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Friday, June 29, 2012

The Experience of Being Sung To

Some time ago we had a party in the house. Many friends came along, including an old friend from West Papua.

People drank and chatted. I played with one of my little bands a couple of songs. My son drummed along with one of the songs.

Just before our Papuan friend had to leave, he asked for attention. He announced that he would sing a song, especially for my drumming son. Then he sang the song. I can't remember the melody, nor the meaning of the words. I think it was a song which had something to do with the old and the new generation. When the song finished, everybody applauded and cheered.

Next day I remarked to my wife that this was a remarkable event - how many people are sung to in Papuan during their lifetime? My wife, wiser then me as usual, answered that maybe the event was not thát remarkable, as she suspected that our Papuan friend simply did what he would do at any party as any other West Papuan: sing a song for the hosts.

She was right, of course. And I wonder: at what time have I begun to see the occasion of being sung a song to as remarkable?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Music and Power

I was on the conference Research in Arts Education last week. A yearly gathering of people doing all kinds of research in the education of music, dance, drama, the visual arts, literature. Or even on arts education in general - although there exists no such thing as `arts education in general' (and if it does exist, it is nonsense).

One of the papers presented was about an investigation on the effects of using computer feedback in learning  to play an instrument. The paper was well written, well thought out, and with loads and loads of statistics in it - Crombach's alpha till you drop. The paper showed, after a lot  of calculation, that four of the five hypotheses that the computer programme helped in learning to play music were confirmed; it also showed that actually the music pupils had hardly used the computer programme. I thus learned that the pure statistical confirmation of a hypothesis doesn't mean that the hypothesis refers to anything at all in reality.

Anywway. What set me thinking was the way we look at learning to play an instrument. The idea behind the paper was that we know what effective learning is, and that we can make learning more effective. We do that by trying to get a grip on the motivational and self-regulational aspects of learning, by making feedback a scientific endeavour. By filming pupils while they are learning, by interviewing them rigorously and analysing the interviews (and sometimes, but mostly not, the interviewing), by hooking the pupils up to computers which beep and blink when mistakes are made and which store all information in order, again, to be analysed.

All for the best, of course. This is what the author of the paper stressed when I asked an unpleasant question. She explained that for pupils, the joy in music often starts when they suddenly know how to play a major third together wiith another pupil in tune - that is an experience which fosters motivation like no other experience.

And she is completely right. You can not be against learning to do something better; and even I am not saying that playing lousy is a goal in itself - or at least I am not always saying that.

But still. Anyone who has read anything from, or about (he is a hard read mostly),Foucault will have no trouble in recognising `disciplining' and `normalisation' in the activities above -and will also recognise that disciplining and normalising is always carried out for the benefit of the good of all, while there is another side to it too: the side of powerplay.

Musicking, seen from that angle, is always that struggle between the joy of individual and social expression and the necessary constraints of that mysterious structural powers exerted by no-one but shaping our lives in such big ways.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Music is Sport

I wrote in an earlier entry in this blog about why playing an instrument always seems to lead to the wish to become better at it. Why do you hardly ever meet anyone with the ambition to play House of the Rising Sun on his guitar who is satisfied when that ambition is fulfilled? Why do people always want to learn a sixth chord after the five they need?

It is just puzzling me. Why do we think that playing music is about playing better all the time? Is it a universal human trait or something western, connected to our `athletic view of music', as ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl calls it? I elsewhere suggested it may have to with the wish of the human being to dominate matter - with `instrumental rationality' as Habermas would say.

Nettl, Habermas - expensive names for a blog like this.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On Gideon

I went to the Gideon Festival last week, as I try to do every year. Last year I went for an afternoon with the family, and we repeated it this year because it is fun to be at Gideon with small kids. For those of you who don't know: Gideon is an alternative festival, taking place at a squatter's location (`city nomads') in an industrial area of Groningen. It consists of three days/evenings with a funny mixture of hardcore punk, alternative rock, reggae & roots, various dance music, urban, and what not. The audience consists of a just as funny mixture of old punks, new punks, outlaws, families, bikers, skaters, and what not. And me and my family.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Are Singers Musicians?

Are singers musicians? In my time as a conservatoire student (not much of a singer) the answer was, according to the community of conservatoire students - excluding the singers - a full-hearted `No'.

But that is not the direction I want to take in this blog. Neither do I want to go into the idea I expressed once, after a lot of Jenevers, that all music is essentially vocal music, and that the best vocal music is instrumental music.

No no, it's something else I want to point out.