About Listening and Learning

A few years ago I was talking about Indian pedagogy to a mixed group of musicians and school-teachers in a classroom at New England Conservatory, and I asked for a volunteer. One girl raised her hand, and I enlisted her as a “student” in the Indian sense. With the drone in the background, I sang a short series of notes and looked at her expectantly. “Bonnie” reproduced them, a bit tentatively for all that she was a trained singer with an acute ear and a lovely voice. I tried another set of notes; she was a bit more confident this time around.

I decided to up the ante.

I sang a set of five pitches in an open vowel:

Aa – – – –

and she sent them back at me. This time I performed them with a “stretch” on the first note:

S —— R S N S
Aa—— – – – –

and Betty, visibly nervous, did a pretty good job of reproducing the line. I did the same melody, and she got it (a bit better this time). Then I performed the line with a “stretch” on the second note:

S R———S N S
Aa-——— – – –

Betty panicked. It was a dignified panic, one concealed by the veneers of adult behavior control, but I could see: she knew that something had changed, but she wasn’t sure what.

She tried the melody as she’d sung it before, with a hold on the first note. Nope. I sang it again, the same way. She tried another approach, but it was clear that she hadn’t figured out the change had taken place, so to speak, in the durational dimension of the notes. Instead she tried phrasing them a little differently. I kept repeating the line exactly, with a stretch on the second note.

Eventually she found the correct version, but I could tell (having been there so many times myself) that this was a spurious correctness — what I call “getting it right by accident.” She’d tried many different approaches, and this was one of them, and it happened to be right — but there was no formal, structural understanding of the principle which underlay my variation. As she sang, duplicating the line accurately, I knew this — and I confirmed my supposition by singing it again, with the “stretch” on the third note in the sequence:

S R S———N S
Aa – –——— – –

…and she immediately floundered in the same way, desperately casting about for alternative versions of this simple melody which corresponded to the change — a change which she’d definitely heard, but whose nature she had not grokked. I sang it again, and she continued trying to solve the problem…(repeat and fade).

This was a useful interaction for me in my role as professor: I wanted to illuminate the peculiar mix of frustration and fulfillment that attend learning in Indian oral tradition, and Betty was handling the frustration component perfectly. She was even more disturbed by her own failure, because she was a singer, and she knew that she was supposed to be able to do it.

There was another person in the room — who knew she wasn’t supposed to be able to do it. Ruth was an elementary school teacher, a middle-aged African-American woman with a friendly face who consistently spoke of her “lack of musical talent.” As I sang the last version of the line, I heard her soft, all but inaudible voice…getting it absolutely right (and, mirabile dictu, perfectly in tune to boot!).

I turned to her and sang the sequence: the five notes without a stretch, then with each successive note elongated in turn. She nailed it without a single hitch.

“What were we doing?” I asked. “Can you figure out how to put it in words?”

This was a little trickier for her, since she (ahem) had no musical ability or knowledge of any kind, and hence no vocabulary for describing what we’d done. But she struggled with her own absolute, embodied knowledge of the line, and extracted a description:

“You were singing it, and every time it was the next note that would be longer than the others.”

She was absolutely right.

“How did you figure it out?”, I asked.

“Well, I just listened very carefully to what you were doing, and I heard it.”

“Ruth, you’ve told me you have no musical skills…” my voice trailed off in a rising inflection.

“Yes, but I’m a schoolteacher and I work with small children all day. In my profession you have to learn to listen!”

I couldn’t have asked for a better pair of demonstrators; the power of attentive audition was self-evident to everyone in the room.

Bonnie lifted her hand off the desk, and when I looked at her, asked “But…I would have gotten it without all those difficulties! If you’d told me what we were doing, it would have been so much faster.”

To which, of course, the only possible response (I was feeling a bit of a smartaleck that day) was “why on earth would I want to make it faster?” Bonnie sat back, looking frustrated.

Ruth intervened. “If you discover it for yourself, then you really understand it. If I tell you what’s going on, you might get it, but you won’t get it so completely.” Betty nodded.

I spoke up. “Betty, I gave you a wiseass response a second ago, and I apologize. The point I wanted to make is that being immersed in music and melody is a great joy. Why strive to make it go by fast? If you think of the process of learning a melody, not as a test of your musicianship, but as analogous to the process of finding out about a new friend, or contemplating a garden, or soaking in the atmosphere in a walk through the woods… well, then you don’t need to rush; there’s no pressure.

“Ruth’s point is even more important, though. When you learn the material in your own way, and you keep trying things out and a lot of the time they don’t work — well, sure it can be frustrating. But by the time you reach the solution, you’ve gone over so many ideas and alternatives that you actually know the implications of the melody a lot better, and you really own the correct version. It’s yours, not mine any more.”

I don’t know if Bonnie was convinced. The Conservatory tradition was strong in her; my epistemology may have been too much in opposition to all that she knew about learning and had learned about knowing.

I have remembered that day’s interaction for many years. I wonder what Bonnie remembers.

Absolutely! I just taught a young musician in the same way tonight-letting her feel it-don’t think about it so much. After you feel it-then I’ll explain it to you.

Many (not all, but many) aspects of Conservatory training are carried out with pieces of paper (music notation) interposed between the student and the sound phenomena. This allows for visual analysis of complex materials, and enables multi-part coordination at a very rich level…but it often “artifactualizes” the learning experience, sapping it of spontaneity and essence.

4 Mar 2010, 1:59am
by Vishwas Shirgaonkar

Very insightful.

Pardon my ignorance but how is the Conservatory tradition in opposition ? I am not familiar with the western process of music instruction.


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