Mission II

Mission I

So here’s what I wrote way back in September 2011:

Instead, I’m going to do a Khatzumoto-style disappear-permenantly-to-another-country mission. Here it is:

Within the next year (i.e. 365 days) I will have found work in a Cantonese-speaking area (most likely Hong Kong) and will have flown over there. By that time, I will be fluent in spoken Cantonese I will also be able to read Chinese well (the 3000 most common characters would be a sensible benchmark).

My definition of “fluent” is “can comfortably hold conversations on a variety of topics at full speed”. Realistically, I don’t think I’m million miles away – I think my main problem at the moment is likely to be vocabulary (all that grammar work paid off!) I will be concentrating on speaking over the next six months.

As far as reading is concerned, I need to do quite a lot of work – this will take up the second half of my year. I can already read quite a lot (thanks largely to Chinese subtitles) – again, it’s donkey work from here on to learn the less common characters. Naturally, 1) being able to speak and 2) having learnt to write all the characters before, this shouldn’t be an impossible challenge.

Now, with just a couple of weeks to go before my self-imposed deadline, what stage have I reached?

1. My accent is passably native – people on the phone tend not to notice that I’m not a native speaker.  Sometimes it slips in conversation, especially if I’ve not been “in the zone” (immersion environment) for a few hours.

2. I can talk with people about a variety of things, provided they don’t talk too rapidly if it’s not a topic I’m especially familiar with.  Sometimes I need them to repeat what they said, but much less now than before.  Occasionally I need a direct Cantonese > English translation, but sometimes I can understand a Cantonese explanation.

3. I can communicate any idea with some reliance on code-switching English words, although again this is less and less necessary as time goes on.

4. I can type Chinese very rapidly and accurately using ChongKit (not something I planned on, but which turned out to be a useful investment of time).

5. I can read and write around 2,500 characters, although they’re not necessarily the most common ones.  (I’m still learning about 10 new ones a day, on average.)

6. I can read Harry Potter in Chinese, pausing only to look up new characters once every few sentences.  I can figure out new words from context.

7. I can use a Chinese only-dictionary for a lot of words.  Sometimes I need to resort to an English definition though to make sense of the whole thing.

8. I can learn most new songs quickly– with lyrics, it typically only takes half an hour or so total to vacuum up new characters and be able to sing the song in a karaoke place.

Mission II

And so, since all that’s left now is clocking up Cantonese hours (the overall technique having been just-about perfected), I’m in need of a new mission.  My family were kind enough to send my flute to me last week (the sax would’ve been waaaay too expensive to ship) so it’s going to be music based.

Anyway, here was the first idea I came up with: Grade 8 flute by March next year.  (ABRSM).

I got a high distinction at Grade 7 about four years ago, so I figured that wouldn’t actually be too hard.  (Having said that, I’ve probably only done just enough practice over the last four years to not get significantly worse, so we’ll see).  In any case, here’s how I’m going to make it harder:

Grade 8 flute (ABRSM) by March next year, playing all pieces by ear only.

That means not using any sheet music at any stage.  Looking at performers’ fingers is permitted though, I think.  I’ve never really memorised music before (beyond playing things intuitively by ear: what I memorised was the tune, not how to play it) so I have no idea how that will pan out for minutes worth of complicated music.


Since getting my flute back last week, I haven’t looked at any sheet music because I don’t have any, and so I’ve gone back to playing along with pop songs and improvising over them.  Also themes from video games and films.  Playing them by ear is now, in general, surprisingly easy, especially if I break a tricky song down to its melody’s bare bones.

However, pop songs, unlike high-level examination pieces, don’t tend to include a lot of key changes, so I’m not entirely sure whether or not I’ll be able to play them (the exam pieces) by ear accurately.  Having said that, I’ve transcribed music like there was no tomorrow before, which I guess should help.

I suppose so much listening won’t be helping my sight-reading much, so I’ll still have to do separate practice on that.

How Much Time?

Back in 2007 when I took piano, sax and flute exams all at the same time, I think I clocked up about 3 hours a day on average practicing, spread between the three instruments; I’m going to aim to do 2-3 hours/day on the flute over the next six months.  I may have Cantonese radio playing at the same time, especially while practicing things like scales and arpeggios.  I’m going to start going to an amateur orchestra as of this Friday too*.

In any case, if I find that the whole thing is going to be too much of a doddle (unlikely), I may throw in a “Grade 8 theory” by March too.  (Again, it’s something I worked towards before but never got round to taking the exam.)  If it turns out to be far too hard, I will have no hesitation in delaying the exam(s).

But don’t exams suck?

Finally: you may be wondering what the point of taking the exam is.  Haven’t I been totally unwilling to sit Chinese exams?

The reason is basically that being a certified Grade 8 musician is much weightier than merely being a Grade 7 one, especially when it comes to things like giving (and charging for) lessons. Then, at least, I’ll have the option of doing an actual teaching diploma afterwards.

In any case, I’m not especially keen on spending lots of time preparing for any exam, which is why I don’t intend to just focus on the pieces; I plan on generally doing whatever takes my fancy at any given time, and I hope that overall exam-passing proficiency emerges regardless.  What I won’t do is repeatedly flit between different instruments this time: I’m going to leave the piano, guitar and drums well alone.

The Saxophone, and All That Jazz

Finally: obviously I think that improvisation is a mightily important musical skill, and I guess I’m just going to pick up from where I left off last year with the saxophone.  When I retrieve that too (Christmas, probably), it should be easy to transfer all the accumulated musicmanship to it.  I do want to go back to it… I suppose I want to be another physicist-turned-musician.

And now I can do the whole thing in another language too.

This, I love.

* Actually I went once before, just to check it out.  The conductor kept referring to me as 鬼佬, apparently unaware that I understood what he was saying.  Hilarity abound.


3 thoughts on “Mission II

  1. Well done with your first mission!

    And it’s an interesting follow-up. I’m not too familiar with ABRSM – what kind of grading system do they have? I mainly know Toronto Conservatory, which goes grade 1-10 and then Associate (ARCT) after that.

    I think I recommended Chang’s book to you already didn’t I? on piano practise.

    • Thanks!

      ABRSM goes up to grade 8, after which comes diplomas and the like. The other major one in the UK (also maybe HK, don’t know) is Trinity which does jazz exams too. I think that’ll probably be next on the agenda… a third mission.

      I remember Chang’s book! I read through a lot of it before, but I think it’s probably worth skimming through again. I took on board some great ideas from it (e.g. on optimal practicing routines). (Note to self for later: consider starting a new deck on music study techniques…)

      Something I wanted to mention was that techniques for language learning (focussing only on the bits that are a little too hard, hunting around for explanations only for sticking points that one’s struggling with at any given moment and generally trying to spend as much time as possible learning) have had a big impact on my flute progress over the last week. I think I’ve already clocked up 20 hours over seven days, and I can play scales relevant to the songs I’ve been working with zippity-quick. Plus, my rendition/improvisation of “Englishman in New York” is shaping up nicely… got some of the twiddly bits nailed.

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