Monday, August 9, 2010

Counting Syllables

When I teach Latin or Greek, I get my students to read aloud whatever we're reading in those languages. Depending on the situation, we may then translate the text into English, but reading the original text aloud is, to me, a very central and incredibly important part of the work.

A while ago, I was reading Latin proverbs with a bunch of fifth-graders. Many of them had difficulty reading longer words. One such word was sollicitudinis. For some reason, after some trial and error, I got the idea of asking the student to count the syllables: sol-li-ci-tu-di-nis. Five. No six! Yep, that's right: six syllables. Sol-li-ci-tu-di-nis. Now say the whole word again. Sollicitudinis. Fine. No problem. Problem gone.

I have since done this with language students at all levels and I find it works incredibly well. Ex-o-mo-lo-gou-me-noi (7). In-dis-so-lu-bi-lem (6). Plus, it's so much fun to ask in class: So how many syllables does that word have? I'm not sure what exactly makes this work. I think in essence it makes readers look a little bit more carefully, read bit-by-bit, step-for-step—rather than trying to spit the whole word out at once and realizing it's simply too much to grasp when you're halfway.

OK, so if you teach a language, I suppose you can try this for yourself. But here's what I really like about this syllable counting business. I also teach music, including in graduate school. And here I was this morning working with an exceptionally fine graduate student on a Beethoven piano sonata (in C major, op. 2 no. 3). The beginning of the first movement has these parallel thirds that are not so easy to play at the tempo this piece is usually played at. (I actually think there's something wrong with the tempo assumption here, but that doesn't matter for now.)

So my student plays these parallel thirds in measure one. They're kinda OK, but a little garbled, a bit unclear. They were actually much better the second time around (in m. 3), but I decided to bring the issue up nonetheless. I told my student about my experience counting syllables with language students. I'm not sure how to do this in music, I said, but let's see: how many notes are you actually playing there? Four, he said. Really? I asked. Well, five, he said, counting the eighth note following the four sixteenths.

OK, four or five, I said. But is that really true? Ah, he said, no, because they're thirds. So it's really four or five times two. Right, I said. Now why don't you play it again.

So much better that time! And actually, not even that much slower. Somehow, he was now playing those tricky thirds one at the time. Still very quickly, of course. But one at the time, not all at once.

I think one thing the language students and the music student (I haven't tried this with other music students yet) have in common is that they're all in a hurry all the time. The music student thinks he has to play the Beethoven movement really fast, or people will say he can't really play the piano. The kids in fifth grade have been pushed to read faster and faster in school—not to read more carefully. And my adult language students think they sound silly when they read a bit slower. (I do think they believe me if I tell them the opposite is true—they're really good and very nice students; but it's so hard to really, really believe it and even harder to put it into practice!)

The whole thing (the Beethoven experience in particular) reminds me of these modern actors who think they sound really clever if they can race through Shakespeare (G&S, or Pinter, I suppose; you can also hear this a lot in the recitatives in Mozart opera). Never mind nobody understands them when they speak so quickly—they sound clever anyway.

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