Working back to happiness

Tonight I shall be playing a gig with the Menai Bridge Intermediate Brass Band.

Unfortunately I only found out yesterday that I would be playing this gig, and only got the music for one of the pieces to look at today. So I have just been doing some fairly intensive practice.

Most of the pieces are ones I’ve played plenty of times before, so they shouldn’t cause me any great trouble. The highlight of the set, though, will be the world’s second ever complete live performance of The Great War Suite by Hannah Retallick (our conductor). The first perfomance took place at the North Wales Rally last week and, since that was a youth band competition with an upper age limit of around 20 for the performers, I was unable to take part (I was playing with our senior band in their section of the competition, which didn’t have age restrictions; I was also able to watch the intermediate band performance, so at least I have an idea of what the music sounds like).

The suite is based on a number of tunes from the First World War and was written to commemorate the centenary of the start of the war. We played the first movement of it in our Anniversary Concert at the start of November, so I have played that movement. I also played an early draft of the third (and final) movement in a rehearsal a couple of months ago, but it has been extensively rewritten since then (and now includes a fairly prominent trombone/horn section solo) and I haven’t played the second movement at all until today.

The first two movements present no particularly great problems but the third is a bit tricky, so I concentrated most of my practice time on that (being aware of the need to balance doing sufficient practice to get a handle on the music and avoiding doing too much and wearing out my lip before the performance). In particular I’ve been concentrating on the 8 or so bars of the trombone / horn solo, since there will apparently only be two of us in that section tonight and I won’t be able to hide behind the rest of the band for it).

In order to nail this solo, or at least pin it down, I’ve employed a combination of tricks such as the standard ones of breaking it down into small chunks and repeating it (both in chunks and in toto) ad nauseam, at various speeds up to and including the 132 bpm indicated on the score (the movement is quite fast, which is one of the reasons why it’s a bit harder than the others; hopefully Hannah won’t take it significantly faster than it’s marked as I can still barely play it at that speed!). I also tried an idea I customised from a language-learning tip I read about the other day.

The tip was originally aimed at learning long, complicated words or phrases. You break your target word / phrase up into smaller chunks and learn it bit by bit, starting with one chunk and adding more until you can say the whole thing. That much is a fairly obvious approach to the problem. The twist is to start with the end of the word and work backwards. The idea behind this is essentially that each time you add a bit to the word, you start with the unfamiliar bit and get it out of the way, allowing your brain to coast along more or less on autopilot with the rest of the word. Allegedly (and plausibly, IMHO) this is more efficient and effective strategy than starting with the “easy” bit that you’ve already learned and taking a run up to the more difficult end.

I’ve not yet tried applying this idea to language learning but it occurred to me that a similar trick might work for music. So, I broke my 8 bar phrase up and tackled it one bar at a time, starting with the last bar. After playing that a few times (until I could play it fairly comfortably), I added the penultimate bar and repeated the two bars a handful of times, before trying it with the antepentultimate bar added, then the preantepenultimate, the propreantepenultimate and so on (I hope you get the idea, because Wiktionary doesn’t list anything beyond “last but four” ūüôā )¬† Occasionally, when I hit a particularly tricky bar, I’d repeat that on its own a few times before prepending it to the growing phrase.

Before I tried this I had made several attempts to play through the phrase from the beginning but hadn’t managed to get very far with it.¬† I found that this approach worked quite well in enabling me to play it much more competently and confidently.¬† I’m still not sure that I’ll be able to play this solo as well as I’d like tonight, but I’ve got a much better chance of getting it more or less right than I had before.

Incidentally, this afternoon’s practice session has also reminded me of the importance of practising scales and arpeggios, even in keys that you often don’t play in.¬† There is one bar in the third movement (which is in C) that is effectively an A major arpeggio (actually, A dominant seventh, as it starts with a G) and would be much easier for me to play if I’d practised that key a bit more (we don’t often get pieces in A, at least not in the junior band music), especially when it comes to finding the right slide position for low C#.¬† Quite a lot of the other passages would also be a lot easier if I wasn’t having to think quite so consciously about where to locate the notes or how to run between them.

PS in case you’re wondering, this whole post wasn’t just an excuse to use the word “propreantepenultimate” – in fact, I didn’t even know that the word existed until I went to Wiktionary to look up the spelling of “antepenultimate” (and I didn’t know I’d be using that word, or even plain old boring “penultimate” until I was half-way through writing that paragraph).

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A little Chinese with me

This month I will mostly be learning Irish and Chinese.

That is, the relatively small proportion of my time which is spent on languages other than Welsh and English (both of which I use on a regular basis) will be mainly divided between these two languages.¬† I’ve looked at both languages several times in the past, and continued to find quite fascinating, but never got very far with either of them.

At the start of October, I decided to set myself a challenge of doing a bit of Irish every day for a month, largely with a view to getting a handle on singing in the language.¬† While I wasn’t quite as systematic in my approach as I set out to be, I did manage to give myself a bit of exposure to Irish every day throughout the month, whether it was working through lessons in one or more of the Irish textbooks I’ve acquired over the years, watching Irish language TV programmes online (on the TG4 website) or listening to lots of songs in Irish and attempting to sing a few of them.

In fact, the month has gone so well that I’ve decided to try to keep my Irish going for a bit longer on a more-or-less daily basis.¬† Rather than go for intensive study, I’m just trying to do a little bit at a time and let it gradually seep into my brain.¬† It’s a bit different from how I’ve tried to study languages in the past but may turn out to be an effective method.¬† Even if I never become fluent in speaking Irish, I’ve already managed to get a lot more enjoyment out of Irish songs than I had without understanding the language at all, so it certainly hasn’t been a wasted effort.

One thing I learned fairly recently is that the way (or at least, a way) to say “I speak [insert name of language]” in Irish is T√° [language] agam, which literally means “There is [language] with me”.¬† For example, I could truthfully say¬†T√° Breatnais agus B√©arla agam (I speak Welsh and English) and T√° beag√°n Gaeilge agam (I speak a little Irish).¬† Alternatively, I could say T√° m√© ag foghlaim Gaeilge (I am learning Irish).¬† Sadly, as yet, I can’t say very much else, but it’s getting there slowly.

Originally my plan, assuming the successful completion of my one-month Irish challenge, was to put that language on a back burner for a while and choose another language to concentrate on instead for November, then another one for December, etc.¬† As mentioned, I decided to keep going with Irish until I’ve got a slightly firmer grip on it but, never one to be content with doing just one thing for too long, I’ve decided to simultaneously make a start on the language I had selected for this month’s study, namely Chinese (specifically, Mandarin).

This has a reputation for being a fearsomely difficult language to learn, although I think the main difficulties are to be found in the tonal nature of the language and the writing system.¬† Grammatically, it seems to be relatively straightforward, although quite (excitingly) different from any other language I’ve studied.

The tone system is often taken to mean that the same word means different things depending on how you say it.¬† For example, quite famously, the word ma can mean either mother or horse (or a couple of other things), distinguished only by the tone (ma with a high level tone is “mother”; I can’t remember off-hand which tone is used for “horse”).¬† Actually, it’s better to think of them as completely separate words and this is how they would, apparently, be viewed by native Chinese speakers.¬† The tone of each word has to be learnt as part of the word itself, but really that should be no more problematic than learning the gender or inflection of words in other languages.¬† The fact that I have a fairly musical ear should help quite a bit too.

The Chinese writing system is, unquestionably, complex but it is also quite fascinating.¬† Fortunately there is a standardised romanisation system (pńęnyńęn)¬†that means you don’t necessarily have to master the written language in order to get a good handle on spoken Chinese.¬† I am aiming to have a go at learning to read and write the characters as well as to understand and use the spoken language.

More so than most languages, I suspect Chinese is one that benefits hugely from having a teacher rather than trying to learn solely from books and other self-study materials.¬† Fortunately my friend Simon, who runs the Omniglot website as well as the Bangor Language Learners’ Conversation Group (formerly known as Bangor Polyglots), is a fluent Chinese speaker (having done it, along with Japanese, for his degree) and, since we are usually meeting at least twice a week at the moment, he will be able to give me a hand with the language.¬† He’s also lent me a couple of textbooks that I will be using in addition to my own resources for Chinese study this month.

I’m certainly not expecting to be fluent in Chinese or Irish by the start of December but I hope to have a better grasp of both languages by then than I do now (which shouldn’t be too hard).¬† I’ll then have to decide whether to stick to these two languages or move onto something else, either revisiting another language that I’ve looked at in the past or trying something completely new and different.¬† Perhaps I’ll see if I can get going a system whereby I have two main languages on the go each month, replacing one of them every month (i.e. I’d do Chinese and something else, perhaps Italian, in December then, say, Italian and Swahili in January and perhaps Swahili and a bit more Irish in February, etc.)?

Bonne id√©e in theory

The other day, while I was searching for a completely different Google Chrome extension, I came across an interesting one called Language Immersion for Chrome, which had the intriguing strapline “learn a new language while you browse the web”.

It describes itself as “an experimental extension that aims to simulate the experience of being immersed in a foreign language” and is powered by Google Translate. ¬†It ¬†works by translating certain words and phrases on any webpage into the target language of your choice (any of the 60 or so supported by Google Translate), substituting the translated phrase for the original on the page (it highlights the translated bits so you can spot them more easily) . ¬†For instance, if you had la langue set to French vous pouvez see something comme this. ¬† The context of the surrounding words in a language you can speak (I’m not sure if it only works for pages in English or for other source languages) enables you to grasp the meaning and the repeated exposure helps to cement the word in your head. ¬†I think it is supposed to mimic, to some extent, the way that children naturally acquire language more-or-less by osmosis rather than sitting down to memorise long vocabulary lists.

The tool offers a couple of extra features, which are selectable as options. ¬†One is the ability to click on a highlighted/translated phrase to revert it to the original language, enabling you to check your understanding; this feature is reversible, so you can click again to get the translated version back. ¬†The other facility is the ability to hover over the phrase and hear an audio clip of it being spoken, handy if you want to work on your pronunciation. ¬†Also, the tool enables you to specify your fluency level in the target language (on a sliding scale from “novice” to “fluent”), which alters the proportion of the page to be translated and possibly also the choice of the words translated (though I assume the words are selected pretty much at random and if it can’t find a translation for a particular word or phrase it picks another one nearby and tries again; I doubt it maintains lists of approved phrases to translate for each language and level).

So far that sounds like a pretty useful tool. ¬†Unfortunately there are a couple of reasons why it didn’t work altogether smoothly and why, in consequence, I’ve removed it from my browser at least for now. ¬†It takes a while to load the translations and the audio feature only seems to be available for certain languages and can be quite slow to kick in even with those ones. ¬†There is also, of course, the problem of the inherent inaccuracy of a machine translation in the first place. I ¬†spotted plenty of mistakes when I tried the tool using Welsh (which I speak quite fluently) and French (rusty but passable) so I’m sure there are also lots of mistranslations in the other languages.

To some extent those problems may get alleviated, although probably never solved entirely (especially the machine translation issue) as the software (both the extension and the GT backend) continues to be developed. ¬†However, I don’t know whether I will use it again in any case. ¬†I’m not sure of the pedagogic value of inserting random phrases from another language into a stream of text; it may be quite handy for reviewing and extending vocabulary but doesn’t necessarily offer any great benefits over more traditional tools like flashcards, and it doesn’t show you how to actually use the words idiomatically in the target language.

I think I’m more likely to get benefit from continuing to look at websites in the languages I’m trying to learn (when available – there aren’t that many written in ancient Greek!). Google Translate can be quite a handy tool for checking understanding of specific words and phrases with this approach, especially as there are several browser extensions available that let you select some text and get a translation immediately; however, I generally prefer to try and read to get a general idea of the gist of a passage without getting too bogged down in the details of individual words. ¬†As with the language immersion extension, the surrounding text often helps you to get an understanding of an unfamiliar word, but if the surrounding text is also in the target language that gives you a much better feel of how the word fits in context.

I suppose it may be interesting to start trying to learn a more-or-less completely unfamiliar language (for which trying to read a website entirely in that language may be too much) with the immersion tool and then switch to (or at least supplement with) websites in the target language once I begin to acquire sufficient vocabulary.   This might be helpful as part of an attempt to learn a language but I suspect that it would work better in conjunction with other language-learning tools than trying to use it on its own.