Tuesday, 31 October 2006

18: The Experience of Music

18: The Experience of Music

George Odam

Emeritus Professor of Music Education, Bath Spa University College

Research Fellow at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London, England

Music is an essential life-experience and in our increasingly secular Western European society, it provides an important source of spiritual experience for the majority of children in our schools. Such musical feeding of the spirit remains an important part of my own early memories. That transcendent sense of well-being and connection with something beyond the day-by-day experience of the world could be sensed in the humblest musical activities: in nursery rhymes and singing games, in hymns and songs and in listening to music of all kinds through mechanical reproduction. I had a familial and environmental disposition towards music and was lucky enough to experience music at first-hand as well as in audience. As a youth I felt impelled to study music even though I had little formal teaching and less hope of success.

Can anything helpful be learned from that I wonder? I cannot demonstrate how much musical experience, in the home and outside, helped my studies overall but I am sure it did. I know it was my solace when things went wrong for me and that it helped me to learn to co-ordinate and develop my thinking and feeling processes, but I cannot prove it. I believe that youthful musical experience develops the brain, and there is increasing scientific evidence of positive effect, such as the evidence on brain development in musicians published in 1995 by Schlaug et al. and in 1998 by Pantev et al. in Nature.

What I think my story does underline is the importance of real musical experience in early life. It was hearing a busker on a street corner playing a popular song on the violin that first inspired me to want to try to play a musical instrument. At that age everything in music seemed equally wonderful and important to me. I loved hearing brass bands, choirs and organs, salon music, popular songs (there was no 'pop' music as such), dance and big bands, folk songs, Gilbert and Sullivan, Victorian sentimental ballads, live concerts of Britten's music (I came from the same region as he did), orchestras and jazz bands.

Formal school music education did not figure much in my early life and neither did I have many individual instrumental lessons. Most of what little I received I rejected as boring and irrelevant. Perhaps I was motivated to teach because I felt deprived of being taught well. But it has also made me healthily sceptical of the intentional effect that any individual teacher can have. Music doesn't fit easily into the timetabled security of school-life. It is an art and arts are uncomfortable, anarchic things. Arts demand time and attention and encourage individual expression. Good music teachers respond to this by finding ways to provide captivating musical experiences in spite of the mechanisms of schools. They understand the power of music and the need for it to be able to speak for itself rather than be explained. However much they plan carefully, they expect the unexpected and allow the music to work its own magic. They note the fundamental experience of music that comes through the human voice and how this underlies common musical practice in all cultures and at all time. They don't give up on this and diligently search for new vocal materials that will engage, thrill and motivate young people.

Helping pupils to find themselves through learning to play an instrument is a vital part of providing a musical environment in which pupils can learn. In some countries this can be done in school time, in others it may be through local music schools. Good teachers remain keenly aware of their individual pupils' instrumental and vocal progress and capabilities and make endless opportunities for their skills to be nurtured and developed within the school. Another way of experiencing music is by composing music of your own. Good teachers encourage inventiveness in their pupils and help them to approach musical experience with the invitation to try creating it for themselves. They provide rich opportunities for pupils to hear and experience the effect of their own compositions when it communicates with others in performance. The question "what if….? " is fundamental to all good music teaching both in the classroom and in the music studio. Good teachers keep their ears and eyes open and are always ready to test out new musical experiences to find the value in them. They share their sense of discovery and enjoyment with their pupils and make certain that their own enthusiasms and knowledge are conveyed to their pupils through making music with them whenever possible but encouraging all of them to take responsibility for their own learning.

Music is one of our earliest sensory experiences. It can be identified by babies even before birth. It can sustain us through life, providing relaxation or stimulation when needed. As we grow older, so our musical needs and tastes change. Music can be a lifeline. For all of us, well or ill, in physical or psychological pain, young or old, it provides a way of understanding ourselves and our world and of knowing about and experiencing things that otherwise cannot be fully expressed in words. Music making engages thinking, feeling and doing in a way that is unique and highly fulfilling. Above all it can provide a strong sense of well-being and a feeling of connection with things, well beyond our daily experience, that help to give meaning to our lives. Dr Colwyn Trevarthen, of the Department of Psychology at Edinburgh University recently described that power by saying that it attunes to the essential efforts that the mind makes to regulate the body. I believe that we are becoming increasingly aware of how important that internal tuning process is to our physical and mental good health and that music is a precious commodity that we must nurture and develop in ourselves and others as well as we can for the common good.

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