The oral (aural) tradition

Another recurrent theme at ISME this year was about reconnecting with, and bringing back into the mainstream, the oral tradition of passing on musical knowledge. Bruno Nettl, one of our keynote speakers, pointed out that this is the established system of teaching and learning in the vast majority of musical cultures around the world. Yet in western art music, and its associated teaching traditions, the emphasis is more commonly on music literacy being one of decoding and encoding music notation, and that this comes before proficiency on the instrument.

For me, what is commonly called the oral tradition is just as aptly named the aural tradition because it focuses so heavily on the ears. I’ve learned some music skills this way – certainly all the skills I have as a percussionist have been learned through playing alongside others more skilled than myself. However, this has been coupled with the specialist music knowledge already embedded in my brain which allows me to link up concepts, map out ideas for myself in order to make sense of them, and memorise patterns by encoding them in my head using my music theory knowledge. This links back to Tony Lewis’ presentation at the CDIME [Cultural Diversity in Music Education] conference in Sydney, January 2010. Tony described three ways of learning, or three systems of knowledge – ontological, where you learn by doing, by being there and present and participating; epistemological, which is where you call upon your pre-existing knowledge and knowing in order to analyse, map, theorise and build concepts in the new discipline you are encounters; and dialogical, where these two approaches combine. (I’ve written more about Tony’s ideas in this earlier post).

One of the papers at the ISME main conference was presented by Thomas Johnston, an Irish traditional musician. He has been investigating the practicalities of teaching Irish traditional music in classroom settings via an oral tradition, adhering as strongly as possible to the traditional methods by which the music was passed on from person to person. His research includes a one-on-one lesson for the teachers involved, who then pass on the skills to their students. The students are also immersed in the music traditions through its rhythms and structures by learning traditional dances – all of which is resulting (thus far) in an incredibly rich experience for the students.

Another interesting ISME conversation about oral music traditions was had over lunch one day with an Indian woman named Rama. She is a virtuoso violinist in the Indian classical tradition, but has diversified her practice to become India’s first Suzuki Method violin teacher, with a private studio of over 80 students. She told the Doc (my ISME buddy) and I about her realisation that the way she had been taught was too unstructured for Indian children today. “In each lesson, you just play whatever raga your teacher feels like playing that day,” she said. “It can take years to work out how everything fits together, because no-one ever really explains it to you. Whne my own children were small they were clamouring to play violin, and I wanted to find a way to teach them that would be more suited to their age.” A series of chance conversations led to a mention of Suzuki, and she googled the term and ordered some materials to find out more. The materials arrived but she realised she needed more guidance on how to use them so undertook further study in the USA, then came home and started teaching her own children, and those of some friends. These days, the intermediate and more advanced students in her studio are also learning Indian classical music (one session of Western music, one of Indian classical music each week), so she is now integrating all of her musical and pedagogical knowledge to offer a teaching system that has both the structure she feels young players need, but that still supports them to develop their ear and to understand the language of music through their ears and bodies as well as their intellect.

I think this integrated approach is what interests me most. I can’t undo my own very thorough grounding in Western classical music, and to try to override or ignore it would be to slow myself down more than is practical or necessary. At Pelican PS, in the recorder classes I have started teaching (see my next post, above)  I do want them to have the pleasure of understanding the symbolic system that is music notation, but I also want them to have the joy of playing an instrument that has taken them some time to master. Every week, when I work one-on-one with one or two students, and they figure out how to do something (like tongue the notes, or move their fingers more fluently), the expression of delight on their faces is absolutely gold. This idea of learning to play an instrument that is not immediately ‘suggestible’ is a new one for them, and these are the experiences that build confidence in themselves as learners in school.

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