It is, for these two weeks or so, a time when one might relax a little, prostrating oneself upon one’s slumberous plot for an extra gnat’s whisker of time here, or an elephant’s fart of a late-morning there, allowing all those things of less import to take precedence: reading those final forty chapters of that book received Christmas past; writing those final forty chapters of the book begun three years ago; perfuming the pants and socks. Those of us without children, whether through design or a heavily-locked basement, might even find the time to partake in something entirely new.

For the past few evenings-dark, I have been annoying all those in earshot with repeated renditions of the same Christmas tune. One famous to us all, this is a glorious cover of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas by the seasonal pairing of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, otherwise going by the moniker of She & Him. A most delightful combination of jazz, reverb’d guitar and ever-so-slightly haunting vocals, I cannot get enough of it into my betinsel’d ears.

Being out of practice, however, means that it has taken me longer than I might normally require to learn the piece. Admittedly, there are a few stacked minor thirds, hovering above inverted and subtle (almost hidden, thanks to the production) bass notes, but I usually take no more than a couple of listens before, as Jeff Buckley once said at Sin-é, wowing the room with my acumen. Of course, I know the original tune, but not the ornamentation. This tells me – nay, screams! – that I am out of practice: my ears are weakening and my fingers are all butter mince pies, at least when playing this particular tune.

I know what to do; I know how to do it; what I’m lacking is both the practice to display that knowledge and also the practice of applying that knowledge in that specific context.

Now, I can play this without thinking about it because I play it all the time. No, really. All the time. It’s my morning coffee and my evening wind-down.

I don’t have to think about it anymore: the fiendishly difficult solo, with its half-arpeggiated, flat-picked diminished sevenths is something I know both in theory and in practice. Knowing this makes it easier to pick up other difficult Brian Setzer orchestrations, but I’d still need to practise them first. There are some people out there who can – apparently – play these sorts of things straight away, almost on first listen. Now, I’ve met, and played with, some bloody excellent musicians with much more perfect pitch than I, though have never come across actual genius, though that’s why we use the word ‘genius’ and that’s why genius is the exception which proves the rule.

So, knowing one thing, and knowing how to do it, might well make it easier to do something else. But that something else is still, surprise-surprise, something else. I can practise more difficult phrases, wrapping my fingers around balletic sequences in various genres, but a specific piece requires specific procedures: I can ad lib some jazz because I know lots of jazz pieces, but ask me to play along to Joe Pass without the hours of practise beforehand and I’ll flatter to deceive. David Didau writes something similar here, about essays:

But just because they’ve mastered writing English essays does not mean that they’ll be equally good at writing about history or economics. Not only does essay writing in these subjects require different content knowledge, it also requires knowledge of the different forms essays are required to take.

I’ve not been fortunate enough to watch Ali Farka Touré in concert, but I adore his Malian folk, and know a couple of his albums very well. I am not, however, au fait with the genre as a whole and so would find it nigh on impossible to ad lib the style: I could, I’m sure, come up with something that sounded a bit like In the Heart of the Moon, but – again – I’m not familiar enough to make it sound convincing.

Thinking more and more about this alongside a growing confidence in how to actually assess formatively (rather than, as I think Michael Tidd put it, assessing summatively more often) has made me realise how little I really pull apart certain conventions of writing history in my classroom. It’s not that we don’t look at how we, or I, or historians, might phrase something, but that I don’t do it enough. Partly that’s a pacing problem, and partly it’s due to the wasted time I used to spend on frivolous activities. It’s also due to my own lack of confidence in how to express these conventions, which Jim Carroll has done a wonderful job of pulling apart in recent editions of Teaching History.

And so whilst I’m playing more Christmassy jingles over the holiday I’ll also be looking to set myself a resolution which I might actually keep: more time for practice. That means less waste (and I already consider my teaching to be pretty lean) and more consideration of the Joe Kirby’s hornet analogy. In the meantime, have yourself a merry little Christmas.

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