Learning about Learning (even CS), from Singing in the Choir

December 20, 2011 at 8:45 am 6 comments

Earlier this year, I talked about Seymour Papert’s encouragement to challenge yourself as a learner, in order to gain insight into learning and teaching.  I used my first-time experiences working on a play as an example.

I was in my first choir for a only year when our first child was born.  I was 28 when I first started trying to figure out if I was a bass or tenor (and even learn what those terms meant).  Three children and 20 years later, our children can get themselves to and from church on their own. In September, I again joined our church choir.  I am pretty close to a complete novice–I have hardly even had to read a bass clef in the last two decades.

Singing in the choir has the most unwritten, folklore knowledge of any activity I’ve ever been involved with. We will be singing something, and I can tell that what we sang was not what was in the music.  “Oh, yeah. We do it differently,” someone will explain. Everyone just remembers so many pieces and how this choir sings them.  Sometimes we are given pieces like the one pictured above.  It’s just words with chords and some hand-written notes on the photocopy.  We sing in harmony for this (I sing bass).  As the choir director says when he hands out pieces like this, “You all know this one.”  And on average, he’s right.  My wife has been singing in the choir for 13 years now, and that’s about average.  People measure their time in this choir in decades.  The harmony for songs like this were worked out years and years ago, and just about everyone does know it.  There are few new people each year — “new” includes even those 3 years in. (Puts the “long” four years of undergraduate in new perspective for me.) The choir does help the newcomers. One of the most senior bass singers gives me hand gestures to help me figure out when next phrase is going up or down in pitch. But the gap between “novice+help” and “average” is still enormous.

Lave and Wenger in their book “Situated Learning” talk about learning situations like these.  The choir is a community of practice.  There are people who are central to the practice, and there are novices like me.  There is a learning path that leads novices into the center.

The choir is an unusual community of practice in that physical positioning in the choir is the opposite of position with respect to the community.  The newbies (like me) are put in the center of our section.  That helps us to hear where we need to be when singing.  The more experienced people are on the outside.  The most experienced person in the choir, who may also be the eldest, tends to sit on the sidelines, rather than stand with the rest of the choir.  He nails every note, with perfect pitch and timing.

Being a novice in the choir is enormous cognitive overload.  As we sing each piece, I am reading the music (which I’m not too good at) to figure out what I’m singing and where we’re going. I am watching the conductor to make sure that my timing is right and matches everyone else. I am listening intently to the others in my section to check my pitch (especially important for when there is no music!).  Most choir members have sung these pieces for ages and have memorized their phrasing, so they really just watch the director to get synchronized.

When the director introduces a new piece of music with, “Now this one has some tricky parts,” I groan to myself.  It’s “tricky” for the average choir members — those who read the music and who have lots of experience.  It’s “tricky” for those with literacy and fluency.  For me, still struggling with the notation, it takes me awhile to get each piece, to understand how our harmony will blend with the other parts.

I think often about my students learning Java while I am in choir.  In my class, I introduce “tricky” ideas like walking a tree or network, both iteratively and recursively, and they are still struggling with type declarations and public static void main.  I noticed last year that many of my students’ questions were answered by me just helping them use the right language to ask their question correctly. How hard it must be for them to listen to me in lecture, read the programs we’re studying, and still try to get the “tricky” big picture of operations over dynamic data structures–when they still struggle with what the words mean in the programs.

Unlike working on the play, singing in the choir doesn’t take an enormous time investment — we rehearse for two hours one night, and an hour before mass.  I’m having a lot of fun, and hope to stick with it long enough to move out of the newbie class.  What’s motivating me to stick with it is enjoyment of the music and of becoming part of the community.  There’s another good lesson for computer science classes looking to improve retention.  Retention is about enjoying the content and enjoying the community you’re joining.


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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  December 20, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Hi Mark

    I think this is a microcosm of some of my main worries about education in developed ideas.

    As you tell the story, I get a picture of people being more comfortable with “normal human built in behavior” than with trying to get more fluent with powerful inventions that are only a few thousands of years old — such as writing and reading — and your analogies to computer classes are probably very accurate.

    For example, even though just a few hours a week would help everyone, especially beginners, get fluent in sight reading for voice — I interpret your story that the rehearsals are spent in working on whole pieces for the whole choir — and the result and process winds up being more like an oral culture learns things.

    The immediate tactical results are pursued in favor of spending sometime each week learning skills that will be strategic for what lies ahead.

    And even though writing down the different ways the choir does a piece would help everyone, especially newcomers, that isn’t done, even though it is so easy to do.

    And even though writing down the notes including harmonies to go with the “words-with-chords” sheets would really help, this hasn’t been done, even though it is easy to do.

    I interpret the reasons as much more having to do with what the choir is willing to learn — I’m guessing that the choir director and other instrumental musicians involved do know how to do this.

    It’s indeed a good idea to memorize music for performance, but learning to read and write down music opens up a vast world of possibilities, and is a good way to both find pieces and get started on remembering them.

    I have a similar quarrel with much of school learning, which I think is far far too dependent on oral traditions, and misses the much larger worlds (and greater efficiencies) that are brought by fluent reading and writing.

    I don’t think of reading as a replacement for remembering — it’s a disaster that many think of it in that way — but it is one of the most important powerful ideas to both find things worthwhile to remember, and also a great start in the process of remembering.

    Best wishes,


    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  December 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm

      Hi Alan,

      From talking to the choir members, I get the sense that most of them learned those strategic skills long ago. Most of them sang in choirs in school, where there was explicit development of music skills. I didn’t have that advantage, so I’m playing catch-up. I’ve been trying out different kinds of music education materials (e.g., apps and books) to help me learn the music skills I don’t have. Yes, I do believe that the director and musicians involved (including some who are professional) do have the skills to write down how we change the pieces. I’m sure you’re right — that the focus is on the immediate performance, not the long-term recording.

      Hi Kevin,

      Your point about “for some people” is well taken. There are lots of people who couldn’t stick with the choir, given their assumptions and the ways of learning. They aren’t trying to make choir membership available to everyone. I hope that we in CS would take it seriously to think about making computing education accessible even to the “tone deaf.”


      • 3. Alan Kay  |  December 20, 2011 at 2:29 pm

        As below, “tone-deafness” is extremely rare in music, and I suspect that “process-deafness” is also extremely rare amongst humans.

        But the ideas of “distributions” and “buckets of different kinds of help and practice needed” are the critical ones here I think.

  • 4. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  December 20, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    Taking this analogy in a different direction—a tone-deaf person like me would be unable to learn in this choir. I can read music (though less well than when I was a child), and sort of render the melody on a keyboard, but I can’t really remember it as music and I can’t sing a tune. I can’t transcribe music at all, so the assertion that “writing down the note … is easy” strikes me as needing a modifier: “for some people”. There is also a question of how many people in the choir read music—music literacy and skill in singing are often not coupled in our society.

    Just as it is possible to sing well and not read music, it is possible to develop the reading skills without having the listening and production skills for music. I suspect that the same is true in computer programming, where students may be able to read snippets of code and even trace their execution, but not really understand them or be able to produce them.

    • 5. Alan Kay  |  December 20, 2011 at 2:26 pm

      Hi “Gas”

      Actual tone-deafness is extremely rare. If, with your back to a keyboard, you can tell the difference between a note at the top of the keyboard and one played at the bottom, you are not tone deaf. If you like to listen to music that has more than percussion in it, you are not tone-deaf.

      One way to think about this is that all abilities that our genes confer on us are distributed within the population. With reference to learning subject X, a small percentage of people need essentially no help-and-practice, some need more of both, some need lots more, etc. For discussion it’s worth positing at least 5 or 6 buckets here.

      Most people who can distinguish extremes of pitch can learn pretty readily to do the “higher or lower?” game with increasingly closer pitches. This can be done with a friend, or with a computer program (if you try it with a program, use tones that have a fundamental and a few harmonics).

      The process — as with so many learning processes — is rather like learning to drive. For most, important objects in plain view (such as stop signs) will be well nigh invisible, but eventually “little experts” will be built which can pay attention to these.

      This is what pitch awareness is like. (And rhythmic awareness. And muscle memory. Etc. I was born with a lower bucket for both of these, so had to work a lot harder than most of my friends. On the other hand my pitch sense was good, and also my understanding of harmonic relationships.)

      Musical playing “is ten things”, and most musicians have to do a lot of work on quite a few of these.

      The “can’t sing a tune” issue has also been extensively studied, and it again has a lot to do with the “stop sign” problem. Trained musicians sometimes have a version of this problem, because some people have trouble hearing what they are singing “from inside their heads”. This is why you will see so many stage performing groups using feedback speakers (located on the floor of the stage in front of them) to help them hear what they are producing. An extreme case in the very close harmony group — The BGs — Maurice Gibb early on took to holding a headphone to one of his ears to help him track what he was producing.

      The training to help people carry tunes involves similar feedback — not just to increase the volume of what you are doing, but also to start the brain to be able to separate out that it now has to do what has been learned via pitch discrimination, and combine it with listening to one’s own sound production.

      As for the choir problem, they only need one person who can write down the notes, and then a choir that gradually gets better at reading them.

      Being able to read music is not at the center of “making music” but being able to do it does not detract from “making music” — if it did I would not have written the original comment.

      And, as with the literature of ideas expressed in words, it allows many more kinds of things to be accomplished.

      • 6. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  December 20, 2011 at 9:42 pm

        I agree—I’m not completely tone deaf, but I’m definitely very low in the distribution of pitch awareness. I can generally tell whether a note is higher or lower than another when they are played one right after the other and they are at least a semitone apart. I have more trouble as they get close. I always had trouble tuning my clarinet as a child, because I couldn’t tell whether I was sharp or flat, listening to my sound right after the reference pitch. When I try to reproduce a tune by singing, I’ve been told that I compress the range considerably.

        In my family, we have had both musically talented and musically handicapped people (my mother played piano quite well and my sister majored in music in college, while I have almost no ability to listen to or produce music). The difference was not in the training, but in underlying perceptual differences. (I actually had more early music training than my much more musical younger sister—similar to the training of my fairly musical older brother, though with much less success than his.)

        I have not doubt that there is remedial therapy I could get to improve my listening ability, but it doesn’t seem worth the effort to get to a level that would be at best low normal.

        I suspect that there is a similar range of ability at understanding abstract data types and debugging code. People will obviously get better with practice, but some people will need relatively little training to get to high levels of performance and others will struggle and work very hard to get to mediocre levels. For some people the effort will not be worth the benefits.

        From a teaching standpoint, we need to recognize that the ways that work best for us to think about a particular problem may not be the best for our students, and that some of them may not be capable of applying the techniques that seem natural to us. (Note: I’m not meaning to imply that we necessarily share the same “natural” techniques—quite likely some of the debates on this blog arise from people having quite different ideas about what is the easy way to conceptualize a particular problem.)


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