Classical music, language teaching and the participation metaphor

For a number of years I’ve been fascinated by how the world of classical music can be such an inspiration for the world of teaching and learning. I’ve been particularly interested in the changing face of the relationship between conductors and musicians.

It is almost impossible to divorce classical music from emotions. When well played, music can bring out emotions and feelings, which we have been trying to lock down inside of us and ignore. Music allows sublimation to happen.

Yet, when we look at the world of classical music and the rituals imposed in terms of listening to the music and watching it being played in concert halls, there has always been a stuffiness and rigidness in relation to how it is experienced. Complete silence has to be observed in the concert halls. People have to remain still during the movements. You don’t clap between the movements. If you do, you draw upon you the strictest of glares of disapproval. You are declared to be a philistine. For this reason, classical music has been largely associated with an experience, which is reserved for an elite, which understands these rituals and speaks this language.

If you think about it, this flies in the face of what music really brings into our lives. It is not supposed to be a rational and intellectual experience, but rather a spontaneous and emotional one. It is an experience which can and should be enjoyed. Both conductor and musicians can ensure this if they manage to enter in some form of dialogue with the audience. A bond has to be established.

This mirrors exactly the situation we face in class as we teach English as a foreign, second or additional language. We cannot divorce form and meaning in language learning. We need the structural linguistic framework of the language. Yet this only really makes sense within a meaningful context. Language makes sense when we are able to express our ideas and deepest of emotions.

We as teachers also seek to establish an interactionist dialogue between ourselves, the learners in class and the language being learnt. We no longer expect or wish for passive students in class. We welcome participation and exchange. To this end the traditional metaphor of language learning which is based on an input/output model, an “acquisition metaphor”, no longer works. We have moved into the realms of education and language learning, which is based on a “participation metaphor” which makes clear the dialectic relationship, which exists amongst the key players. It also de-objectifies knowledge and places participants in a position in which they may change places at any moment.

This is what brings me back to the world of classical music today. If previously conductors were the embodiment of the status quo of the classical world and musicians played a subsidiary role, albeit an important one, the audience itself had very little room other than to be passive spectators, allowed to react at the end with restrained clapping. Yet we see a new generation of conductors and musicians who are deeply committed to the “participation metaphor” as it were. The form remains important, but the expression of meaning and dialogic interaction has taken on a new dimension.

This is clear in the manner in which the conductor Gustavo Dudamel engages the orchestra and the audience in the concerts.  A close friend, who has been a cellist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra for over 40 years, mentioned this to me recently when he told me what it was like to play conducted by Dudamel. He was forced to find a new spirit in his playing and he joked that he rekindled his Latin temperament into his playing. However, it’s not just the musicians who are involved in a new form of dialogue. The audience is also being invited to participate more actively. Whilst some in the world of classical music may still frown upon this form of emotional engagement, there can be no doubt that it is bringing classical music into a new sphere and audience.

At the end of the day, this is what we are also searching for as language teachers and educators. We want this level of engagement in class. We want this enthusiasm. We want this level of participation and dialogue. It may at times seem excessive or boisterous and loud. Yet as an experience, there is nothing quite like it.

So, take three minutes once you’ve read this and watch the video of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in Caracas for a New Year’s Eve concert in 2007 (so the festive element is also defined by the celebratory moment. In other performances the orchestra plays more conservatively, but with another level of engement and life). They are playing the Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Suite.

Surely, this is where we want to get with our learners (the audience)?

Isn’t it also where we want to be as teachers (musicians/conductor)?

Additional links:

Anna Sfard – On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one:

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