Hurdy-Gurdy Sounds

In elementary school I was loaned a CD-ROM from our school librarian that was a virtual tour of the musical instruments of the world. Searching by continent, by instrument family, or alphabetically, I explored an interactive encyclopedia that introduced me to the sights and sounds of the Arabic qanun, Native American plains flute, Chinese bianzhong, and European flageolet. It was MIM in computer form. And then I found the page on the hurdy-gurdy: It sounded like a pugnacious cross between a bagpipe and a harpsichord playing a raspy folk tune while accompanied by a sort of buzzing/barking/beat-boxing. What's not to love?! Needless to say, I was smitten! #instrumentcrush My infatuation with the hurdy-gurdy has been rather one-sided all these years, and despite my intense feelings I have not taken our relationship to the next level... Until now! That's right! Early next year yours truly will be in possession of his very own, custom made, genuine hurdy-gurdy, lovingly built by the good people at Altarwind Music in Oregon. I'm so excited!! (Don't worry, my wife knows and is cool with it.)

So in preparation for my instrument adventures next year, here's some info on the hurdy-gurdy that focuses on the wide range of sounds that it makes and the contexts in which these sounds had cultural capital.

Particulars and Generalities

What is a hurdy-gurdy? That seems like a good place to start. The hurdy-gurdy is a musical instrument with regional variants appearing across eastern and western Europe. Here are a few monickers to give you a taste of its breadth: hurdy-gurdy (English), vielle à roue (French), Drehleier (German), tekerő" (Hungarian), ghironda (Italian), vièrlerète (Belgian), zanfoña (Spanish), sanfona (Portugese), brenka (Basque), viola de roda (Catalan), ninera (Slovakian), lira korbowa (Polish), колёсная лира (Russian). 

As implied by several of these names (#etymologygame) this instrument has something to do with a "turning wheel". In basic terms, the hurdy-gurdy is a pear- or guitar-shaped resonating box strung with tunable melody and drone strings and fixed with a hand-cranked, rosined wheel that acts like a never-ending, circular violin bow while the melody strings pass through a tangent box where pitches are raised or lowered by means of keys. The following section has descriptions of some of the instrument's different sounds and historical contexts. Be sure to click on the links to hear/see some sampled YouTube videos. It's easier to see it in action than read a description about it!

Apocalypse jam session depicted in 12th century cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Apocalypse jam session depicted in 12th century cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Organistrum: The Two-Seater

According to evidence preserved in manuscripts and carved into the walls of the cathedrals, the Ur-ancestor of the hurdy-gurdy was called an organistrum and emerged around the 11th century. As seen here played by two of the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse, this massive instrument took two people to operate: one to turn the wheel and the other to lift tangent pins. (The tangent box was eventually inverted, allowing an individual finger to push up a key, rather than require a whole hand to pull up a key.) Apparently these pins altered the pitches of all three melody strings simultaneously and produced parallel harmonies. This made the organistrum the perfect church instrument, particularly for playing organum, a technique used to thicken chant texture by coupling the melody at a given interval. By the 14th century changes in liturgical polyphony would require a more complex and polyphonic instrument, a need that was answered by the organ, and the organistrum ceased to function as a church instrument. Clips: 1) the organistrum in concert in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, 2) French reconstruction with good closeups of the mechanism, and 3) the most adorable demo couple I've ever seen! I'll let you know how the congregation at the Presbyterian church I work in handles next year's all-hurdy-gurdy Easter service... :)


Buzzing Bridges and Barking Dogs

Illustration by Jacques Callo from circa 1624. Demonstrating the lifestyle choices of the devoted hurdy-gurdy artist/mendicant.

Illustration by Jacques Callo from circa 1624. Demonstrating the lifestyle choices of the devoted hurdy-gurdy artist/mendicant.

One of the hurdy-gurdy's most distinctive features since the Renaissance is the buzzing bridge. (It's first visual depiction seems to be from Heironymous Bosch's (ca. 1450-1516) Garden of Earthly Delights.) The way it works is that there is a drone string supported by a specially constructed bridge (called the "chien" or "dog" in French terminology) that is uneven, only connected to the instrument by a single foot. Changes in wheel velocity set the dog "barking" with a characteristic buzzing sound. (Sometimes I think it sounds like a scraping cabasa.) Two examples of this in action should clarify: 1) An Italian ghironda with slow motion and 2) demonstrations of how wrist action effects crank velocity and leads to various patterns. This adds a completely new dimension to the music because the rhythmic buzzing of the right hand operates independently of the left hand's manipulation of the key box and they can interact in so many different ways. To give some context of this happening in a piece, check out 1) Eric Raillard playing a Morvan traditional tune with various chien patterns, 2) Nigel Eaton playing a dance piece that adds the chien around 1:09 to great effect, and 3) TOMO playing a French folk melody with chien and what I assume is a kick drum.

Female aristocrat rocking her vielle à roue. Probably painted by Donatien Nonotte (1708-1785).  Link

Female aristocrat rocking her vielle à roue. Probably painted by Donatien Nonotte (1708-1785). Link

French Aristocratic Hipsters

By the 18th century the hurdy-gurdy had a well established reputation as a low class instrument fit for peasants and beggars. But around this same time the French aristocracy developed an intense enthusiasm for pastoral diversions (just without the dirt and poverty). Operas and ballets depicted idealized shepherds and shepherdesses, rococo art emphasized stylized tendrils as design elements, and folk instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy (vielle à roue) and bagpipe (cabrette) found themselves in vogue with the highest echelons of society. (Here is an example of Sean Folsom playing a folksong that includes the vielle and cabrette together. Now that I write that sentence, I'm not sure how that's humanly possible...) Aristocrats actually took the time to became skilled at playing this instrument, multiple treatises appeared giving detailed instruction, and court-sponsored composers wrote substantial and serious pieces. Check out Robert A. Greene's The Hurdy-Gurdy in Eighteenth-Century France (1995) for all the info on this period you can handle. Listening to this music I notice the importance of dance as well as lavish ornamentation and emotional nuance. Clips: 1) some pièces de charactéres by Jean-Baptiste Dupuits (1715-1758), 2) a movement from a trio sonata for two vielles and basso continuo by Jacques-Christoph Naudot (1690-1752), and 3) Antonio Vivaldi's (1678-1741) beloved Seasons arranged for vielle à roue by Nicolas Chédeville (1705-1782) because why not?


Schubert's Romantic Numbness

Minstrel  (1876) by Hippolytus Lipinski (d. 1884). I wonder if Müller's mention of growling dogs could possibly have to do with the hurdy-gurdy's buzzing bridge...

Minstrel (1876) by Hippolytus Lipinski (d. 1884). I wonder if Müller's mention of growling dogs could possibly have to do with the hurdy-gurdy's buzzing bridge...

The nineteenth century developed a Romantic view of folk culture with conflicted, nostalgic, and nationalistic overtones. While in many ways this was the age of the piano (where Industrial Revolution met the Age of Sentimentality), the hurdy-gurdy continued to have a symbolic and emotional association and operated as a musical trope. For instance, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) set poems by Wilheml Müller (1794-1827) for a song cycle for piano and solo voice called Winterreise or Winter's Journey. It's a painfully tragic song cycle for solo voice and piano which ends with Der Leiermann or The Hurdy-Gurdy Player.  

Over there behind the village / Stands a hurdy-gurdy man / And with stiff fingers / Turns over what he can.
Barefoot on the ice / He rocks back and forth / And his little plate / Always remains empty.
No one wants to hear him, / No one wants to look at him, / And the dogs growl / Around the old man.
And he lets it happen / Everything turns as it will / And his hurdy-gurdy / Never stands still.
Wonder of the ancients / Shall I go with you? / Would you play my songs / On your hurdy-gurdy as well?

Schubert sets this icy text very starkly by evoking the hurdy-gurdy's drone and repeating a spooky melodic fragment. For a cycle that has traversed so many emotions, this concluding piece falls deep into emotional and musical numbness. Here's a clip of Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim performing it. Interestingly, Matthias Loibner arranged this composition for solo singer with hurdy-gurdy accompaniment which makes for a very different sound world. It makes me aware of the emotional flatlining that awaits the narrator at the end. Here's Der Leiermann accompanied by a Leiermann!

Eluveitie's Anna Murphy.

Eluveitie's Anna Murphy.

Gothic Nostalgia in Folk/Medieval Metal

Much has happened since the 19th century, but it's interesting to note an enduring strain of nostalgia for folk culture that continues to utilize the hurdy-gurdy. Recently this has surfaced in various sub-genres of heavy metal. Sometimes known as folk metal or medieval metal or German folk-rock metal, this 1990s European fusion melds together the guitar, drums, vocals, and head-banging of heavy metal with traditional instruments like tin whistles, violins, harps, bagpipes, and hurdy-gurdies. Here are some examples: 1) Swiss band (pronounce it el-VAY-tee) Eluveitie's song Inis Mona, 2) German band Subway to Sally's song Besser Du Rennst, 3) Belgian band Ithilien's song Blindfolded, and 4) German band Saltatio Mortis's song Hochzeitstanz. If you think about all the abrasive and edgy sounds the hurdy-gurdy is capable of, it makes sense that it would find a place in this type of music. I personally find it difficult to pick out the sound of the hurdy-gurdy through the thick textures. But there's more to heavy metal than just the sound and I would venture a guess that the hurdy-gurdy lends a lot of visual interest. It comes across as a medieval contraption and, because it is less well known than the bagpipe, its marginality has an air of mystique.

The hurdy-gurdy also plays a part in more intimate settings. Here the theatricality is toned down, but the strange sound and sight of the instrument keep a toe in the world of heavy metal. Two examples are 1) Anna Murphy playing A Rose for Epona and 2) Patty Gurdy (that's right) of the German pirate folk metal band Storm Seeker (that's right) playing a cover of Sweet Dreams.


Experimental Virtuosity

Matthias Loibner making sounds with plaid pants and astounding virtuosity.

Matthias Loibner making sounds with plaid pants and astounding virtuosity.

As the example of the buzzing bridge shows, the hurdy-gurdy, already a pretty complicated machine, can become even more complicated. Just take for example the Full Montey hurdy-gurdy by Altarwind Music that has all the add-ons: dozens of strings, buzzing bridges, capos, on/off switches, sympathetic strings, amp hookups, fretboards, cup holders, bells/whistles, spinning hubcaps, etc. (Disclaimer: I cannot guarantee the accuracy of this description. See Altarwind website for details.) These possibilities have caught the imagination of various composers/performers seeking new and experimental sounds. Matthias Loibner (b. 1969) sums it up well when he states in this recording at an aCentral Folque concert, "I will start somewhere and I will end somewhere, but I am not sure about it." Ben Grossman considers the hurdy-gurdy an "acoustic synthesizer" that has much to offer for "early, traditional, experimental, and ambient" musics. Here he is with an improvisation and explanation for TEDxWaterloo. Stevie Wishart (b. 1969) sees the hurdy-gurdy and other marginal instruments from the forgotten past as having greater potential for innovation because of the lack of present-day conventions, which opens the door to improvisation. She teamed up with Fred Frith (b. 1949) and Carla Kihlstedt (b. 1971) to record a series of improvisations: here's one called Aller Retour with the hurdy-gurdy entering around 1:27.

I'll see you in January for the unboxing of my hurdy-gurdy!

Baby Songs

Today my daughter, Penelope, turns four months old. Many life-changing things have happened since that day — for instance I am currently writing this post with my left hand alone, a skill I've become somewhat proficient at, as my right hand is preoccupied with calming an infant whose sleep regression threatens to startle her awake.

Photo taken by sister-in-law K8 Weber at Hendry's Beach—the same beach Jess and I walked for months while Penny was cooking.

Photo taken by sister-in-law K8 Weber at Hendry's Beach—the same beach Jess and I walked for months while Penny was cooking.

Milestones like this allow the opportunity to consider the passage of time. Time with an infant is complicated, demanded, constrained, but also expanded, inverted, and even negated. (Parents will understand what I mean.) As music is a temporal art form that moves through time, it's interesting to note what being a new father has done to my perception of and dealings with music. I'll keep my musings limited to music directed at Penny, to infant music, specifically the what and the why.

What: We sing to Nelly. (Yes, she has at least three names and a variety of nicknames.) What we sing most is a variety of nonsense songs with simple, metrically regular melodies taken from just about anywhere (SpongeBob, Protestant hymns, Spice Girls, Mexican folk songs) or improvised. The words, when they make sense at all, are topical and specific to the moment ("Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! etc."). I also find delight in singing songs from a variety of sources that I have come across and enjoy for a variety of historical, linguistic, or musical reasons. True to my form, they are mostly not in English:

  • Italian arias like A. Scarlatti's "Già il sole dal Gange"
  • Eighteenth-century German Lieder such as Zelter's setting of Klopstock's "Das Rosenband"
  • Knipper's "Polyushke Polye"
  • Selections from Schumann's Liederalbum für die Jugend ("Frühlingsgruß" and "Schlaraffenland")
  • The medieval chant "Ave Maria"
  • French marching songs like "Au jardin du mon père"
  • Selections from Gay's The Beggar's Opera ("Oh, what pain it is to part")
  • And several Gàidhlig songs such as "'Illean bithibh sunndach," "Fear a' bhàta," and "Tha mi sgith".

Why: What is our purpose for singing to our four-month-old? Cognitive development? Language acquisition? Enculturation and socialization? There are a lot of literatures and opinions out there about what music for infants should be about, what is appropriate and what is not. As a music scholar I find it all rather daunting, and as a parent I find it downright overwhelming. So I've come to my own personal conclusion that the reason I sing to my infant daughter is simply because I enjoy it. It's fun! Singing marks the passage of time with an immediacy and vivacity that we usually don't notice in the daily humdrum of life.  Singing is about making time intentional and noting its preciousness. It pauses "ordinary time" and enters into "special time."

It's also communicative. This may seem counterintuitive; I do realize that Penny understands neither the nonsense songs, nor the foreign language songs, nor the English ones for that matter. She can't speak. But because she can't speak, it's all music at this point: melody and rhythm and consonants and vowels. And what I believe comes across through music's sheer musicality is simply a parent's affection for their child. Without words to get in the way, I believe that Nelly can somehow, on some level, be aware of my fatherly affection for her. This is why instead of singing songs that have at some point been categorized as "children's songs," I sing songs that I enjoy, like Gàidhlig folk songs or Soviet era pseudo-folk songs. I enjoy these pieces, they fill my heart with joy, and by singing those sorts of songs to my infant I practice sharing a deep part of my soul with her. In pouring forth my voice, I expose her to my vulnerability and enthusiasm and desire to connect at simple yet deep levels.

I'll end by saying that Penelope has recently begun to "vocalize;" she sings back to us. Sometimes her songs communicate specific desires or needs, but other times she seems to be singing for the sheer fun of it. At these moments she sounds like a tiny, shrieking Nazgûl, but I'm guessing something more joyful is in her heart.

Operation Trilingual: 22 Week Assessment

It has been 22 weeks since I first began my Operation Trilingual Language Learning System. As outlined in my previous post, I planned on dividing my time between different types of Input and Output to create a perpetuum mobile of linguistic beauty. Now that some time has passed I need to take stock of what has been accomplished and decide whether or not my efforts are pushing me in the direction I want to go.

I recorded my progress on the following chart:

I'm voracious! And color coordinated.

I'm voracious! And color coordinated.

The green column shows the date in weekly groups.
The red section charts German activity and the blue French.
For each day I wrote what type of Activity (Narrative Input, Culling Input, Output), what Material was used (text, audio, flashcard program, etc.), Duration of time spent on that activity, and any special Notes.

That's how it worked; here's how I assess the journey:

  • Accomplishments
    • Daily Incentive: I didn't like having to write N/A and 0hrs for a given day. Kept up my work in both languages daily.
      • Highest weekly total: 16hrs 22mins
      • Lowest weekly total: 1hr 33mins
    • Lots of Narrative Input: By far the easiest Activity, I have made my way through a healthy helping of audio books of C.S. Lewis' Prinz Kaspian (finished) and Der Reise auf der Morgenröte (in progress) in German, reading German translations of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, and reading French, literary fairy tales by the Comtesse d'Aulnoy. Yum!
    • Academic Culling Input: in addition to passing my French language test for UCSB, I had to put in some time to translate foreign documents and articles for my classes and papers. One source included reading a German keyboard treatise from the early 1700s written in a very difficult to read fraktur script.
    • Exciting Output: I got the chance to have a lengthy conversation with a German speaker, exchange friendly emails with a Swiss pianist in German, and send some Facebook messages to a French friend.
    • Free Speak Output Focus: Sometimes it's hard to decide what to yak about. Aaron's Sentence Expansion Drill and Sentence Transformation Drill are excellent to warm up a language's rules and rhythms.

I see these accomplishments as a MAJOR VICTORY given the insanely busy life of the PhD graduate student. It probably wouldn't be an understatement to say that 80% of my Input was done on the bus to or from school and the other 20% in bed while trying to calm down and go to sleep after a busy day.

But the system still requires some revamping:

  • Short on Goals: My way of tracking progress works as a documentation of what I've done, but does not challenge me to meet self-imposed goals. The "do something every day" mandate has been great to keep up the momentum, but now I think it's best to give myself some specific goals I can aim for:
    • Not enough Output: Going forward, I'm going to try to have Output, probably in the form of writing, at least 3 times a week in each language. Perhaps I can make it a running story that I continue to enlarge, or I can rewrite sentences from my Culling Input with verb tense transformation. I'll have to experiment to figure out what works best, but definitely increasing the Output.
    • I need to go to the German restaurant (Brummis) and the French restaurant (Pacific Crêpes) in a few months to keep up the waiter-chatting inspiration.
  • Interesting vs. Useful Materials
    • I've made sure to read or listen to Materials that I enjoy. Thus the great wealth of fairy tales. This has been excellent for my enjoyment, but a little light on the vocabulary that is most helpful in conversation or reading academic documents. Perhaps a little sprinkling of those types would be beneficial. The former may mean more shadowing to podcasts and the latter more Wikipedia articles on composers or musical terminology.
    • (I just got an audio book of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter à l'école des sorciers for Christmas!)

With the new year starting today, I think I'm in a pretty good place as far as my desire to be trilingual. I had wanted to start adding Russian, but I need to wait on that for a while as I take the time to set and meet these goals, especially the Output. Close the loop!

My best to everyone in the coming year on all your linguistic adventures. Keep the fire going!

Operation: Trilingual

A few weeks ago I had my second language learning coaching session with The Everyday Language Learner's Aaron Myers, a birthday present generously given to me by my family. During our first session we talked about directed and motivated ways of breaking through with German, but now I am at the point where I must say "bon jour" to an old friend: français. This will be the fourth time that I've set out to learn French, a language with which I've had an on-again-off-again relationship since elementary school. Back then, I was intrigued by the luxuriant sounds of the language and inspired by my ancestry to francophone Canada. Today I continue to delight in the sounds and the heritage, with the addition of UCSB requiring it for Musicology, the possibility of my PhD work focusing on the 1800s, and close familial co-learning: my brother lives in Europe and speaks it, my sister will eventually move to Ottawa and should speak it, and my wife wants to speak it.

So my question for Aaron was how to resurrect French while maintaining German. It can be done. One must be organized, inspired, and willing to repeatedly assess whether or not they are working in the direction they want. With help from Aaron, my ESL trained sister, and LucidChart here's what I came up with to help me make this work (click on it to make it bigger):

It looks a bit like something you'd find in biology class on cell walls... and I'm ok with that.

It looks a bit like something you'd find in biology class on cell walls... and I'm ok with that.

Here's how it works:

     Input: Language comes at you, flies like a ninja into your ears or eyes! I see two different types of input.

          The first (A) I call Narrative/Music. This is when you immerse or inundate yourself in listening or reading, not really stopping to look up words or checking grammar, just getting with the flow of the story and noticing the cadence of the sounds. (It's what babies do for a good three years.) Because you're not stopping, you develop contextual skills (that intonation sounded like a question, these people must be angry with each other, etc.) to help piece together what you don't get the first time. I'm not at the stage where I can just listen to German radio or watch a French documentary. That would be drowning, not inundating. For me, that means using materials I know pretty well in my mother tongue, using my prior knowledge to fill in the blanks and enjoying the story which I can anticipate and enjoy from a different perspective. At this point, my German listening consists of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series in audiobook form (I'm just starting book 2, Prinz Kaspian von Narnia) and reading consists of short articles on composers. I have not figured out yet what I want to do in French, though the audiobook Harry Potter et l'école des sorciers and Perrault's Contes de la mère l'Oye are definite possibilities. I've written a bit about contextual reading in this post on parallel texts.

          The second type of Input (B) I call Word Culling. The Narnia books are a very good level for me; I'm getting about 80% of the words and can fill in the rest with prior knowledge. The 20% I'm not totally sure about becomes an extremely manageable stockpile of words that I can focus on: isolate them, look them up, put them on a flashcard system (I use Anki) and be sure to catch them when I review a chapter or reread an article. I love the bite-sized-ness of this system because it has a high level of exposure, high level of story/enjoyment, and a low level of flipping through a dictionary. But the best way to review these words I've found is...

     Output: You have to dish it out! This is the hard part for me, especially with the horrible dance that some languages produce: is that noun feminine? what sort of preposition is that? is the verb a verb of motion? what's the adjective ending? Here's what I'm working on: I take the words that I've culled from Input B (notice the arrow) and I use them as my wordlist to write or speak. If I just learned the word for "accompaniment" I write a short paragraph about what it's like being an accompanist who accompanies with an accompaniment... Perhaps I send it in to Lang-8 and get some feedback on how that's going. Or I have what I like to call Free Speaking in which I improvise sentences out loud, usually about what I'm doing or have done or will do: Numi, we are walking on the street; I ride my motorcycle to work and the clouds are cold and wet, etc. It feels pretty silly, but it is the only way I will improve in output. You've got to babystep before you can laufen. When you use these culled words this way they morph from flashcard words you didn't know to speech acts that are linked to specific places, situations, and contexts. I'll never forget that in German you pretty much always need to use an adjective when you say the word "wind" (cold, chilly, humid, scorching, etc); according to an editor at Lang-8, it's just funny without it. Then I use this knowledge to better understand my Input (notice the other arrow), catching it when I review sections that I've culled, and catching it faster when I encounter it during other narrative/musical moments.

So that's my method. I'm pretty happy about the diagram and how it reinforces itself. It's like a perpetual motion machine of glorious language learning awesomeness! Let me know if this idea is helpful, what materials you see yourself using in Input, or ways it could be better!



The Art of Shadowing

I truly love foreign languages. Ever since I was little I have been attracted by the mystery of different linguistic cultures, the sounds, the shapes and configurations of letters, the similarities and differences, the shadowy but inviting veil between confusion and illumination. I think my first experiences with foreign language came from Bible stories, worlds filled with lengthy lists of mysterious names and cities and rivers, and finding my own name among its pages certainly confirmed my place and invited my participation in a life of language learning. You cannot get far in literature or music without coming across a linguistic frontier, and I simply find them delightful and stirring.

Up until this point my language interests have lacked a certain focus. I have never become "fluent" by any technical or personal standard and most forays into a given study have been more in the area of the hobby. (Not that this is bad! I wouldn't give up a moment of learning the Greek alphabet with my brother in elementary school or learning French by casette in junior high. Those experiences have made me who I am today.) This post explores the paradigm shift that I am experiencing in my linguistic study, an exciting change that promises to enrich and focus my already eager passion.

Lava Gull  (1991) by Alan Gouk.

Lava Gull (1991) by Alan Gouk.

It all starts with the blog world. Seriously, type "second language acquisition blog" in Google or click on one of the language blog links to the left. There is a whole world of people who love nothing better then exploring great ways to learn languages. I particularly appreciate the combination of opinion, study, and outright encouragement I find in blogs like The Mezzofanti GuildEDLL, and polyglossic. It's best to stay positive.

Here are the things I've been doing to stay positive. My language at this point is German: the tongue of my maternal ancestors (Bachmans und Luckensmeyers), the language of Vogelweide, Luther, Bach, Goethe, and Schoenberg, and the one in which every musicologist needs to be proficient. Growing up my learning tools have consisted of learning grammar, some vocabulary, and maybe trying to memorize a song or poem. Very solitary, very inefficient, and ultimately discouraging. In 2009-10 I took a year of German at a community college, an extremely uplifting environment that got me enough chops to start reading fairy tales by the Grimm Brothers. Personally, I suggest all these things and would add to them the following unique and exciting technique that I've recently gotten into: shadowing. (Disclaimer: I'm not an expert, just enthusiastic.)

Shadowing goes something like this. Remember when you were in, say, third grade and you thought it would be awesome to "show off your cognitive erudition" (also known as "annoy people") by repeating whatever anyone else says as they're saying it. It's word piggybacking. If you did not ever do that as a child, perhaps you have had it done to you, or maybe you've heard the echo effect in the second verse of Britten's This Little Babe from A Ceremony of Carols. The object is to listen and mimic, immediately, almost simultaneously, the foreign words you are hearing. Additionally one can shadow more effectively by saying the sounds as loudly and clearly as possible and by pacing briskly. That last part is a little awkward at first, but is intended to challenge your brain to multitask and therefore get the language into the "automatic" section of your mind. Interested? Confused? More description here.

Duchamp Descending a Staircase  by Du-u-cha-ha-m-mp-p himself.

Duchamp Descending a Staircase by Du-u-cha-ha-m-mp-p himself.

This is how I do it. I subscribe to podcasts from a series of talks by Annik Rubens of Münich. I listen to half-minute intervals on my iPod with earbuds, saying the sounds as she says them, while pacing back and forth on my porch, repeating until I feel as though I am matching the sounds and inflections of her voice. Later I will read the text and put together more of the meaning that I wasn't able to glean from just listening. The benefits of this process after a month are:

  • I am exercising my listening skills, something you can't really do by just reading, but something you don't want to leave until the last minute if you actually expect to have a back-and-forth conversation with a native. Identifying words without reading is very difficult for me, sort of like musical dictation, but that probably means its worth doing.
  • I am ingesting the "music" of German. Even if I don't know the exact meaning I can generally identify clauses, verbs, nouns, prepositional phrases, etc. I can especially hear the double-verb sentence endings (...fahren wollen). These forms and sentence chunks become ear-worms that play repeatedly in my head.
  • Afterwards I can babble in German, funny little sentences. Huge boost to the confidence, feeling things roll off your tongue, even if they roll without complete control. With the forms in my head it's just a matter of learning some more vocabulary and brushing up on grammar, mostly genders and adjective inflection. 

If you want something to revitalize and challenge your language learning experience, I would suggest trying out shadowing. It is truly exhilarating ( is not quite as slow as you might think and sometimes it feels like getting chased by a pack of wolves to keep up) and quite satisfying to glean meaning from repeated listenings without the help of a text.

This is often how it feels to do shadowing, although the consequences of slipping are not nearly as tragic.

This is often how it feels to do shadowing, although the consequences of slipping are not nearly as tragic.