes according to the mother tongue. If not, I got myself a Doctoral Thesis.

Whitehead goes on to suggest that the third stage of learning is Synthesis, when one returns to the freedom and exploration of Romance, only now armed with “classified ideas and precise techniques.” I imagine going from the freedom of the toddler sung prattle to the learning of specific songs with rhythmic and melodic accuracy and precise diction and then arriving at Louis Armstrong’s free-wheeling scat singing, where the work and the play, the precision and the freedom, are inextricably one. Or from scribble-scrabble in art to realism to modern art. It’s an idea that makes sense to me and has informed my teaching profoundly. Each lesson with a period of messin’ around and exploration that leads to a specific song or concept or piece or steps that is practiced nd eventually mastered and that ends with the invitation to create something new— Romance, Precision and Synthesis wrapped together in one package of engaged learning.

I asked Zadie to comment and here is how she expressed it:

Gay go go gully gully, Ba ba bo yo yo . Ow wowie wowie uh-uh-oh-oh.”

Truer words were never spoken.

1 comment: