Listen, Re-listen, and Listen Again

By Natalie Oshukany|April 30, 2015|Reflection|7 comments

         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.



  1. I really enjoyed the meditative activity we did. Listening to the first piece of music, I was so nervous because I, personally, don’t feel confident in my description of music but after doing the breathing exercise, I was much less anxious.

    I believe that the exercise would do wonders for my test-taking and can’t wait to implement it in the future.

  2. I was a little creeped out as to how the meditation and instructions made me change the way I listened to the music. I remember the Professor saying something similar to the center and truly I tell you thats all I focused on. When she played the song I could only remember the midpoint of the song, which is funny because I don’t know how long the song was.
    Other than the fact that I felt hypnotized, I think it was a very effective way to get a person to pay attention to anything possible.

  3. I was among the people in class that felt and still believe that meditative activities have no place in the classroom. However there is a caveat to that. I also believe that if students knew beforehand that it is part of the teaching methods for the class then it is perfectly fine. Not many people are receptive to contemplative or meditative techniques for teaching. I think it relies on a belief system and thus it is purely subjective. To me meditation to enhance results for any class is a stretch of the imagination, and it would be unlikely to convince me otherwise. I may be judged as being “closed minded”, but if anyone manages to truly convince me to be “open-minded” then this whole discussion would be moot and I would happily accept the philosophy and practicality of using meditative teaching methods.

  4. When teachers always talk about practices in the classroom to help you learn or even to calm down, i’m always skeptical. We had started the meditative process and it felt like it was guided since words were thrown out just before we had to give responses of how we felt. I thought this may have been something to get certain responses, but I dismissed it at the time.

    This is some kind of style to teaching. By relaxing the student, the student is more receptive due to their relaxed nature. In contrast, this isn’t the best way for a student to learn. Either way, this was a fun experiment to help determine the way students learn, which i believe, is the key to teaching.

  5. I feel meditative activities can possibly take part in a classroom. However, it is ultimately up to the individual and the benefits one feels they earn by doing so.

    To me, meditative activities goes hand-in-hand with stretching before physical activity or listening to music before a run to get adrenaline flowing. Before an exam, I would usually stretch my fingers in order to relieve tension. I am not sure if the professor should teach or implement meditation before class, however, possibly they would consider letting students take five minutes of free time before an exam. What I mean by free time, is to allow students time to get their selves prepared for an exam by asking them to quietly sit, listen to music on earphones, close their eyes, stretch, etc. Simply relax.

    At the end of the day, it was a fun experiment in this class because we got a chance to get a moment of zen.

  6. The meditation exercise was very useful in my opinion. I think that it was a very creative teaching method in general and it did get me to relax and focus on more general things in the music and not be so pressured with getting it right or wrong. Also, even if it didn’t work for other people with the music, I feel like it’ a good way just to liven up the classroom atmosphere and get everyone to be less stiff and less focused on “learn, learn, learn”. A lot of the time I’m just stressed about learning, exams, getting things right, and school in general, but the meditation (along with other exercises you’ve tried in class) takes the pressure off. It was fun and relaxing.

  7. Pingback: Introduction to Music: An Experiment in Student-Centered Learning | Mapping the Futures of Higher Education

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