restricted access Response to Eva Alerby and Cecilia Ferm, "Learning Music: Embodied Experience in the Life-World"
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Response to Eva Alerby and Cecilia Ferm, “Learning Music: Embodied Experience in the Life-World”

I was recently asked to settle a friendly debate between two college graduates. The first, my daughter's boyfriend, argued that someone with talent and motivation could become as creative a composer without formal musical training as with it. The other, my daughter, vigorously countered that while someone might compose well on one's own, the result would not be as versatile or thoughtfully developed as it could be with good formal instruction. I saw the musical educations of the debaters reflected in their arguments. My daughter had accumulated fourteen years of formal instruction in violin, cello, voice, and dance and took part in high school choral, theatrical, and orchestral performances. Her studies continued into college and from time to time she performs in community theater. Her boyfriend was the only musically trained member of his family. At his own request he studied piano for five years, later channeling his musical energies into a rock group. Though he did not study music in college, he continues to play keyboard and guitar. Both agree that the ongoing debate between them illustrates the strong connection between musical training and musical valuing. The life-world of their experiences shaped their judgments of musical quality and left imprints on their views of what matters more, talent or training. I will return to this scenario later.

I find solid points of agreement with Eva Alerby and Cecilia Ferm starting with their premise that music learning is most effective when taught within a context. While some students prefer learning in a linear, rule-oriented setting, more often than not a musical concept will be comprehended best if it is first experienced within a variety of works. Regarding extra-musical contexts, furthermore, recent evidence supporting the integration of subject areas at the elementary level appears to extend the boundaries of musical learning in a positive direction. Additionally, the authors' description of embodied musical learning holds great interest. Their argument that musical learning must be appropriated within the body resonates strongly within me as I reflect upon performing and teaching piano. Experience with beginning level adult pianists suggests to me that once the awkwardness of newly-learned movements fades with time and effort, students often discover a close interaction between their physical and conceptual knowledge of music. Of related interest is the authors' definition of musicality as taking embodied musical knowledge and making it one's own. This surpasses physical mastery of an instrument and describes a personal [End Page 208] and emotional investment in music. It is at this point in the essay that the recognizable link between mind, body, and emotion in music is most clear.

Alongside these engaging ideas, however, are statements throughout the essay that invite further questions or comments. First among these is the statement that the knowledge resulting from learning is not always what was intended or planned. While this is often the case, elaboration upon modes of knowledge in question would help clarify the authors' ideas. Since knowledge takes a variety of forms, as the authors imply, these forms should be explored, defined, and applied to the process of teaching and learning music.

Related to that suggestion is my response to the statement that the aim of music education is to produce musical knowledge. I am assuming that musical knowledge includes an age-appropriate blend of performance skill, reading ability, ear training, historical and cultural connections, basic theoretical and stylistic understanding, and acquaintance with creative processes. In many regions of our country, public arts education has been de-valued to the extent that we must convince administrators, parents, and sometimes students, of its importance. Until this situation improves, I must personally consider the aim of music education as producing, alongside musical knowledge, the desire for music as a lifelong pursuit, be it active or passive. Without this desire, musical knowledge gained often goes unused. Referring to my opening anecdote, my daughter is not participating in music while her less extensively trained boyfriend is. I know of several students like her who gained expertise on an instrument and who have now stopped playing for...