Freedom to Learn From Musical Experiences

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If I distrust the human being then I must cram him with information of my own choosing, lest he go his own mistaken way. But if I trust the capacity of the human individual for developing his own potentiality, then I can provide him with many opportunities and permit him to choose his own way and his own direction in his learning.

Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn

Most music professors agree that a student must not restrict his musical education to the learning of facts about music; hence they speak of the importance of performing, of listening, and, much less frequently, of composing. However the actions of these teachers show that they do not trust the student to experience music in a "correct" way, i.e. in the way the teachers experience it. They tell the student what he should hear and how to experience what he hears ("Listen to the dominant-seventh chord and feel how it makes you want to hear the tonic"), but do not encourage the student to build on his own awareness of what he hears and feels. Sometimes classes become a frustrating guessing game for the student.

Professor: What did you hear in these twenty measures I just played?
Student 1: The dark tone of the viola; it seems sad to me.
Professor: Well, yes, but there's something else [10 sec. pause], something we talked about on Monday.
Student 2: Cross rhythms, in measure 10.
Professor: Well, yes, we did mention cross rhythms, but what did I spend fifteen minutes putting on the board and playing for you?
Student 3: Oh, the German Augmented Sixth!
Professor: [With a great sign of relief.] Yes! Can you find one in these twenty measures?

Such teaching undermines a student's confidence in the value of his own awareness. It teaches him to try to experience music in the way the professor does and thus to negate parts of his own experience, and, ultimately, of himself.

I believe that by trusting what Carl Rogers calls "the potentiality and wisdom of the human being"1 it is possible to facilitate the learning of music in a way that affirms the self. One way to do this is to help the student become more fully aware of whatever he hears and feels during musical experiences and to help him reflect on the possible implications of his reactions to music. The value of such an approach soon became apparent in a seminar I offered to B.Mus. students at the University of Natal. This article describes the seminar and the learnings that have resulted from it. As much as possible, the description is presented in the words of the students who participated in the seminar; what this practice contributes in flavor and authenticity more than compensates for what it sacrifices in grammar and punctuation.2

 

DESCRIPTION OF THE SEMINAR ON THE EXPERIENCING OF MUSIC

General Information

At the University of Natal, students working for a B.Mus. degree or for a B.A. with a major in music enroll for two seven-week seminars during both their second and third years of study and sometimes during their fourth year, as well. The seminars meet for one two-hour session each week. The students are given some choice of topic and base their choice on written descriptions of the seminars being offered. The seminar on "The Experiencing of Music" was described as follows:

1. Member of staff responsible: Beverly Parker
2. Time offered: 16th August-4th October
3. Intended for: students who are willing to share their musical experiences with others and who want to reflect upon those experiences. It is not for those whose attitude is that their musical experiences cannot be deepened, communicated, or reflected upon.
4. Aims of the seminar: to help participants become more conscious of the ways in which they listen to music and of the conditions that affect their experience of music and to help participants reflect upon the possible meanings or implications of their musical experiences.
5. Method of presentation: the seminar will include many musical experiences (live performances and the playing of recordings). After each experience, questions will be asked that will aid the participants to become more conscious of the focus of their attention during the experience and that will aid them in reflecting on the experience. Reflections will then be shared, and, when possible, conclusions drawn. The participants will design or will be assigned experiments to perform each week. They will share the results of these experiments during the weekly seminar meeting. Each participant will keep a journal in which he records his activities, observations, and conclusions. This method of presentation excludes "making up" a missed seminar meeting. Participants must agree to the following conditions: (1) No one will reveal another's comments to non-members of the seminar; (2) No judgements will be made concerning the "validity" or "correctness" of another's way of listening; and (3) No one will be forced to share more of his experience than he wants to share.
6. Content: each student will write an essay on a topic of his own choice. Possible topics include:
    Conditions That Affect the Way People Listen
    My Musical Likes and Dislikes
    Responses to a Single Musical Work
    How the People of Durban Listen to Music
    Existential Listening (or How I have Listened to Music Over the Last Seven Weeks)
    The Way in Which a Sung or Spoken Text Influences People's Listening
    The Way in Which Programme Notes Influence Listening
    Differences in Reactions to Schoenberg (or another composer)
7. Method of Assessment:
    Preparation for Class and Participation in Class 35%
    Essay (due by 12th October) 65%
  Since no particular way of experiencing music will be regarded as "'better" or "more correct" than other ways, the staff member will not assess the quality of experiences. She will assess the design and performance of experiments, the organization and interpretation of data generated by the experiences and experiments, and the comprehensiveness and logicality of the essay.
8. Relationship with Other Work: related to all musical experiences.
9. Source Materials: the most important sources will be actual musical experiences (at concerts, in the listening laboratory, in the practice rooms, and at meetings of the seminar). Other sources will include other people's descriptions of their musical experiences and their reflections on these experiences. Some of these descriptions and reflections may be solicited through interviews or surveys. Others may be found in literature about music. Some literature that may prove helpful is:
  Adorno, Theodor W. "Types of Musical Conduct" in his Introduction to the Sociology of Music, pp. 1-20.
  Arnheim, Rudolf. "The Gestalt Theory of Expression," in his Towards a Psychology of Art, pp. 51-73.
  Copland, Aaron. "How We Listen," in Ostransky, Perspectives on Music, pp. 2-6.
  Farnsworth, Paul R. The Social Psychology of Music.
  Imberty, Michel. Signification and Meaning in Music.
  McLaughlin, Terence. Music and Communication.
  Morgenstern, Sam, ed. Composers on Music.
  Rader, Melvin, ed. A Modern Book of Esthetics, especially the introductory notes by Rader and the excerpts by John Dewey, Suzanne Langer, Vernon Lee, Theodore Lipps, Wilhelm Worringer, and J.W.N. Sullivan.
  Reik, Theodore. The Haunting Melody.
  Schafer, R. Murray. The Music of the Environment.
  Sessions, Roger. "Hearing, Knowing, and Understanding Music" in his Questions about Music.
  Strunk, Oliver, ed. Source Readings in Music History.

Nine B.Mus. students participated in the seminar, eight selecting it as their first choice and one as her second choice. The seminar could have been run with two or three times as many students if the large group had been broken into permanent smaller groups for purposes of discussion. Two of the students are Indians (one Hindu and one Christian), one is an Afrikaaner, and the other six are from English-speaking families. The diversity of the students' backgrounds often enriched the proceedings of the seminar.

 

Guided Reflection on Musical Experiences

At the first session of the seminar, the students were offered a variety of musical experiences that introduced them to the possibilities of the seminar. These experiences set a procedural pattern that was followed throughout the seven weeks. Firstly, we experienced music: e.g., after announcing that a march would be played, I played the Brahms's Lullaby on the piano in the meter, tempo, and style of a march. Secondly, we attempted to identify what had happened during the experience. Each person identified what he heard in the music, his physical reactions, his emotions, his thoughts, and what he observed in other participants. The march generated laughter, annoyance, and resentment. Some students recognized that the melody was originally a lullaby; others merely noticed that it was a familiar tune. Thirdly, once these events and feelings were identified, we discussed relations between the events and possible causes for some of the reactions that occurred. We discussed the present feelings of the participants about the events they had identified and about the experience as a whole. Fourthly, we attempted to identify general principles that might have been in operation during the experience. The third and fourth steps of this procedure are illustrated in Wendy's essay:

The waltzed-up, march-type version of Brahms's Lullaby that Dr. Parker played for us on the piano during the first seminar meeting, caused mixed feelings on my part. This was due to the fact that my Grandmother always used to sing that lullaby to me as a child, when I was going to sleep. The fact that my memories of the past, of my childhood, were being threatened by this send-up of the lullaby, caused the mixed feelings in me, harbouring feelings, mainly comprised of resentment, but strangely enough I also laughed. . . . Associations from past experiences play an important part in my response to music.

For each experience, the participants first wrote about their own reactions and reflections and then shared as much of what they had written as they wished. This procedure minimized the influence of others on each person's initial thoughts and feelings, so that each person could recognize and own what was his. It also provided the participants with an opportunity to make observations and analyses freely, without the threat of obligatory, immediate group sharing. The essays of several of the students showed that they had learned much about themselves that they had not shared during the seminar sessions. The amount and depth of sharing increased steadily as the seminar progressed. As Carol writes, "The seal of trust within the group created an environment for sharing gut-level feelings—these lead to gut-level learnings."

The first session included a discussion of the four-step procedure (experience, identify, analyze, and generalize); four musical experiences and reflections on these experiences; explicit agreement to the three conditions listed on the description sheet (see no. 5 of the description given above); and discussion of the aims of the seminar, the sorts of topics that might lend themselves to essays for the seminar, bibliography that might be useful, and an assignment for the following week.

Subsequent sessions generally included the sharing of additional thoughts and feelings about what had happened during the previous session, discussions of musical events that had occurred during the prior week (including concerts, piano criticism classes, and practical examinations), and more musical experiences. After the first session, all of the musical experiences were planned by the students. We relaxed on the floor and listened to Indian classical music; we listened to the opening of Bach's Magnificat, a work that many of the seminar members had sung in a performance eleven months prior to the seminar; we composed short melodies; we listened to Debussy's Rhapsody for Saxophone and Orchestra with half of the class free to look at a print of van Gogh's Street in Auvers and the other half not free to do so; and we participated in other experiences with many other types of music.

 

Student Essays

The eventual direction of the seminar is indicated to a large degree by the titles the students chose for their essays: "Conditions Which Affect the Way We Listen to Music," "The Influence of One's Background on Listening Experiences," "An Investigation into Some Aspects of Music as Therapy," "A Critical Evaluation of the Influence By the Experiencing of Music Seminar on My Own Musical Experience with Specific Relations to My Record Collection," "My Musical Likes and Dislikes," "Responses to Works from Different Eras," "Responses to Two Musical Works" (The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" and Haydn's Surprise Symphony, movement 2), "Responses to 'Alahia Bilaval'" (an Indian classical work), and "The Experience of Composing" (research begun, but essay never written due to illness). Each student planned musical experiences that would provide data for his essay. While many of these experiences took place during the seminar sessions, others took place outside the seminar and involved other music students and members of the public.

 

Assignments

The assignment made at the first session was:

1. Read Farnsworth, The Social Psychology of Music, pp. 1-15.
2. Attend the department's lunch-hour concert on August 21. As you listen, keep track in your journal of the musical and non-musical events of which you are aware and of the physical and emotional feelings you are having. Such journal entries might take the following form:
  Event Emotion, Music
    Physical Feelings  
  beautiful cello tone pleasure, Schubert,
    relaxation Sonata for
  people talking annoyance, Cello and
    tense jaw Piano in
  piano chords annoyance A Minor,
    (chords too loud D. 821,
    for cello), mvt. 2
    frowning  
  etc. etc. etc.
3. Decide on the topic on which you want to write your essay. Devise an experiment to be performed at the second seminar. Ideally the experiment will provide data for your essay.

After this session, the only assignments I made were readings accompanied by suggestions for using the readings as an aid to reflection on the musical experiences we had shared during the seminar. The students quickly perceived the relevance of the readings to themselves and to their essays and requested that I assign readings throughout the seminar. My most vivid impression of a student's mastery of the readings dates from a music department party. A seminar member who has the reputation of being one of the least studious members of the department casually remarked on the behavior of some other students in a comment that used Adorno's label of "culture consumer" in an appropriate way.

The following is a typical reading assignment:

Readings for 6th September

1. Farnsworth, The Social Psychology of Music, pp. 209-223.
  a) Which of the factors mentioned by Farnsworth may have been operating in your responses to the music played during the last seminar session (Josquin, motet; Prokofiev, war-music excerpt from Alexander Nevsky; excerpt from Dvořák's New World Symphony; Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, 2 versions; and Indian classical music)?
2. Farnsworth, The Social Psychology of Music, pp. 69-96.
  a) Do you agree with the chart on p. 84? That is, are these responses your responses? Are some of these factors applicable to your responses to the music played during the last seminar session?
  b) Look at the chart on pp. 85-86. Are your responses more like those of the "European" or those of the "American Indian"? Or do they differ from both of these? Or do you not know without testing?
3. Other passages in Farnsworth may well provide useful data for your essay. In view of our recent discussions, some other readings you may find helpful are Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, especially pp. 21 and 94-95 and Storr, The Dynamics of Creation, especially pp. 70-72, 80-83, 122-23, 127-44, and 177-79.

 

RESULTS

The experience-based approach produced a seminar in which there was no need to wait for essays or exams for both the students and the staff-member to know that important learnings had taken place. We experienced each other becoming aware of musical elements and relations we had previously neglected; we experienced each other testing new hypotheses and drawing new conclusions—groping and growing. We could observe the gradual clarification and development of what Wendy called the "thoughts and problems whirling in my head." As Jane writes, "It was good to see people's thoughts growing through the sessions."

 

Learnings that Fulfilled the Aims of the Seminar

The seminar members agreed that the aims of the seminar had been achieved. Firstly, everyone agreed that they had arrived at what Penny terms "a greater awareness of the many ways in which people listen to music" and a "consciousness of the many ways it is possible for me to listen to music." We became aware of the ways each of us usually listens and of the way we were listening at given moments. The following extracts from two students' essays suggest the content of some of these learnings:

Wendy: The main observation that I have made about myself during the past seven weeks is that I am definitely not a critical listener. When I listen to music, I hate to dissect it. . . . I don't try to analyze the form of the music, what instruments are playing and when they should come in, specifically look out for elements that annoy or disturb me, and so on. I usually just close my eyes, when possible, and let the music take me. To analyze the music spoils it for me. . . .

There are certain characteristics in music that I prefer, for example, pieces in a minor key; slow pieces for relaxation; fast pieces for dancing. . . .

 

Carol: My awareness of the musical content in my record collection was just about non-existent at the beginning of the seminar. My ability to listen was potentially active, as I realized when experiencing music at concerts, and during the seminars, yet within the context of my own room my mind entered into a passive totally receptive state. My experience of my music was often that of an emotional listener, using the music as a vehicle for expressing feelings, or as a media in fighting loneliness. . . . I was previously unaware of the extent to which I would subconsciously gage my emotional situation and listen to music which I could either totally identify with, verbally or in harmonic mood, to empathize with me. Alternatively I would subconsciously consider my mood to be undesirable and as a result play a record which I could predictably depend on to change my mood, my outlook and my whole disposition. . . .

In analyzing the overall significance of the seminar experience in my life, the most noticeable growth has been an enhanced awareness of how I am experiencing the music, i.e. how I am listening.

 

Inevitably, increased self-awareness led to self-directed growth. Four students attest to this change:

a student: The seminar has made me aware of many sides to the experience of music. It has helped me become a more critical and appreciative listener. Also, this seminar has increased my musical listening repertoire.


another student: I've also changed a little when I listen to music. I consciously notice many more things than previously.


Carol: I have constantly experienced my music as a jazz fan [Adorno's label]; protesting against the official culture to which I am exposed at university. I became aware of resentments and guilt at enjoying "non-classical" music to the extent of almost neglecting classical music as a rebellion. In identifying these feelings I realized the lack of validity in them and consciously became aware of an attitudinal change in my approach. This led to the renewal in enjoyment and more conscious listening to structures and forms in the "classical" music of my collection.


another student: It [the seminar] has helped the writer to be more tolerant of other's tastes.

 

Secondly, all the seminar members became more conscious of the conditions that affect their own and others' musical experiences. This is one of the topics for which our wide variety of backgrounds proved important. One student writes that her most significant learning from the seminar is that "Every listening experience is unique for each person because each individual interprets an experience according to his or her own knowledge, background, past experiences, etc." Carol expresses this more fully in her essay:

We saw that due to our cultural and sociological components we cannot consider the nature of our hearing, listening and perceiving musical experiences without considering the concrete historical situations in each personality—the historical, psychological, social, cultural, emotional and educational, environmental preconditioning which almost predetermines our responses in a given musical-experiential situation.

It was apparent during the seminars that we were dealing with each individual's world of hearing and not a general field of listening. . . . Each person in the seminar group created a new experience for himself, by individually selecting from the possible auditory conditions of the music and his own human conditions, links between himself and his musical environment.

 

Penny's essay discusses the following list of conditions that may affect a musical experience: architecture, the acoustical quality of the sound, the presence of sounds that are not part of the music, the presence of visual art, the presence of particular odors, personal comfort, the presence or absence of other listeners, the distance between listeners, the listener's expectation of an interesting or a dull performance, the listener's mood, the nature of the performance, and the reactions of other listeners. While this list may present no surprises to the professional aesthetician or musician, it was eye-opening to Penny, who compiled it as a result of generalizing from her own experiences. She said that her essay had been "a super essay to write because of my involvement." As Bartók is reputed to have remarked, "There is a great difference between hearing about something and actually experiencing it."3

Again, increased self-awareness led to self-directed growth. A student who had become interested in enrolling in the seminar so she could learn "what to listen for" and "how to listen more correctly" developed more confidence in the validity of her own listening experiences. Carol eliminated one source of music-related guilt:

I have been educated to believe that certain areas of music have more importance and value than others. This subconscious conditioning has created a conscience in me that feels guilty of buying "non-classical" records but justified in buying so-called "classical" ones. These feelings have been recognized through the seminar, and largely corrected, through an understanding awareness.

 

Thirdly, we reflected on the possible meanings and implications of our musical experiences. Many of these reflections concerned the ways in which people often respond to music; they brought out the fact that musical experiences are related to non-musical experiences. Other, more personal reflections concerned the relations between seminar members' lives, thoughts, and feelings and their reactions to specific musical experiences. Usually this type of reflection was stimulated by wide variances between the responses of various members to a single musical event.

 

Other Learnings

Some of the most important learnings concerned group functioning and interpersonal relations. Seminar members experienced both the risks and the rewards of revealing themselves to each other.

Susan: Working together with and sharing thoughts and ideas with the members in the seminar group (some with whom I have had very little [previous] contact) means that one gives away a lot about oneself. This was not very easy at first but as soon as everyone had adapted to the situation and the people around them, it was easier to talk freely.

 

Carol: I think that many discoveries were made which I did not foresee—most of them have probably not yet become conscious. One particular aspect of which I am well aware is that I was affirmed by the group—my ideas and feelings were accepted—this had very positive side effects.

 

As Jane summarizes:

The other aspect of music experiencing that lends itself to therapeutic practice is the fact that music can be and often is a socially-orientated activity. . . .

The end product . . . can be a remarkable feeling of easy, relaxed communication, with barriers of age or profession being broken down, with a sense of hierarchical discrimination being nullified by the sharing and intimate unity of a good group experience. This was witnessed on a number of occasions in the seminar sessions and was verbally expressed by many members of the group.

 

Several students commented on the conditions that facilitate the development of trust and sharing:

a student: I liked the informal atmosphere and the lack of personal strain put on the individual. I.e. I could enter the seminar without the feelings of dread and despair that I had in the last seminar.

 

Jane: Freedom of expression was valued, differences of opinion were accepted.

 

another student: Most people were able to share their experiences freely. People consented to not mentioning what was said and by whom during a seminar session.

 

For some students, the four-step procedure of experiencing, identifying, analyzing, and generalizing was an important new tool. Most thought they would continue to use the procedure in other situations.

 

Enthusiasm

The seminar generated much enthusiasm for music and for the study of music. This is evidenced by the number of times members voluntarily stayed longer than the two hours scheduled for the seminar, by their discussion of seminar topics outside the seminar sessions, and by the following statements:

a student: They [the other music students] used to wonder why we were so bright and enthusiastic about our seminar.


another student: I really feel that every student should participate in a seminar of this nature at some stage.


Wendy: Music is an excellent therapeutic medium.

 

Effects on Staff-member

I felt revived and energized by each seminar meeting. I experienced myself and others more fully than in any other music classes in which I have participated. I am excited about the affirmation I received from the other seminar members and from the success of the seminar. Now I am building on my learnings from the seminar; these learnings are enabling me to risk more and trust more in all my music classes.

 

Evaluation

The most important evaluations of the learning achieved in the seminar are being made slowly in the minds of the seminar members as they see the seminar making a difference in their lives. My own evaluation has been aided greatly by the students' answers to the following questionnaire:

  1. What are your most significant learnings from the seminar?
  2. Do you think you have learnings that you can't yet verbalize?
  3. What did you like about the seminar?
  4. What did you dislike about the seminar?
  5. Do you think we wasted time?
  6. Any suggestions for improvement of the seminar?
  7. Did you learn anything about yourself during the seminar? If so, was this learning facilitated by particular musical experiences? If you feel free to do so, say what you learned about yourself.
  8. Did you learn anything about other seminar members during the seminar? If so, did any of these learnings increase your understanding of music? Explain.
  9. Was the model of the learning cycle (experience, identify, analyze, generalize) useful to you? Do you think you will use this model for anything other than this seminar?
  10. Do you think the seminar fulfilled its stated aims? Explain.
  11. Did the seminar fulfill any unstated expectations you may have had? Explain.
  12. Did the seminar help you in ways you did not foresee?

The answers to this questionnaire provided many of the statements quoted above. Responses to a questionnaire distributed to the music students who did not take the seminar indicated that the seminar had had some influence on these students. One indicated that she had learned "that it is interesting to find out how differently each person experiences music and that no one way of listening is the correct way. It seems to have been proved that the experience of music is a totally individual thing."

Since the University requires other, more tangible, less subjective methods of evaluation, it was required that each student write an essay and that he discuss his learnings in an end-of-year examination. While these requirements placed limitations on the students, they were not without benefits. The requirements of an essay gave direction to each student's individual experimentation and inquiry, and the examination prompted students to verbalize and organize their thoughts and feelings about their musical experiences. It was not difficult to devise examination topics that would utilize the generalizations we had drawn from our seminar experiences. These topics were:

(1) For the fourth-year student, who participated in the seminar as part of a course in Musicology:

While the experiencing of music includes subjective, emotional factors, the usefulness of literature about music depends to a high degree on the intellectual objectivity with which the author approaches his task. Discuss the conflicting claims of subjectivity and objectivity in discussions of music, and suggest ways in which the subjective may be considered in an objective fashion. You may wish to refer to your classmates' seminar papers or to other literature to illustrate some of your points.

(2) For the other students, who participated in the seminar as part of a second-year and third-year general music course:

Either:

(a) Discuss the variety of ways in which different people may listen to a single musical work. Postulate reasons for this variety.

Or

(b) Name five of the composers whose music you appreciate most fully and five whose music you dislike. Postulate reasons for your preferences, and comment fully on the patterns you perceive in your preferences.

 

CONCLUSION

Courses in music often follow a pattern of presenting facts about music and then offering a musical experience that is meant to demonstrate the previously presented facts. All too often the knowledge that is gained is merely factual. The Seminar on "The Experiencing of Music" demonstrates the value of starting with musical experiences and of helping students to reflect on those experiences. Above all, it demonstrates that when learning about music is facilitated in a way that affirms the self, the knowledge that is gained is more significant than the merely factual. In Creative Experience, Mary Parker Follett states "Concepts can never be presented to me merely, they must be knitted into the structure of my being, and this can only be done through my own activity."4 The seminar provided an atmosphere in which each student did act in a way that knitted concepts into the fabric of his being.


1Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn (Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing House, 1969), p. vii.

2When the students gave me permission to quote them, I promised that their names would not be used. Since the reader may be interested in knowing which statements were made by a single student, I have assigned pseudonyms to the students. The quotations that are not attributed are taken from unsigned questionnaires.

3Béla Bartók, as quoted by Agatha Fassett, Béla Bartók's Last Years: The Naked Face of Genius (1958; re-issued London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1970), p. 174.

4Mary Parker Follett, Creative Experience, quoted in Marion Milner, On Not Being Able to Paint, paperback ed. (London: Heinemann, 1971), p. xi.

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