thinking small

phormium

phormium [New Zealand flax] // taken with a macro lens attachment in my backyard!

“Get a keyboard, label all the notes, and practice identifying them by ear. Okay?”

My music teacher smiled and waved goodbye to me and my two classmates. My five-year-old hands hugged my half-size violin case closer to my chest. Every week after, she played short, sweet notes on her violin and asked us to name them with our eyes closed, over and over in different intervals until we could sing them back to show our understanding. She explained that, in order to play Carnatic–South Indian classical–music on our violins, we first had to train our ears and voices. 

As weeks turned to months, her single notes strung together into patterns. We methodically memorized 175 standard rhythm patterns–thalams–from which all others were derived. We became familiar with many ragas, the defined note sequences that create diverse scales–an intricate elaboration of the Western “major” and “minor” classifications. We held our bows steady as we practiced the patterned exercises that threaded together thalam and ragam, learning to place our fingers on our violins with precision and speed. 

If you can consistently play your exercises at high speed with no mistakes, you can handle anything. She urged us to rise with the sun to focus our minds with music before delving into a long school day. 

As months turned to years, we began singing songs line by line. After each lesson, my teacher sent us off with audio recordings and a gentle, encouraging shoulder-squeeze. Our task was to transcribe the recordings note-by-note onto lined paper. 

Listen carefully, line by line, and write down each and every note– if you work smartly and do this first, the whole song will come easier and you’ll start learning faster. Each time, I heard her voice echo in my head as we drove home.

For a long time, I didn’t believe her. I would practice in between rounds of homework, all the while looking for every excuse to not have to sit down and tediously write out new lessons before playing them. My attention to the exercises we had learned as children flickered as I attempted to play songs straight from the recordings. The individual notes merged into streams I would try and fail to capture with my violin, and I grew frustrated. 

When I took my first cognitive science class in college, I finally realized why my teacher was so firm in her guidance. 

“Even the everyday, seemingly-insignificant moments are rich with cognitive activity.” My distributed cognition professor gestured towards the lecture slides as he spoke about how the human mind extends beyond the brain alone. “When looking for evidence of cognition, think small.” As we covered more material, I immersed myself in identifying the incremental processes that unfold in human cognition. In between classes, I began scripting music with a more patient hand. And with every paper read, dataset collected, and song written in my new notebook, I felt the same joy of the five-year-old pressing each key of her cheap plastic keyboard with her eyes closed, challenging herself to identify what she was hearing.


This written/edited as part of coursework towards a Certificate in Science Communication from UC San Diego Extension.

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