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Experiential learning and the journey

The difference between an oboe student and a flute, clarinet, saxophone or recorder student is that the oboe student will need much more time in order to produce a proper sound and to be able to play pieces and melodies. The opening of the oboe reed is tiny, so the player cannot put a large quantity of air through the reed, only fast speed of air, which studies show is between 180 and 420 kilometres per hour.[2] This needs a complicated breathing and support system, with lots of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles being involved. There are even more crucial differences between the oboe and the other winds, making the other winds easier to produce a sound on: for example, that the oboe player has to breathe in AND breathe out[3] and, if he does not learn how to do this, will end up with a feeling of drowning in the throat, a shortness of breath in the chest and also a very dangerous hyperventilation in the head. So it does take time for a student to get familiar with all these issue and start feeling joy in his playing and his music. It needs patience until the oboe students reach a level where they will enjoy their sound and feel comfortable with the instrument and their playing, but they also need inspiration from the teacher and constant motivation to keep going. One way in which the teacher might encourage this is to make the students feel that the journey is more important and valuable than the final result. Students, and especially oboe students for the above reasons, should enjoy what they are experiencing through their learning journey, not only waiting for the final purpose.

I could not explain better this than the Greek poet, Konstantinos Kavafis. He described the adventurous and exciting journey of Odysseus before he arrived (after thirty years) back home in Ithaki:

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,

pray that the road is long […]

Pray that the road is long.

That the summer mornings are many, when,

with such pleasure, with such joy

you will enter ports seen for the first time; […]

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.

To arrive there is your ultimate goal.

But do not hurry the voyage at all.

It is better to let it last for many years;

and to anchor at the island when you are old,

rich with all you have gained on the way […]”[4].

A journey definitely includes exploration and discoveries. It is very important for the student to explore his relationship with the instrument, to discover how he will use the instrument to express feelings and emotions and how he will use the technical aspects of the instrument through his body, which is very different for every musician. This can be achieved with “experiential learning”: when a student learns through experiences, and discovers and absorbs knowledge through practical ways and not by just following verbal or written instructions. It can be very effective and very suitable in music instrumental education.

A student can explore and find how fascinating the relationship is that he can have with the air which he passes through the oboe. Breathing gives life to the wooden instrument in a very engaging way: the student can experiment and discover how, when he is blowing with an angry way, he will have an angry sound as a result; when he is trying to be sweet and tender with his air, this is giving a different result, and in similar ways the student realizes that he can express a variety of emotions through the air and transform them into different sound qualities. Through this experience, the relationship with the air becomes very special for the student and this creates the foundation of a future long-lasting relationship with the instrument.

The high importance of exploration and discovery for the music student is wonderfully described in The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallwey. It starts by suggesting a teaching approach which allows the student to explore and discover what he has to do through ‘awareness instructions’, and not ‘do this’ instructions:

[…] detailed verbal instructions are seldom as effective as experience.

This kind of teaching is quite different from the ‘do this’ style of instruction with which everything from tennis to music is usually taught. Instead of the teacher telling a student to ‘change the tempo in the last bar’, for example, they are more likely to ask questions that focus the student’s attention on the problem areas. This allows the student to make the necessary corrections without being told exactly what to do.[5]

They continue to discuss the result of this approach:

This approach to teaching and learning de-emphasizes ‘instruction’ and relies more on the body’s ability to sense problems and change them without first translating them into words. It’s an approach that encourages students to be their own teachers. […]

Watching someone else is one of the ways to learn. But learning can involve more than just visual learning. It also makes use of hearing, touch and the emotions. In each case, however, the emphasis is on learning by some form of experience, rather than learning by following instructions.[6]

This experiential learning has been supported by many pedagogues and psychologists, such as John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, William James, Carl Jung, Paulo Freire, Carl Rogers and others. They “gave experience a central role in their theories of human learning and development” and they developed “a holistic model of the experiential learning process”.[7]

The idea of the journey which was introduced at the beginning of this chapter, and the enjoyment of the process and the experience rather than only longing for the result, is totally consistent with the principles of experiential learning formed by these scholars. One of the fundamental propositions of the theory is that “Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes. The primary focus should be on engaging students in a process that best enhances their learning - a process that includes feedback on the effectiveness of their learning efforts”.[8] Particularly, as Dewey notes, “[E]ducation must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience: . . . the process and goal of education are one and the same thing”.[9] This is exactly what the oboe student needs: achieving the goal by being engaged in the process.

One of the most notable of these scholars, Jean Piaget, through his theory of structuralism and the theory of stages, supported the idea that children are curious to learn and the teachers should leave them space and time to play and experiment.[10] He said that “Whatever we experience, from the simplest natural stimulus to the most complicated scientific knowledge, can be understood only from within our existing knowledge”.[11] This part of his theory was applied to music as well: “It is assumed that the goal [of musical development research which takes as its model Piaget’s theory] is to investigate the development of musical cognition or thought as it emerges through the development of structures, rather than adopt a model of investigation that emphasizes external learnings as the source of musical abilities”[12].

A few years earlier (around 1900), Maria Montessori also supported experiential learning. She said that “The greatest sign of success for a teacher... is to be able to say, 'The children are now working as if I did not exist’”, a result of a “constructivist or ‘discovery model’”, used in Montessori education, “where students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than by direct instruction”.[13] This is an educational model with great applicability to music instrumental teaching, where there is a strong focus on individual practicing by the student at home, where the teacher does not exist. Dewey said that "(There is a) need of forming a theory of experience in order that education may be intelligently conducted upon the basis of experience".[14] This clearly can shape instrumental education, as music (and music playing) is by definition an experience of creating feelings and emotions which music students should definitely have the space to explore and discover.

[1]Cover: Painting by Dimitris Maninis:

[2] This information comes from the oboe professor Thomas Indermuhle in Corfu Oboe Summercourse in July 2010.

[3] Breathing in and out is a very particular process for an oboe player: because of the tiny opening of the reed, he/she cannot put a large quantity of air through the reed, but mostly only speed of air. So most of the times he/she cannot use all the air he breathed in, and before breathing in again to take in even more, he/she has to breathe out first (exhaling the air which is left) in order to avoid the feeling of drowning and dizziness, and tightness in the throat.

[4] “[…] Not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches. Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage. Without her you would have never set out on the road. She has nothing more to give you. And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you. Wise as you have become, with so much experience, you must already have understood what Ithacas mean”, Cavafy C.P., Ithaka, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992.

[5] Green Barry with Timothy W. Gallwey, The Inner Game of Music, MacMillan Publishers, London, 1987, p. 146.

[6] Ibid, p. 146.

[7] Kolb, Alice Y., Kolb, David A., ‘Learning Styles and Learning Spaces: Enhancing Experiential Learning in Higher Education’, Academy of Management Learning & Education, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Jun., 2005), p. 194.

Some of the scholars mentioned here, such as Dewey and Piaget, were cognitivists. “Cognitive interpretations are concerned with the cognitions (perceptions or attitudes or beliefs) that individuals have about their environment and with the ways these cognitions determine behavior. In these interpretations, cognitive learning is the study of the ways in which cognitions are modified by experience”, quoted in Hill F. Winfred, LEARNING a survey of psychological interpretations, Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1980, p. 26.

In general, cognitivism was in contrast with behaviorism, which will be mentioned in the subsequent chapters, but in this essay elements from both theories are selected and presented, which are not contrasting to each other.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Murphy, Georgina, Research presentation at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, 17/02/14, London.

[11] Bringuier, Jean-Claude, Ελεύθερες Συζητήσεις με τον Piaget [Conversations with Jean Piaget], translation N. Sideri, Kastaniotis Publications, Athens, 1978, p. 70.

[12] Mary, Serafine L., ‘Piagetian Research in Music’, Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, No. 62 (Spring, 1980), p. 3.

[13] From retrieved 25 of March 2014.

[14] Kolb & Kolb, Learning Styles and Learning Spaces, p. 193.

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