Learning How to Learn: Lessons from Diverse Traditions in Music and Dance

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During my many years of study of organ and piano, I became accustomed to the patterns of learning typical of the Western classical music world. I accepted the idea of a canon of great works, of the individualistic, inspired composers who created them, the absolute authority of scores and notation, and our humble roles as realizers (performers) of scores. Oral transmission and improvisation played extremely minor roles, limited to such things as the addition of embellishments in Baroque slow movements, subtle interpretations of rhythm and tempo, or varying patterns of articulation. I learned to reproduce pre-existing written works as a whole, with or without the score present. Although aware that the process of creating and playing American jazz was decidedly different, I did not experience that world.

In 1978 I had the opportunity to begin study of Thai classical music, which has continued under several teachers, both in Thailand and the United States, to the present. I soon found that my many years of experience in Western classical music had not prepared me in the least for this adventure. Here I was confronted with a tradition different from Western music in nearly every aspect. The compositions were by composers, sometimes known, sometimes anonymous, who saw themselves as craftsmen rather than as inspired individuals; works were rarely preserved in notation; and they were transmitted orally. I, as performer, was expected to be an active participant in the creative process. Beyond a skeletal framework, nothing was fixed.

My success in becoming a Thai musician has been limited because it has been so difficult to overcome my Western classical mindset, my presumptions of how music is organized, and the usual habits of learning that music. While I have been able to memorize fixed versions of many Thai compositions, I have not acquired much ability to create or vary my own idiomatic parts based on the instruments I play. In Thai music the form of the composition played on the large gong circle (khawng wong yai), called the luk khawng, is fundamental, and skilled players of other instruments derive idiomatic parts from it. Through sheer repetition I have absorbed many typical idiomatic patterns, and in some cases my teacher has pointed out typical solutions for particular luk khawng motives, but overall I have struggled to learn how to learn Thai music properly and admit that however Thai my performance appears, fundamentally it remains rather Western in process.

I feel that Thai music study makes demands on our brains in areas where Western-trained musicians have little experience. It was the habit of one of my teachers to transmit each new composition orally, phrase by phrase, which is typical of Thai music pedagogy. As phrases accumulated, we played and replayed the incomplete composition from the beginning until all phrases were learned. Granted, I had memorized these phrases and was not prepared to vary them. My teacher required that I play through the piece repeatedly with him. At a slow speed I could think about each phrase, anticipate the next phrase, and maintain control over my playing, but as he speeded up, this became increasingly difficult. One day as he pushed me to ever faster tempos where I found myself unable to maintain controlled thought about the phrases, I suddenly felt a kind of shift take place in my brain, after which I was playing without being lead by rational thought. It felt as if I had taken off, and for a Western classical musician, it was an unfamiliar, somewhat frightening—if exhilarating—experience. Perhaps at that moment I experienced, even though briefly, something of the Thai way of learning and playing music.

In 1995 my wife and I began taking ballroom dance lessons at a nearby Fred Astaire studio. Although intended as a hobby, ballroom dance soon morphed into a research interest as we became fascinated with its pedagogy and discovered many similarities to our Thai music experience. Although the dance curriculum is entirely codified in written manuals, access is restricted to certified teachers; students learn entirely by rote memory, making ballroom dance—at least for students—an oral tradition. After our attempts to record our lessons in written form failed, due to the complexity of the steps and our lack of efficient means to describe the steps, we realized that we had to abandon our attempts at "notation" and rely on kinetic memory and other mental devices. Over time we came to understand how ballroom dance knowledge is organized and gradually improved our efficiency at absorbing it. As with Thai music, we had to learn how to learn to dance. We were struck by how similar ballroom dance study was to Thai music study and how both were entirely different from our earlier study of Western music.

Further parallels suggested themselves. In the course of teaching various world traditions, I was struck by similarities in organization between ballroom dance and Persian traditional music. Although unrelated in any way except by analogy, the organization and transmission patterns of knowledge struck me as uncannily similar. Based on limited investigation, I feel there are enough other similar or parallel traditions to suggest that this pattern may represent a fundamental sort of solution to the challenges of organizing and transmitting knowledge. By extension, after participating in several ballroom dance "competitions," I was further struck by similarities to the activities of the German Meistersingers of the sixteenth century, who not only organized their singing tradition in ways parallel to ballroom dance but held competitions as well. These "insights," if I may call them that, further suggest, then, that pedagogical practices usually seen as remote both in time and place are actually taking place now within our own society. And further, if it is true that so much of the world has been learning music and dance using patterns and processes so distinct from those normally encountered in Western classical music, then it behooves music educators in the academy to consider some of the alternatives that appear to be so widespread. The remainder of this paper explores some of the striking similarities between patterns of study in ballroom dance and Thai music with those of traditional Persian music and the German Meistersinger tradition.


Ballroom Dance

Ballroom dance had a long history in Europe before coming to the New World. Although social dances for couples originated at least by the Renaissance, changing fashions assured that as older dances lost popularity, new ones took their place. Whatever their origins, such dances conformed to the social and artistic ideals of the society dancing them. It was during the nineteenth century, however, that ballroom dance as we know it became established in Europe. Vienna became a major center of ballroom dance, and the waltz attained the level of a "rage" by the 1830s. Ballroom dance as practiced today, however, remains centered in England, but with the rise of Latin styles early in the twentieth century, New World influence has come to dominate. Standard Euro-American ballroom dance has spread throughout the world, surviving even the ravages of China's Cultural Revolution and Vietnam's long years of war.1 For many non-Western cultures, the coming of ballroom dance music led to the development of new, urban popular musics. Being able to dance ballroom styles in many societies expressed one's modernity and admitted one to the social elite. In societies where unmarried males and females were prohibited from touching, ballroom dance provided a way to evade the taboo, sometimes provoking reactions of disapproval from conservative elders.

Whether ballroom dances had origins in traditional dance or not, they are in no way to be considered "folk" dances. All dances comprising the canon have undergone a process of refinement and codification that, in the case of folk-derived dances, eliminated any elements considered raw or unacceptable by polite Western dancers, although this statement may appear to be contradicted by contemporary Latin styles and the costumes worn by female dancers. Whether suggestive or not, modern ballroom dance is highly organized, conventionalized, and exhibits only limited improvisation.

Ballroom dance is organized into two basic canons, International and American. While there is only one International syllabus, there are nine American syllabi, including two "brand name" franchise systems, Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray. Both International and American schools divide dances into two categories. In International the "standard" or "modern" dances include waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot, and quickstep while the "Latin" category includes rumba, cha cha cha, samba, jive (called swing in the United States), and paso doble. In American the "smooth" or "ballroom" category includes waltz, Viennese waltz, foxtrot, and tango while the "rhythm" dances include cha cha cha, east coast swing, west coast swing, samba, mambo, merengue, bolero, paso doble, and rumba. Over time both canons have changed as older dances lost popularity and newer ones arose. Several other dances, such as the hustle, polka, and Lindy-hop, continue to be danced and even taught but are not included in the standard curricula. The currently popular "salsa" dance, which has elements of both cha cha and mambo, is not recognized as a type in either system.

The most prevalent context for dance other than social events and dance parties is what are called "competitions." Events such as the Ohio Star Ball, the largest independent competition in the United States, are indeed competitions where each male dancer wears a number on his back, and each couple is judged and rank-ordered for placement. Other events, such as Fred Astaire, Inc. "Team Match," "Regional," National," and "Cross Country" competitions give students feedback in the form of evaluations (e.g., "honors," "highly commended," etc.) or placements (from first to sixth) rather than determine winners and losers. The United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association (USABDA) sponsors both "competitions" and dinner-dances where hundreds of people meet to dance, dine, and see professional shows.



The oral transmission of music and dance predominates outside the Euro-American world, not because these societies are "non-literate" or (worse) "illiterate" with regard to their arts, but because for most of the world's peoples, oral transmission has proven the most effective and efficient way to teach and learn. Although we will return to this topic, we would like to emphasize how the lines of oral transmission tend to cluster within a geographical area or around a great teacher or a specific institution. Western musicians are vaguely aware of this, noting, perhaps, that a certain pianist traces her stylistic roots back to Liszt. Japanese koto players primarily follow one of two "schools" of playing, called Yamada and Ikuta.2 Indeed, most Japanese instrumentalists consciously follow the traditions of their particular "school," even to the point of keeping them secret from players of other "schools." Most Thai classical instrumentalists are aware of being in the thang or lineage of a great master of their instrument.3 Better known are the Indian gharana, most often organized geographically as, for example, in "the Benares gharana."4

Ballroom dance has its schools as well. The two most prominent are those of American dancers Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray. Although it is true that neither of these men wrote the syllabi followed by today's dancers, those who created the basic styles and corporate studio systems were either family members or disciples. Even though independent studios outnumber those of the two "brand name" systems, a great number of today's independent teachers were formerly instructors in franchised studios and therefore may continue to transmit the styles of their original gharana, albeit in the step patterns of obsolete syllabi.

Secrecy is a factor in some "schools." In the Thai classical tradition, the student is only privileged to learn certain literature after bonding to a teacher through ritual. Older "traditional" Chinese musicians refuse to share their artistic secrets with others not of their circle.5 Japanese shakuhachi (flute) and koto (zither) players of a particular school keep their repertory and techniques secret from players of other schools. In ballroom dance privileged knowledge is handled in a more Western way, by contract. The Fred Astaire, Inc. contract "fine print" specifies what kind of dance knowledge the student may acquire. For example, only by paying in advance can the student move about the syllabus, studying any dance at any sub-level within, e.g., the bronze curriculum.



Rituals that bond student to teacher or "school" are concomitant with oral tradition. This is especially true of Thai music, a tradition in which we have participated for over twenty years. In Thailand before beginning serious study of most arts, many crafts, and even some sports (e.g., Thai boxing), the student must perform a ritual that bonds him/her to the khru (teacher, from the Indic guru) and the teacher's lineage or thang. This ceremony, called wai [greeting] khru [teacher], involves offering ritual gifts of candles, flowers, incense, and coins in return for a blessing and a ritualized first lesson during which the master guides the hands of the student in playing a basic musical phrase. As the student progresses, higher levels of wai khru are performed. The annual ceremony at, for example, a university department of music requires an extremely elaborate arrangement of instruments and offerings, performances by numerous groups, and occupies up to several hours. Before a musician practices or performs, he/she is required to place the hands in prayer position (wai) in remembrance of the teacher. More than simply honoring the teachers of the human realm, the ritual honors a larger hierarchy that leads upwards into the spiritual realm of great teachers from the past, godlike characters from Indian epics, and the gods themselves. As such it draws on several religious traditions, including animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

In traditional learning, rituals entitle the student to knowledge held by spiritually empowered teachers. In ballroom dance, the "ritual" that admits one to the privilege of learning is the signing of a contract and the payment of money. Granted, this kind of ritualized behavior lacks the spiritual dimension of the wai khru and denotes a transaction simply for the sale of knowledge in return for money. But without passing through this act, the student cannot study. Whereas the Thai wai khru originated before cash exchanges became the chief means for supporting teachers, ballroom dance is typically Western and reflects the time and place of its origin. Arguably, ritual by contract and submission of a credit card cheapens the exchange, but we believe that the underlying principle remains.


Organization of Knowledge

Ballroom dances are taught as highly conventionalized curricula of separately named step patterns, often called "school figures." All curricula offer at least three levels—bronze, silver, and gold—but many also include a foundation level preceding bronze and a level beyond gold (e.g., supreme gold or platinum). The shortest named patterns constitute the "elements," such as fifth position, natural underarm turn, twinkle, and rock step. Longer patterns that combine elements may have technically descriptive names (e.g., waltz zig zag twinkles or back spot turn to natural roll turn) while others have imaginative, non-technical names such as "on the avenue," "the hammer," or "Cuban Pete." The Fred Astaire syllabus is organized into ten step patterns at each level (e.g., bronze), but the International curriculum varies from as few as three (Viennese waltz) to seventeen (cha cha cha). In 1998 all Fred Astaire studios began switching to a new bronze syllabus called DanceSport which, for all but three dances (Viennese waltz, bolero, and paso doble) requires two relatively long patterns per step number. For example, Tango Step 4A (the "social" level) is called "tango leg hooks" while Step 4B (the "DanceSport" level) is called "hooks to leg crawl." Students who choose the social level learn only A steps, while those who choose the DanceSport level learn both A and B. In contrast to the old syllabus, which emphasized shorter, more fundamental steps, the DanceSport syllabus includes a great many extended patterns which can occupy the equivalent of up to twelve measures of music for each of the A and B steps.

Most studios transmit dance instruction orally. Although many published books offer step charts showing footprint patterns and some companies produce step charts that can be placed on the floor, these are unknown in serious studios. Those of us who, as beginners, attempted to keep written notes from our lessons can testify that our written descriptions quickly became indecipherable and therefore hindrances. Indeed, we found that the most efficient way to learn was to absorb the patterns mentally and physically without reference to written notes. Although this method results in significant memory loss in the short term, eventually the step patterns become physically remembered and "second nature."

The various organizations governing dance instruction, however, do not leave their finely constructed step patterns to the vagaries of human memory. All regulation step patterns are broken down and described verbally in numbing detail in manuals only available to officially recognized or franchised studios. Although pages from the manuals may not be photocopied or shared with students, we were permitted a brief look at the pages. Budding dance instructors must pass rigorous tests that require them to demonstrate all step patterns for both male and female without reference to the manuals before becoming certified. Beyond knowing the overall pattern, instructors must be conscious of each element constituting the pattern. In the Fred Astaire manual steps are broken down and described by measure, number of steps, timing/rhythm, foot movement, amount of turn, dance position, and footwork, and followed by further verbal description. The examination of a dance instructor seeking certification at the Professional or Associate level for a single curricular level (such as bronze) can require up to seven hours of floor time. We have not encountered any ballroom dance systems that use any kind of notation; Labanotation is unknown.

Teachers and dancers, then, are cognizant of dance elements at different levels of specificity. Teachers are required to break dance steps into the smallest possible units while students learn longer, named patterns. In linguistic terms, teachers operate at the phonetic level, where sounds are reduced to fundamentals, and students at the phonemic level, where whole dance patterns are like morphemes, the smallest meaningful units of language. In this sense teachers know each element by name, while students tend to absorb the patterns in a more holistic way.

This factor turns the "etic-emic" concept widely used in Ethnomusicology on its head because the assumption has been that "native practitioners" see things more holistically (the "emic" view) while "outside investigators" see things more analytically (the "etic" view). This dichotomy has come about through a reductionist process in which "etic" derives from phonetic and "emic" from phonemic. Since phonetic analysis involves reducing phenomena to elements without regard to meaning, "etic" came to mean the "outsiders" view. Since phonemic analysis examines the smallest meaningful units, "emic" came to mean the "insiders" view. Consequently, culture carriers were assumed to think from an emic perspective and investigating scholars from the etic perspective. In the case of ballroom dance knowledge, however, it appears that "insiders" (teachers, professionals) have developed an etic perspective by breaking the dances into the smallest of elements while "outsiders" (students) are taught an emic perspective since teachers do not normally convey the elements in such an analytical way.

Throughout the world musicians have evolved diverse ways to create and organize music. Most familiar to us is the Western model where an individual, the composer, preserves new composition in some form of notation. Because no type of notation is capable of transmitting all aspects of musical performance, the realization of compositions from notation requires greater or lesser degrees of input from the performers. The term "improvisation," which in common parlance may denote anything from melodic embellishment to open-ended creation, is of little help in distinguishing these varying levels of performer input which together constitute the oral tradition of Western music making.

Equally as common worldwide is the process of simultaneous composition and performance. Since this process is mostly alien to Western music making, English lacks a clear term for it, but the term "mode," at least as used in the field of Ethnomusicology, denotes such a procedure. A "modal" tradition provides the composer/performer with a bounded body of variable elements (e.g., scale melodic units, a hierarchy of pitches, mood) from which the musician chooses as the musical work unfolds. The best known modal types include the Indian raga, Arabic maqam (Turkish makam), Persian dastgah, Indonesian patet, and Vietnamese dieu. To the extent that "improvisation" implies greater or lesser degrees of freedom to create, it fails to communicate what actually happens in modal composition which, though flexible, is highly conventional and restricted to "tradition."


Ballroom Dance Knowledge and Persian Classical Music

The resemblances between the organization of ballroom dance knowledge and the Persian classical music system are such that they deserve closer examination. In reading the research of Ella Zonis,6 I was struck by how many statements concerning Persian music would, with appropriate word changes, apply equally well to ballroom dance.

The Radif. "Persian art music is based on a large collection of melodies known as the radif (row)." (62) Unlike the other well known modal systems, the Persian system has been collected and fully codified in a written form called the radif. Although Zonis notes that one radif, that of Mussa Ma'ruffi, had (at the time of writing) official government approval, several others exist. Similarly, the entire body of codified ballroom dance steps is found in the written manuals each studio keeps for reference that describe the steps verbally. As with the radif, there are several "schools," each with similar but nonetheless distinctive syllabi, although obviously the matter of government approval is irrelevant.

The Dastgah. In the Persian system, there are seven main modes, called dastgah, and five auxiliary modes, called naghmeh. American Ballroom dance is presently comprised of thirteen dances, four constituting an essential core (foxtrot, waltz, rumba, cha cha cha) and the rest reserved for those with greater ambitions. Therefore, in this interpretation, a Persian dastgah is equivalent to a single dance type. Just as each dastgah has a particular origin, mood, and character, each ballroom dance has them as well.

The Gusheh. "Depending on the knowledge of the performer the radif contains anywhere from one to three hundred melodies, or gusheh . . . each gusheh functions only as a model for improvisation, not as a finished composition." (62) In ballroom dance the individually named step patterns are equivalent to the gusheh, and like them, have specific names. The unfolding of the gusheh depends on the radif or school, but the first gusheh of each mode, called daramad, "determines . . . the character of the entire dastgah, [and] may be considered the single most important melody in the dastgah." (65) In ballroom dance, the first step pattern for each dance includes its most essential and defining elements. Regarding the gusheh, which for masters are a point of departure for improvisation, Zonis notes "Each of these pieces could be regarded as a finished composition, and they are often performed quite literally by younger musicians." (64) Because the step patterns of the new Fred Astaire DanceSport curriculum are so long in comparison to those of the old curriculum, they constitute short compositions as well, although they are not performed in isolation. But similarly, individual gusheh are also not performed in isolation. As in ballroom dance, where a variety of "school figures" can be strung together to create a flowing performance (called "blending"), Persian students string together the memorized gusheh to create a performance. Neither includes improvisation, only new combinations of previously learned sequences.


Improvisation in Persian Music and Ballroom Dance

Although students in both traditions may be required to take examinations and participate in judged performances using only memorized materials, connoisseurs of neither art find this particularly interesting. They are drawn to performances of masters who, after having learned a body of fixed patterns, draw from this repertory to create individual compositions. In Persian music this is improvisation within the mode (dastgah) and in ballroom dance it is called choreography. What Zonis writes about Persian music is analogous to what professional (and advanced amateur) ballroom dancers do for performances and competitions.

The repertory of melodies that forms the basis of traditional Persian art music is not in itself Persian music, for what is actually played is one step beyond the radif. The individual pieces, gusheh-ha [melodic patterns, plural], are not performed literally according to any of the versions given above. Each gusheh is merely a framework. A good performer is expected to fill in the framework, or to elaborate upon the melodic material of the radif, and to do this extemporaneously. (98)

What is different between Persian music making and ballroom dance choreography is that many dance pairs depend on a coach to do the "improvising." The coach creates something as general as a concept or style to be realized by the dancers themselves or may design the entire routine down to the level of nuance. Once "composed," however, the routine is memorized by the dancers and performed exactly the same each time. Excellent dancers, however, are also able to "blend" elements and standard steps spontaneously to create new, unfixed "compositions" which are more analogous to the professional Persian modal performance. In the eyes of students, however, such a performance may seem highly creative and even difficult to relate to standard school figures. As with ballroom dance, as with Persian dastgah: "In Persian music there is no 'always', for no rule or custom is inviolable." (99)

Improvisation based on gusheh grows out of both fixed and variable elements, according to Zonis. The same could be said of ballroom dance. Though the fixed elements of Persian music are, naturally, musical elements, the variable elements can also be readily understood in dance terms. Zonis names repetition and varied repetition, ornamentation, and centonization ("the joining together of familiar motives to produce longer melodies") as essential variable elements.

Repetition. "Persian musicians do not hesitate to repeat whole phrases without a single alteration," (105) a factor also seen in carpets, tile work, and miniature paintings. Ballroom dancers, even advanced professionals, repeat figures as well, though usually not consecutively. For example, when dancing the fast-moving Viennese waltz, one can execute one left- or right-turn pattern or repeat them almost infinitely.

Varied Repetition. "Varied repetition . . . includes rhythmic and melodic modification of the basic motive." (107) The ballroom dance student, in learning new figures, may easily conclude that there is only one correct way to execute them—the way they were taught. Later, that student may dance with a partner who learned the same figure but with slight differences. Indeed, there are a fair number of options within figures that are all considered "legal" for competitive purposes. For example, in the Fred Astaire paso doble step 3, the "press line," the pattern may end with a hold or an optional natural underarm turn.

Ornamentation. "In Persian music no less than in the visual arts, ornamentation is a vital necessity." (108) Much of what we would call ornamentation in ballroom dance adds up to "styling." A given figure may be correct and complete without much styling, but certain movements of the arms, the direction of the eyes, and other elements that give dancing its flair are absolutely necessary for serious (i.e., competitive) dancers. Just as Persian music would sound unattractive or incomplete without such ornamentation, the same would be true of ballroom dance without styling.

Centonization. Zonis here refers to the process of creating short compositions, what are called gusheh. We have already compared the model gusheh that students of Persian music learn before attempting improvisation on their own to ballroom dance step patterns or school figures. "The process of creating a composition through improvisation works on two levels: first, the elaboration of the nuclear theme using the techniques described above to create a short piece; then, a combining of a number of pieces to make up the sub-section of the dastgah called the gusheh." (115) When students of dance move beyond exact repetition of school figures, they not only begin connecting such figures in creative and imaginative ways but can break them down and recombine sections to create new but unofficial figures. The process of building a dance routine this way—without going to the point of creative choreography—parallels the process described by Zonis. These new and extended step patterns, which are actually short compositions, are indeed comparable to the gusheh of creative Persian musicians. Zonis' statement about music can be applied without change to dance: "To create a composition, each player uses his stock of filler material—rhythmic units, embellishments, and so forth." (119)

In sum, just as Persian music students begin with stock elements, then combinations of these into short melodies, ballroom dancers learn elemental step patterns, then longer patterns using two or more of them. All of this material is collected in the radif in Persian music and the "syllabus" or "curriculum" in ballroom dance. Zonis' conclusion applies to advanced dancers with only one word change: "If the radif [dance syllabus] is considered to be 'information' acquired by the performer through his training, the performance is then the player's use of this information for his improvisation." (125)


Ballroom Dance and the Meistersingers of Germany

Although music students and professionals can read about the Meistergesang (master song) tradition of sixteenth-century Germany (along with other equally remote types, such as Minnesinger, Trouvere, and Troubadour),7 what makes the Meistersingers more memorable and real is Richard Wagner's music drama Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868). In this work an innovative young singer (Walther von Stolzing), working under the tutelage of an avuncular teacher (Hans Sachs), creates a new form of song in the hopes of winning the hand of a beautiful maiden (Eva Pogner). During the competition, his rival for the girl's hand (Beckmesser) becomes the "marker" (adjudicator) and, by applying Meistersinger rules against Walter's innovations, attempts to disqualify the young singer. Beckmesser, however, becomes confused during his own performance, inadvertently turning his rule-conscious song into a parody of the Meistersinger's reactionary rules. Because Wagner himself was considered by some to be a radical innovator bent on destroying opera, the work is sometimes interpreted as being autobiographical: Wagner as Walther von Stolzing and Beckmesser as Wagner's leading critic, Vienna's Eduard Hanslick.

Our participant-observer experiences at Fred Astaire, Inc. organized events, as well as watching other venues, suggest that there are commonalities between ballroom dance and Meistersinger competitions. Horst Brunner's article on the Meistersingers in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (12:73-79) notes that "the Meistersinger were artisans belonging to a town's middle and lower classes, although clergymen, lawyers and teachers were also found among them." The same applies to modern ballroom dancers. In addition, they "formed themselves into guilds (Gesellschaften) for the composition and performance of Meisterlieder." (73) It requires no stretch of the imagination to see either individual studios or franchised systems as equivalent to the guilds.

Brunner notes that songs were created according "to generally accepted artistic rules codified in the Tabulaturen of the 16th century and which changed only slightly over the centuries," and that "lieder were always performed strictly in accordance with the Schulordnungen ([school] regulations)." (73) The same can be said about ballroom syllabi, whose "school figures" are also codified in large notebooks. These set a clear standard against which all dancers are judged. "The composers almost always made use of existing Töne [stock melodies], many of which had not been written by the Meistersingers themselves." (75) Similarly, many ballroom dances were taken into the curriculum from diverse sources, including Europe (waltz, Viennese waltz, paso doble, bolero), Argentina (tango), Cuba (cha cha cha, mambo, rumba), Brazil (samba), the Dominican Republic (merengue), and the United States (foxtrot, swing, jive).

As with the Töne melodies, the dance steps evolved (or were invented) into rigidly defined step patterns. "By 1600 the number of different, traditionally accumulated Töne stood at about 600." (75) The Fred Astaire bronze DanceSport curriculum consists of thirteen dances, ten of which have ten step patterns in A and B forms and three dances having single forms for a total of 230 step patterns (counting A and B separately). The International syllabus has a total of ten dances and 124 step patterns. "The Meistersinger's Töne normally consist of at least seven, but usually 12 or more, verse lines with an end rhyme." (75) A Ton, therefore, was a short composition or song model comparable to both the Persian gusheh discussed above and a multi-element step pattern in dance. "Many Meistersinger were not musically literate: they were advised to learn the melodies by heart and remember them. This led to many unconsciously introduced variants. . . ." (76) Although all dance steps are described in detail in the official manuals of each "school," all dancers, including teachers, are required to memorize all the steps. No notation of any sort is known to be used in ballroom dance, even as a memory aid. Dancers and dance teachers who stay close to a particular syllabus, either through teacher testing or various kinds of competitions, are conditioned to avoid "unconsciously introduced variants" in "closed work," but independent teachers and former students who have ceased to study are prone to faults of memory that result in combining steps in odd ways or improper execution. Dancers doing "open work," however, are permitted to plan variants.

Ernest Newman's description of a Meistersinger concert bears striking resemblance to a modern ballroom competition.

Almost everything in connection with their poems and their music was systematised, and it was only by complying with the rules that anyone could earn the title of "Master." This could be won only at an open contest before the guild, and it was the business of the official "Marker" to decide whether the candidate had or had not committed enough breaches of the rules to disqualify him. (Newman, 1930, 41)

Brunner's description in the New Grove further clarifies the standards against which the performer was to be judged.

During it [the concert] the markers sat in a cubicle (Gemerk), which was draped in black material. Their task was to judge whether the song being performed conformed both in content and language to the Lutheran Bible. In addition, they noted whether both text and performance conformed to the strict rules of the Tabulatur and whether the melody was correctly performed. They listed every error, and the singer with the fewest errors was the winner. (77)

While the judge or judges sit openly at a table, student dancers are evaluated according to correctness in both technique and style. The difference between an "honors" rating and a "highly commended" rating can turn on whether the dancers brought their feet together at critical points, were correctly oriented in the line of dance, or exhibited correct posture. At large competitions there is no time for a judge to "list every error," but when students and teachers take individual exams in the studio or elsewhere, they do receive specific feedback as to faults. Finally, "the winner was allowed to keep the chain [prize] until the next concert." (77) Ballroom dance competitions do not use chains but award trophies. Certain large trophies (e.g., "best studio") are kept for only a year, but if the same studio wins the prize for three years running, the trophy is "retired" at that studio.



The foregoing study suggests that if one accepts these analogies among otherwise unlike traditions, there may be enough other musical systems around the world that follow similar habits in the organization of knowledge and the process of creation to suggest a broad-based pattern. This pattern is also quite different from the typical teaching and learning practices of Western classical music. In spite of long years of music study, we struggled to learn anew how to learn when confronted with both Thai music and American ballroom dance.

Far from concluding, however, that the Western approach we experienced is inadequate, our study has highlighted its uniqueness because of its primary use of pre-existing written notation and goal of more-or-less exact reproduction. Consequently, performers of Western music generally "realize" someone else's completely composed work, adding little beyond expression to the process. However, our experiences suggest that our students would benefit from knowing about and experiencing alternative ways of organizing and creating music. Writes music educator Terese Volk, "While jazz is the first idiom that many think of when discussing improvisation, other music cultures also have this personally expressive form of music making. In fact, for some cultures there is no such thing as a 'wrong note' in music."8

Music educators in Europe and the Americas are just now beginning to investigate teaching and learning patterns from elsewhere in the world,9 although sometimes alternatives flourish right under our noses. This trend has not yet coalesced into a new sub-field, perhaps to be called "comparative music education" or "ethno-pedagogy," but the time is ripe for such a movement. With a rising interest in the teaching of improvisation to music majors, the patterns of teaching and learning we experienced with Thai music and ballroom dance and have seen in other traditions may hopefully come to be harnessed in music education and as a result offer our students great benefits.

1In the case of the People's Republic of China, ballroom dancing resumed with the relaxing of the Cultural Revolution after 1977. During a research trip to China in 1996 we found ballroom dance music cassette tapes readily available. During our first return to Vietnam in 1991, we found that ballroom dance clubs were active in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and that Vietnamese popular music, especially the tan co, was dominated by Latin ballroom style music.

2Kishibe Shigeo, The Traditional Music of Japan (Tokyo: Ongaku No Tomo Sha Edition, 1984): 56.

3Deborah Wong, Sounding the Center: History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Performance (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001): 79-80.

4See Daniel M. Neuman, The Life of Music in North India: The Organization of an Artistic Tradition (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1980).

5When studying the Chinese mouth organ (sheng) in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1978, my "traditional" teacher from Shandong, China, divulged "secrets" to me that, according to him, would not normally be shared with other, "rival," players. Keeping at least some knowledge secret is widespread in Chinese traditional arts, especially the martial arts.

6Ella Zonis, Classical Persian Music: An Introduction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973).

7See Bert Nagel (compiler), Der deutsche Meistersang (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1967), Taylor Archer, The Literary History of Meistergesang (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1937), and The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1st edition, s.v. "Meistergesang" by Horst Brunner.

8Terese M. Volk, Music, Education, and Multiculturalism: Foundations and Principles (New York: Oxford, 1998): 182.

9Patricia Shehan Campbell, Lessons from the World (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001)

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Last modified on Sunday, 07/10/2018

Terry E. Miller

Terry E. Miller, a native of Dover, Ohio, majored in organ at the College of Wooster (1967) before turning to musicology and, as a result of military service in Vietnam, to ethnomusicology.  He received his MA and Ph.D degrees from Indiana University in 1971 and 1977 respectively.  Although known primarily as a specialist in the musics of Mainland Southeast Asia, especially Thailand and Laos, he has also worked extensively in the United States, the West Indies, the UK, Vietnam, and China.  In addition to numerous articles, recordings, and other contributions, he has published a number of books focusing on Thailand and the United States.  His most widely known works are as co-editor and writer of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: Southeast Asia and as co-writer of a survey textbook, World Music: A Global Journey, now in its third edition.  In addition he has published dozens of articles, encyclopedia entries, compact discs, reviews, and has present papers throughout the world.  Dr. Miller retired from Kent State University in 2005 where, in addition to teaching, he founded and directed both the KSU Thai and Chinese Ensembles.

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