The Language of Music (Learning)

I’m bilingual. I speak English and Mandarin.

I have a stereotypical Asian immigrant mother who first “introduced” me to the violin.

My musical journey began when she noticed a music school opening inside a Chinese supermarket we shopped at. She decided it was a good opportunity for me to take up an instrument, and she also decided that I should learn the violin. I remembered saying that I wanted to play the flute but, I mean look at me today. I obviously didn’t win that argument.

The music school (it’s still there) is owned by a Taiwanese lady who at the time was very young and probably just graduated from music school. She played and taught the flute, and hired a bunch of her friends, many still in school, to teach various instruments.

All this is to say that all of my childhood private violin teachers (including one I later studied with who didn’t work for this school) were Chinese.

I also remember my mother sitting in on all my lessons and took notes for me. I almost never read her notes, but I know they were written in Chinese. But many of my books were in English. I used String Builders and Suzuki books when I first started. Later my teacher gave me photocopied Kayser etudes that were in Chinese. My teachers wrote notes in either English or Chinese (depending on the teacher). All of my music theory knowledge was learned in English.

At some point I also took the ABRSM Grade 5 music theory exam, so I had to learn everything in British English too.

I think by logic all of my lessons must’ve been taught in Chinese with English terms thrown in, but for the life of me I just can’t remember anything to be sure. I barely know any music theory or violin playing terms in Chinese; I have to translate myself if I try to discuss violin with my Chinese friends.

There are times when I forget what language I used for certain conversations or for certain knowledge I acquired, but I took violin lessons for 5 years. How could I have learned something as complicated as playing a musical instrument but not remember what language I learned it in?

My current teacher is American and American educated. And some of the stuff she says are completely foreign to me. She sometimes asks me if I did this or that exercise when I learned basic things like bowing or rhythm and I panic because I don’t know what she’s talking about, and I wasn’t sure if that was bad foundational learning on my part or just different schools of teaching. I later realized that it was probably just the way I was taught by people who didn’t grow up learning the violin in this country.

This is weird right? That I took violin lessons for 5 years in my teenage years and not remember what language my teachers used in our lessons? I just want to throw this out here because I think about it often and it just amazes and baffles me every time.



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