Winter 2011: From the Editor

May 6, 2011

Learning by Ear

I’ve played guitar for almost 40 years, but thanks to my lack of patience and self-discipline, I’m still illiterate. I can’t read music. 

Even as a child taking the two years of piano lessons mandated by my mother, I would listen carefully to my teacher B.A. Taylor play a phrase, then pretend to read it on the sheet music as I played it from memory. B.A. was on to me, of course. He’d stop me occasionally, point to the music and say, “Try it again from here.” By trial and error I’d eventually get it right, but he warned me: “Some music will be much too long for you to learn by ear—it would be easier if you’d just learn to read now.”
 
But I didn’t. So I tricked myself out of musical literacy and closed myself off to an entire world of music. 
 
Learning by ear has its advantages. I’ve been able to sit down with other musicians and pick out all kinds of old-time tunes from friends and folks at music festivals. And being a quick study by ear is a real plus learning the African music we play in the College’s world music ensemble. Playing by ear is at its best in groups—you’re never looking down, always paying attention to your fellow musicians and the music being made in the moment. It feels like play! And I never hesitate to improvise or veer from what’s written—I have no idea what’s on the page!
 
But the nuance and detail that written music spells out is lost on me unless I can hear the piece over and over. I fall back on old chords and bad habits. I love jazz, but my illiteracy means I can’t even read the charts. 
 
I envy friends who can pick up a piece of sheet music, scan the page, and read it the same way I can read a poem. If I had it to do over, I’d have taken the time to learn to read. Born with a decent ear, I could have had the best of both worlds.
 
While learning by ear has its shortcomings in music, it may be the best way to get to know a college. Coming to Wabash from the publishing world where I filled my days reading manuscripts, the chance to listen to a live voice—either in class, from a visiting speaker, or during a one-on-one interview—felt like a generous gift, as liberating as those sessions I’d spent sitting in with fiddlers, banjo players, and guitarists learning new tunes. 
 
Wabash is a jazz band of voices, and when I arrived here 16 years ago, the instruments I heard and taped for those first issues were some of her finest—Professors Hall Peebles H’63, Bert Stern, Marc Hudson, Bill Placher ’70, Peter Frederick, Joe O’Rourke H’65, Vic Powell H’55, Raymond Williams H’68, Melissa Butler H’85; alumni like Dan Simmons ’70, John Bachman ’60, Tom Roberts ’70, Tim Padgett ’84, Sherm Franz ’59, and Dick Ristine ’41. I recorded them all and listened over and over as I transcribed the talks or interviews, savoring those voices the way one comes to learn a beautiful tune. 
 
My friend and colleague Jim Amidon ’87 set the tone for this publication early in our work together when he urged me to “get as many voices as possible” into these pages. The themes we’ve tossed out over the years have been little more than ways to encourage the Wabash community to speak, whether we’re gathering the words ourselves or you’re writing them and sending them to us. 
 
This issue is a celebration of those voices—students, alumni, professors, and staff members engaging the world and taking the time to tell us about it, sometimes in words, sometimes in pictures (for we’ve learned over the years that art can speak, even as words can sing). 
 
Byron Trippet ’30 wrote, “If you listen, you will hear their songs and their cheers.” If you read these stories, you will hear the voices of the Wabash community. 
 
That’s most true, I believe, in our excerpt from the late Bill Placher’s final book. Bill was, as Raymond Williams said, “our best word.” As you read this piece, may you hear his voice again.
 
I realize that you could say that there’s nothing new here—that every issue of Wabash Magazine is little more than a celebration of the voices of the Wabash community. That I would take as high praise. It’s the best we can do. 
 
And sometimes hearing a voice is just enough.
 
Thank you for reading.
 
Steve Charles | Editor
 
 

 


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