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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Teaching Kids to Listen

I recently read a wonderful article on a music listening strategy called "Phenomenology", which was originally devised as a way to appreciate visual art. To put it as simply as possible (which is not easy to do) you break down a work of art into its "structural" pieces, reflect on how they are organized, then on what those pieces and organization mean.

I believe this method of listening could be easily adapted to help children appreciate any kind of art music from a very young age. Here is a general outline of the process:

  1. Listen "openly" - in the first stage of listening you aren't really listening for anything in particular, you're just getting an ear for the piece.
  2. Reflection 1: Syntax - here you are identifying what sounds make up the piece. For an art song an adult might listen for instrumentation/orchestration, and a child would use different adjectives such as fat, round, soft, sharp, banging, harsh, etc.
  3. Reflection 2: Semantics - in this listening you are graphing or mapping how all of these pieces fit together in time. A trained musician might do a theoretical analysis, someone else might just draw a map. This is usually the more technical phase, but doesn't have to be more technical than the person is capable of. A child could simply draw a timeline and then draw pictures of the sounds as they happen.
  4. Reflection 3: Ontology -ontology is the study of existence, or why something exists the way it is. Questions to answer include: is this a statement about the current (or historical) political climate? Is it just a fun study on how sounds interact? Usually the simplest discovery of meaning can be the most profound.
  5. Listen "openly" - this is where, in my experience, my mind is blown. After putting all of the pieces together listening "casually" becomes an entirely new experience.
One important thing to mention is that each of those reflections usually requires several listenings. In the article I read the author listened to Edgar Varese's Poeme electronique (sorry, can't find the accents) and did a total of thirteen listenings. By the end, a piece that sounded completely inaccessible and random suddenly made sense on so many levels.

My daughter has completed her required work for the school year and is entering her summer break. We are setting some reading goals with her, and I am going to attempt to set some listening goals with her as well.

My plan of attack includes first, listening to a piece (or two or three) with her using the method outlined above. We will repeat this process until I feel she understands the process. Next, I will give her a list of four or five pieces I think she would enjoy from various time periods and leave her to listen on her own. Lastly, we will meet together and discuss her discoveries. I'm not sure it will work, but I am very excited about the possibilities. I'll keep a record of our progress on this blog. Now to decide what to listen too....


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