Tag Archives: reciting

Learning by heart

I’ll start by saying that I detest rote learning, the kind of learning where you are just forcing facts into your brain, usually with a view to regurgitating them in an exam and then forgetting the lot. That kind of learning does not generate wisdom or feed inspiration very often.

However, dedicating a lot of material to memory was very much the work of the ancient Druids and Bards, as far as we know. They didn’t write anything down, it was all oral transmission and memory. Most of us don’t go in for that kind of learning at all, but it’s very different from being able to recite a multiplication table. Being a bard is about making the carefully learned words come alive, in the moment.

Yesterday I watched a group of children put on a show. There was about an hour and a quarter’s worth of material there – songs and dialogue The oldest children were 11, the youngest, I think 7. That’s a lot of material to have got to grips with, in a matter of a few months. A great deal of work, dedication and repetition went in to getting them there, and the result was stunning. It’s amazing what can be done when there’s a will to make it happen. But if you suggested that kids ought to have an hour’s worth of learned material in their heads, complete with actions, I don’t think many people would see that as a good use of the child’s time.

I recall being at a druid event some years ago, with no formal entertainment, and people, less than perfectly sober people, trying to amuse themselves with songs – frequently half remembered ones at that. I have enough performance level material in my head to run for a good four hours flat out – tunes, songs, poems and stories. In practice, my voice is not up to more than 2 hours of uninterrupted performance. Probably less these days as I haven’t done the epic busking stints in a while. It’s long been natural to me to have a reservoir of learned material I could draw on, and this event made it apparent to me that for many people, that pool of bardic lore isn’t there. Which is a shame.

There’s something magical about dedicating yourself to a piece of art – be that a dance, a tune, a song, poem or story. Giving yourself to it so that you can learn it, means that it in turn becomes a part of you. There’s time taken to understand the relationships between each note, each nuance of the words, how an arrangement might shift it and make something new of it. Learning the song, or the story is all about understanding it and having a real relationship with it. It tangles into your soul. The stories we tell, the songs we sing become a part of who we are. They enrich. And when the power goes off, we have some way of passing the time.

Community music, dancing with people, and all these kinds of sharing are really bonding activities. You can’t forge those kinds of bonds by sitting around and watching a television program together. You can’t do it on facebook, either. The immediacy of something shared is powerful. The offering of song or words is one of the best things I think anyone can bring to a ritual.

It does take discipline and effort, but that’s no bad thing. What it gives us in return, is far more than the cost. A gem inside your head is with you for life. Sharing it enables you to give something beautiful to others over and over again.

And the more you learn, the easier it gets to learn.