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"Translation is not a matter of words only..."

March 19, 2009

Zoe McLaughlin ’11

Since last semester, I've been taking lessons in North Indian music on the violin as part of the ExCo program. These lessons are generally pretty terrifying, because, essentially, my teacher plays something on the sitar and I have to copy it on my violin. My ability to hear pitches and replicate them has never been very good (one more irony in my musical life), but I like to think that the lessons are helping, at least a little. And, of course, they're fun, too, and an experience I doubt I could have found elsewhere. For a while, I seriously considered ethnomusicology as an area of study. I've since relegated this to a strictly amateur activity, but look at the way I get to practice it!

Last semester, my teacher started talking about an idea she's had for a while now: to write Indian music in Western notation so that it would be more accessible for Western musicians. I immediately jumped at the idea. This is what really interests me when I encounter the music of other cultures. I want to know how it can be translated into the system of music that I first learned. I saw this very much as a project translating from one language to another, and I wanted to help.

We started work this semester with our positions reversed. Currently I am teaching my teacher how to read music. I went into the first lesson armed with ten years of violin lessons, one year of music theory, and a textbook. The only teaching experience I'd ever had was a few ballet classes and the one Sunday a month when it was my turn to watch the children during the sermon at church.

That first lesson turned out much better than I thought it would. Though I did have one small crisis of faith when, belatedly, I realized that all my knowledge of music theory was built entirely upon my knowledge of the violin. Luckily, my teacher has been able to make sense of my bumbling teaching methods.

This week, she came to the lesson and wanted to try writing a bit of a raga in Western notation. She quickly proceeded to write out the melody and--after a few minor corrections having to do more with language than anything else (a half note doesn't mean half a beat)--it was perfect. I was impressed. She was able to integrate ideas that we hadn't even discussed yet.

There's something about having a brilliant student that makes you feel like a good teacher. Of course, that also means that I have to practice even harder now.

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