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June 2013


June 5, 2013 09:29

My husband, kids, and I will be going to Germany this August to visit my husband's family, and in preparation for that visit, I've been trying to brush up on my German. I speak some German, or at least I used to. I lived in Berlin for a while as a teenager, studied the language in college, worked in a lab in Germany for a summer, and am married to a native German speaker. But, I have an accent. I started learning the language late enough--age 17--that it's unlikely I will ever lose that accent completely, although I could probably be better than I am now, with more practice.

One of the things I am doing now is to reading to my husband from a German book in the evenings. Currently we are reading a book actually written by an American. It's called Don't Worry, Be German, Ein Ami wird deutsch by John Doyle. It describes the humorous experiences of an American man married to a German woman, living in Germany.

It becomes clear rather quickly, reading this book, that I am not becoming German--"deutsch werden". But that's not really my goal anyway. I'm planning on living in the U.S. for the forseeable future, remaining an "Ami" in spite of that term's mildly negative connotations. But it would be nice to be able to speak German in Germany without having people either look at me like I have a third eye, or immediately switch to English (both of these have happened to me more than once. Still have only two eyes though, at least last time I checked).

My husband, while I'm reading, tries to be helpful. He says that my biggest problem, the most obvious thing that gives me away as an Ami, is literally my accent, or, I suppose, my accentS. I sometimes put the stress on the wrong syllable.

"No," he says, laughing a bit, "it's not 'bore-mah-SHEEN-uh', it's 'BORE-ma-sheen-uh. BOOOOOORE-ma-sheen-uh!'

To me, this seems like kind of a nit to pick, like a subtle, high-level problem. I mean, when faced with a book that is supposed to light and humorous, but which is nonetheless filled with words like Bohrmaschine, Freizuegigkeit, Aprilkosenrahmtorte, and Kondomautomaten, what am I supposed to do?

My answer is, it turns out, pretty much the same as what I do when faced with a piece of violin music that is full of 16th notes, double stops, and multiple ledger lines: slow it down and break it up into manageable chunks.

"Bohrmaschine," for example, is a drill. You know, what you use to bore holes in the wall to hang things up. For me, the key to understanding and remembering that word is seeing "maschine" (machine), and picking that out in my mind. It's a machine that bores through things, a bore-machine, a Bohrmaschine. This apparently comes out of my mouth as "bore-mah-SHEEN-uh." Certainly an argument can be made that since there are lots of kinds of machines out there, but this is a special one that bores, one should emphasize the "bohr" part of it rather than the "maschine" part.

Ok fine, but in practice this comes out sounding, to my ear, like "BOOOR-(mmph, mmph)." And then I don't know WTF is being talked about and I end up looking at the person like he has a third eye. And then, here comes the English. That's why I slow down and take the words apart, at least when I first see them.

After thinking this process through with the Bohrmaschine, I realized that I'd had almost the same conversation before in my violin lesson, and even in orchestra more than once.

I have what is termed by others as a "bad habit" of landing on endings and not shaping phrases appropriately. Sometimes it is really just a bad habit, but sometimes it's a Bohrmaschine. That is, what sounds like a bad habit is the result of my wanting to take a part of the phrase that seemed like it was getting thrown away, out of the trash can, smooth it back out, and examine it closely to see what it means.

This happens to me fairly often with musical phrases that, like the word Bohrmaschine, have a lot of intended emphasis at the beginning and trail off in volume and intensity at the end. I tend to make them more equal and uniform, just so I can hear and process the notes and make a stab at understanding. Then my teacher calls it "beat-y" or the orchestra conductor complains that it sounds "too square."

So I find myself in a bit of a quandry. I do try to pronounce "Bohrmaschine" correctly now (and certainly will keep the correct accent in mind on all those occasions when I'm purchasing drills in German hardware stores). I try to follow my teacher's and others' advice about musical phrasing. Most of the time, after my mistake is pointed out, with enough repetition and practice, and with careful, precise speaking/playing, the softer, de-emphasized part of the word or phrase takes on its intended color and stops being a throwaway, even though it's soft and not accented. My comprehension improves.

But other times, especially in music, it doesn't, especially when music is played too fast. I really noticed this last fall when I was listening to You Tube recordings of Bloch's Simchat Torah, while I was learning to play it. I felt that most of the recordings I heard--but not all--were too fast. I didn't prefer the slower tempo simply because of the limitations of my middle-aged-adult-amateur playing technique: I in fact couldn't hear, savor, or enjoy the triplets, the interesting details of the harmonies and melodies, at that speed, even as a listener. I also notice this "too fast" phenomenon with some Haydn and Beethoven string quartets and early Beethoven symphonies. All I hear is the beginning of the phrase, while syncopations, in particular, get lost in the sound and shuffle.

I was reminded of this experience, rather common in my own musical and language processing life, when the following article came across my Facebook newsfeed: "Get Rhythm and Get Language Processing." The take-home message of the article is that there is a relationship between the perception of beat structure in music, and language processing. The authors noted that dyslexic children had more trouble than neurotypical children in performing a musical beat perception task that asked them to differentiate between two tunes that had different beat patterns.

I'm not dyslexic myself, but I subscribed to this list because of my professional interest in the neuroscience of learning and learning disabilities. I find myself wondering what is considered neurotypical for musicians, or if the concept in fact has meaning for musicians at all. Far from being dyslexic, I've always been an advanced reader, at least of English. And yet, even as a fluent, advanced reader, I have this quirk in processing emphasis and accent, which reveals itself quite readily in violin playing.

The authors of this article go on to say that dyslexic children would benefit from musical rhythmic training. (And the organization who sent me the article has some concrete and commercial suggestions about what form that training should take). I'm inclined to agree with them about the basic idea. I can't see where rhythmic musical training could hurt, and I can imagine many ways in which it could help. But is it possible that they have it backwards, or at least that this kind of learning is a 2-way street? That is, would musicians also benefit from some kind of training that helps them distinguish different kinds of sounds and phonemes that are commonly used in speech? Do we really have to justify rhythmic musical training in terms of correcting a reading disability?

And finally, would there ever be a situation in which the two disciplines work at cross-purposes? That is, does the purposeful practice of slow, careful sounding out of words for reading comprehension purposes turn children into beat-y violin players who don't like to play fast? And even if so, is that a bad thing?

Several years ago, I was in Germany with some native speakers and a fellow American who had just started learning German. He said to me, after a few hours of trying to follow the conversation, that he could understand my German much better than he could understand that of the native speakers. This isn't surprising, yet it also makes me wonder whether there's something valuable, at times, in having an accent. My accent makes me slow down and remember where I came from, and where I'm going. It helps me notice things in the music that others might miss. It makes me wonder if, at some level, we don't all have accents of one kind or another. And that's what makes every interpretation unique.

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