Musical Identities

Many kind thanks to Raymond MacDonaldDavid J. Hargreaves, and Dorothy Miell for including us in your recent volume, Handbook of Musical Identities.

There, we argue that explanations of why and how music making and listening contribute to many kinds of identity formation—including musical, personal, social, cultural, gendered, and ethical identity development—should begin with a concept of personhood. In other words, selfhood and personal identity are not identical with personhood, but primary dimensions of it. Part one of our chapter presents an embodied-enactive concept of personhood. Part two provides philosophical arguments that support our concept of personhood and explain the roles of empathy, ethical idealization, and moral communities in the co-construction of personhood, musical identities, and musical experiences. And part three knits parts one and two together by offering reasons why music making, listening, and musical praxes can serve as “affordances” for lifelong experiences of identity formation and “full human flourishing,” or eudaimonia.

 

5 Examples of Music for Humane Values

Music and music education can yield a wide variety of humane values, including the following:

1. Brass for Africa: Music can engage, empower, and repair.

2. The North Jersey Home School Association Chorale is an award-winning chorus directed by Beth Prins. Prins teaches music as a vehicle for “doing good” in the world. For example, as part of their schedule of events when touring France one summer, they performed at special-needs schools, private boarding schools, juvenile detention centers, homeless shelters, and gave two charity concerts to raise money for the victims of a recent earthquake in Haiti. According to their personal testimonies, the singers make music for “civic goods.” In their minds, their voices embody their personal and collective sense of mutual care, community, and spirituality.

3. Jahmir Wallace and his trumpet provide a moving example of helping a person to make a life of personal and communal significance and meaningfulness.

4.  After graduating from the University of Toronto in the late 1990s, Mary Piercey chose to become a school and community music teacher in a small Inuit community on the western shore of Hudson Bay, in the Region of Canada called Nunavut. When Piercey arrived in Arviat, it was an impoverished, hopeless, drug-infested wasteland.  To make a long story short, and largely because of Piercey’s skillful and imaginative use of musics in the service of social activism and artistic citizenship, the people and the traditional culture of Arviat and the surrounding region began to heal and blossom.

5. Performing, composing, and improvising music—among other musical engagements—can assist people with physical, psychological, neurological, emotional, behavioral, and social challenges. One example of music making for well-being is found at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. In any given music therapy session at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter there is a revolving number of participants. While the unit usually consists of 30 men, the number of participants in any given session varies, depending on the men’s needs and desires. They are not forced to go to music therapy; they go because they want musical-communal interactions. The sessions focus on musical improvisation. Percussion and string instruments are placed in the center of a session room. When the men walk into a session, they are free to choose whatever instrument appeals to them on that given day. They sit down and, as they wait for the session to begin, they play their chosen instruments, reacquainting themselves with musical materials. Research supports the claim that the men experience transformative communal engagement, and a feeling of power and control over their own lives.

While some people may assume that the values experienced in each of these cases are extra-musical—values such as a sense of community, well-being, social healing, and spirituality—they are not. They are all MUSICAL values because they are products of personal and group music making and listening.

Distinguishing between “musical” and “extra-musical” values makes little sense. The eminent UCBerkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin argues that the musical/extra-musical divide yields more harm than good. He states: “music regarded as set off from the world is still in the world, doing worldly work…musical meaning [arises] out of relation between music and its many contexts.” To characterize these meanings (namely, all results from musical experiences) as “extra-musical” is as illogical as it is pretentious.

Relatedly, music education philosopher Wayne Bowman states that to distinguish between musical and extra-musical value misses the mark entirely. All values, states Bowman, are functions of “the differences they make: the ways they enable people to thrive.” And whether or not music does achieve this potential depends on the ways it is experienced. We agree with Bowman when he says that music does not automatically “make people smarter, or more sensitive, or more perceptive, or better citizens.” It all depends. It depends on so many variables, too numerous to mention here.

Musics are a hub of social, emotional, personal, and worldly interactions. Any values we derive from or experience through music occur because we engage in and feel the results/benefits of music making and listening. In other words, “we make it true” that one or more musical values happen in/to us when we participate in musics.

10 works or composers I can’t live without

I’m not a tech-savvy person, so I don’t know why a tweet—“10 works or composers you never want to hear again”—from October 7, 2014 showed up on my twitter feed today. But it did. Norman Lebrecht, one of England’s most esteemed (and rightly so) music critics, replied with a list of the 10 works or composers he never wanted to hear again.

At first, I laughed. I scrolled down Lebrecht’s choices, and then I read most of the 150 comments. As I did, my laughter slowly morphed into something more distressing.

I started to feel hurt by some people’s choices. I went back to Lebrecht’s selection. How could he not want to hear Tchaikovsky’s music (except the last 3 symphonies and the violin concerto)? What’s wrong with Messiaen’s music? Bernstein’s Mass? And everything that Puccini created post-Bohème? Really? Is it because this music is overplayed? Badly interpreted? Or, in Lebrecht’s estimation, just poorly composed music?

Then I stepped back and asked myself, Why be bothered by this? I sat and thought about this for a while, and then I realized how and why this “game” turned into a stab in my heart. It wasn’t because I’m overly sensitive. It was because many of these pieces and composers are intimately sewn into the fabric of my personal and musical identities.

There’s a large amount of social and psychological research that examines why and how music and identity are deeply intertwined (see MM2, Chapters 3 and 5).

So part of my hurtful response to this “little game” has to do with my personal attachments and lifelong musical experiences with pieces, styles, and composers that are part of my-and most people’s- emotional, everyday, and autobiographical narratives.

By way of an olive branch, and because I don’t want to seem like a “bad sport,” let’s change the game. I’ll start. Here’s my list of the “10 works or composers I can’t live without”—at least for today. Ask me tomorrow and my list might change.

  1. Mahler’s Song of the earth
  2. Debussy
  3. Bill Evans’s “Some Other Time”
  4. Van Morrison
  5. Prokofiev’s Cinderella
  6. Brahms Ballades Op. 10
  7. While not a composer or specific work, EVERYTHING Jordi Savall performs
  8. Cole Porter
  9. Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” (Headhunters)
  10. Schubert’s “Swan song”

What’s your list of the 10 works or composers you can’t live without?

9 important questions every music teacher should ask

While I was browsing my bookshelf yesterday, I found my old copy of Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, 1969). Before becoming professors in New York City, both men had been elementary and secondary schoolteachers for many years.

I’d read the book about 15 years ago. As soon as I saw the big red apple on the cover, I was reminded of the book’s impact on me in 2000, and the many reasons why it was so influential in the 1970s, 1980s, and thereafter.

When I mentioned Subversive Activity to David, he told me he’d read it in 1975, just after he started teaching in the music education department at the University of Toronto. He said:

It made me question all the ways I was teaching my music education students way back  then. Some things I remember clearly are how it emphasizes democratic teaching and learning, the reasons why teachers and students need to develop critical thinking, good “crap detectors,” and a healthy skepticism about assumptions. It was especially important because it explains “ecological classrooms,” and “mind-ing.” Am I right? I remember thinking at the time that, even though these ideas go back to Plato, Aristotle, and all the way up to Dewey and others, the way they [Postman and Weingartner] explained these “new” ideas so clearly meant a lot to many teachers, including me and my students, in the ‘70s.

As I revisited Teaching as a Subversive Activity, I arrived at Chapter 5: “What’s Worth Knowing?” Even though I’d asked myself the same question many times in the past—and even though David and I ask this question on page 1 of MM2, and many other times in our book—I knew immediately that I had to redouble my efforts to help my music education majors think carefully about and practice “minding” two questions: “What’s worth knowing?” and “What’s worth knowing musically?” These questions go right to the heart of the nature(s) and values of music education, community music, and lifelong musical participation.

Postman and Weingartner suggest that to decide whether any question should be asked and answered—by ourselves and/or our students—we should begin by asking questions of the question itself, and continue doing this before and after we teach.

For example, teachers in every subject area would be wise to ask themselves:

1. Will my questions increase learners’ passion for learning?

2. Will they increase their capacity to learn?

3. Will they boost their confidence in their ability to learn?

4. Will they motivate them to ask deeper follow-up questions that require alternative modes of inquiry?

5. Will they inspire learners to search for alternative interpretations of the material they’re learning?

6. Are my questions likely to increase students’ feelings of self-worth, persistence, and resilience?

7. Are they likely to produce different answers if/when learners ask them again at different stages of their educational development? Are they likely to develop students’ critical thinking, “crap detection” abilities, and a healthy skepticism about common sense assumptions?

8. Will students’ participation in “minding” empower them to develop thoughtful answers, and become more collaborative and creative?

These questions are extremely important to ask and think about, because to ask them is to take major steps toward achieving a central aim of all forms of education: developing students’ abilities to find meaning in the world:

There is no learning without a learner. And there is no meaning without a meaning maker. In order to survive in a world of rapid change there is nothing more worth knowing, for any of us, than the continuing process of how to make viable meanings. (Postman and Weingartner, 1969)

How can we connect these questions to music teaching and learning? If we tweak these eight questions in relation to some (but certainly not all) issues involved in teaching music in some localities, regions, and/or nations, we might ask:

1. Will this style of music and/or this type of musicing (e.g., singing, playing instruments, composing with new music technologies) increase learners’ joy in and passion for learning?

2. Will this style of music and/or musicing increase their capacity to learn how to make music and listen to music and find personal and musical meaning in the world now and in the future?

3. Will this form of musicing boost their confidence in their ability to learn how to perform, improvise, compose (etc.) more expressively?

4. Will this kind of musicing motivate them to ask important questions about how to make music more effectively and creatively, which will require alternative modes of thinking and feeling?

5. Will this type of music and musicing inspire learners to develop alternative interpretations of the music they’re performing, improvising, composing, etc?

6. Is it likely that my music teaching strategies will increase learners’ sense of self-worth?

7. Will my ways of teaching music motivate learners to continue making music after their elementary or secondary school years are over?

8. Will my ways of teaching music and musicing enable students to become more thoughtful, sensitive, collaborative, and creative music makers now and in the future?

And there’s one more very important question:

9. Will my ways of teaching music motivate my students to pursue the lifelong goal of full human flourishing, which includes happiness for themselves and others, fellowship, health and well-being, a sense of personal significance, and other “arts of personhood, which include individual and shared capacities and dispositions to act justly toward others” (MM2, p. 52).

Empathy and Music Education

The emotional significance of music has been a topic of scholarship for centuries. For example, Plato and Aristotle believed that happy-sounding music has the power to make people feel happy; sad-sounding music tends to make people sad.

But is this plausible? Yes. Research in the last 15 to 20 years by today’s top music psychologists—including David Huron, Patrik Juslin, and many others—affirm that musical sounds can arouse and express a wide range of emotions. Indeed, today’s top neuroscientists, sociologists, and music philosophers make the same arguments—but with broader and deeper explanations—about many kinds of musical emotions and relationships (see MM2, Chapters 5 and 9).

Skeptics (who tend to ignore current research) usually argue that when people listen to the sounds of instrumental music, there’s nothing to be happy or sad about, because nothing of human consequence has happened in the musical sounds that would cause listeners to feel happy or sad, or any emotion. But skeptics are wrong, because old, simplistic stimulus-response theories and abstract cognitive notions of the nature of emotions and emotional arousal have been replaced by more sophisticated understandings of the relationships between music, emotion, and personhood (see MM2, Chapter 5).

Part of what’s going on is related to the importance of empathy. Empathy is not the same as sympathy, pity, or feeling sorry for another person, or agreeing with someone to make them feel good. Empathy implies that we adopt (consciously or non-consciously) the perspectives or emotional dispositions of another person in an effort to understand and respond compassionately, responsibly, and ethically. Without empathy, people would be strongly inclined to act selfishly, and group cohesion and collaborations would be unlikely, if not impossible; and, at worst, psychopathologies would be common. Thus, many neuroscientists argue that human beings are hard-wired for empathy.

Experts in developmental affective neuroscience tell us that there’s increasing evidence that human infants are born with unified body-brain-mind systems that underpin our ability to develop naturally, informally, and formally the dispositions and abilities to respond empathetically to and for the benefit of others. So, empathy seems to be an innate human propensity. Why else would most parents automatically love and care for their babies, or bond together in families and groups?

In MM2, we discuss the importance of empathy in music teaching and learning. Why? Because in the big picture, music can make huge positive transformations in people’s lives and communities. “Senseless” violence (e.g., the recent mass murder of nine people in a South Carolina church), racism, and other inhuman acts are not “causeless.” These acts can be prevented partly, if not largely, through education. So, we should pause and consider whether we’re “doing fully and rightly by/for” our students and their worlds. Is it enough for kids to learn how to perform accurately, play iPad music, or improvise jazz? We suggest that all of us can and should being doing more.

Education(s) of all kinds, rightly understood, is the constant consideration of the persons in our care. If we truly care about our students and their worlds, if we educate our students towards respect and understanding, then we’d be better situated to help them develop and sustain a socially just commitment to others (see MM2, Chapter 4 and, for example, pp. 268-270).

What does this mean for music education? Being an educative and ethical music teacher includes engaging our students—though all forms of musical engagement—in situations where they can learn and feel reciprocal processes of self-other growth, and the ways their emotions are affected positively and negatively by specific performers, composers, (etc).

Sometimes musical emotions and memories ignite students’ energy, and/or make them feel sad, embarrassed, alienated, or disrespected. In the processes of music making and listening, students and teachers should discuss—from time to time, but never moving music from the center of music education—their musical emotions and the possible causes. The point—which is absolutely NOT about reaching a consensus about what emotions a specific piece of music may arouse or express—is partly about learning how and why musicing environments should be conceived as musical-ethical communities where everyone receives and enjoys respect, acceptance, and personal fulfillment in and through music making.

To build and maintain sustainable and resilient learning environments—to support and enhance students’ confidence, intrinsic motivation, and persistence—an understanding of holistic personhood (MM2, Chapter 5) is an essential part of knowing how, when, where, and how much to teach at any given time. And the key to unlocking these sustainable and resilient learning environments is compassion and empathy through musicing and listening (MM2, Chapter 9).

How? Listeners can, and often do, empathize (consciously and/or nonconsciously) with musical sounds. This occurs because individual listeners mirror, respond to, and simulate internally what they feel a composer and/or performer(s) might be attempting to express emotionally, visually, and so on (MM2, Chapter 9). Through empathizing, listeners may/can feel “as if” they are experiencing the same feelings as the composer/performer(s) themselves. Feeling “as if” may be bodily: for example, synchronizing to/with musical rhythms/feels propels this phenomenon. Sometimes, listeners imagine via empathy what the performer feels when performing and moving with the music (e.g., audiences at a jazz, hip hop, or Taylor Swift concert); sometimes a listener imagines via empathy what a composer in Western classical music or jazz seems to have felt when composing. Performers often experience the same musical emotions for the same reasons. These emotions may be real or imagined; such connections may be felt while we listen or after. In short, affective connections between self and music (whether as a listener or performer) are relational and are imbued with empathy.

In line with contemporary care ethics, empathy is receptive; it’s a non-cognitive assessment of another’s feelings, a state of being and feeling what another may be feeling.

Understanding empathy as an integrated response process of body-brain-mind, cognition, and emotion (and more) is important for education generally and music education specifically. Helping students reflect on why and how they empathize, or not, with various examples of music is a way of helping them to understand their emotional selves. Musically, self-other reflection helps students learn to “read” each other’s expressive musical actions (phrasing, slight deviations in tempi, etc.) in order to collaboratively interpret a piece of music. In jazz, for example, this would be called feeling and creating the “groove” together. When students are alert to each other’s musical contributions through empathy, this often leads to expressive and joyful music making.

Our concept of empathy in music education is a transactional concept of musical emotions, and music teaching-learning, that socially situates students’ efforts to “construct” their awareness (emotional, intuitive, bodily, reflective), as well as numerous musical skills, understandings, dispositions of compassion and empathy, habits of mind and heart, and ethical behavior in and through ecological relationships with their environmental circumstances—personal, familial, historical, social, cultural, technological, racial, gendered, economic, political, spiritual, and many other dimensions of life, whether inside or outside schools.

Because music has enormous powers and potencies for “capturing” us physically, psychologically, socially, cooperatively, and more, shouldn’t music educators teach-for these potentials by teaching empathy in and through musicing and listening?

Personhood matters

In MM2, we write about the nature of personhood. One among many points we make is that “the kind of care that was needed to make us who we are…is, in turn, the kind of care we owe, or will owe, to each other.”

Yesterday, npr.com posted the following story:

Trapped In His Body For 12 Years, A Man Breaks Free

What would you do if you were locked in your body, your brain intact but with no way to communicate? How do you survive emotionally when you are invisible to everyone you know and love? 

This is the story of Martin Pistorius, who fell into a mysterious coma as a young boy. He had only one thing left as his mind began to function again — his own thoughts. Here’s a glimpse into his story.

[audio:http://www.musicmatters2.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/20150109_atc_trapped_in_his_body_for_12_years_a_man_breaks_free.mp3]