Listen, Re-listen, and Listen Again

         When I was an undergraduate music major, embodied learning—a focus on physical participation, attention to the ways in which my body affected my learning—was something I took for granted. In my weekly piano lessons, my teachers and I would work on my posture, my arm weight, and the tension I held in my hands, wrists, and shoulders. Sometimes we did yoga. In aural skills class, we sight-sang melodies and clapped rhythms. In music theory we played our own compositions and closed our eyes to concentrate on the harmonies we were required to transcribe. In retrospect, I was thoroughly schooled in embodied forms of learning, and I hardly need to be convinced of its benefits.

I try to incorporate some of these strategies in my teaching now. In our first unit, our class clapped rhythms and hummed scales. We sang songs that exemplified particular musical textures. In my mind, it is nearly impossible not to incorporate the body in a music classroom. Even for those skeptical of privileging this aspect of learning, music is undeniably physical. Because of this established dynamic in the music classroom, I decided to take a risk this past week in implementing an activity related to our Mapping class’ stimulating fourth unit, “Bodies in/and the Classroom.” Why not? I’m already spoiled by the possibilities afforded by the subject I teach.

Unsurprisingly, our Intro to Music class does a lot of listening. Listening activities take a variety of forms: short timed excerpts of pieces we’ve studied, with the goal being to identify general musical features; longer excerpts played, so as to map out the structure of the piece; etc. These kinds of activities are new to many students, and we’ve had a few conversations about listening and study strategies for this unique aspect of the course. But we haven’t spent much time on the broader topics of concentration, contemplation, and embodied listening. Inspired by my peers’ in-class activity, I implemented a variation of their exercise in the Intro to Music class, with the goal of having a more holistic conversation about the kinds of attention listening activities call for, how to best cultivate these forms of attention, and how contemplative/meditative activities might (or might not!) be helpful in this process.

In short, I had students listen to a musical excerpt and identify elements we had studied previously. I then had them write two words that encapsulated how their impressions during the exercise. Interlude: a brief breathing activity to bring calm and focus to the class. Students then closed their eyes and heard a chord on the piano three times (and I made sure to play a particularly dreamy-sounding group of notes). We then repeated the first activity with a new excerpt. Afterwards, a Think-Pair-Share activity addressed the questions: “Do you think contemplative/meditative activities like this have a place in the classroom? Why or why not?”

I have so much to say about how this exercise went down in the class. In the interest of allowing room for the Intro to Music students to speak to their own experiences in the comment thread, however, I’ll just mention some salient points. Even though the class was about 50/50 on whether or not the activity helped their focus, everyone was incredibly thoughtful in our subsequent class discussion. We ended up having an incredibly productive conversation about learning styles, test-taking anxiety, and the value of opening oneself up to new learning experiences. One student made a beautiful point about “embracing vulnerability,” and another challenged the traditional separations between “learning styles.” At the end of the class, everyone wrote a word on the board that summed up the class, and we took our class picture for the final May 22 event (see below).

I was so happy to see “meta-cognition” make an appearance on the board. I hadn’t even mentioned the word.



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