Saturday, January 10, 2009

Communicating about Music

In the course of my trying to approach a theory of listening to music in terms of a common ground shared by George Herbert Mead and Donald Schön, I have reread my copy of Schön's The Reflective Practitioner and moved on to Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. While much of the theory behind this latter book is little more than a rehash of a case study from the first book, I was particularly drawn to the second book by a "practice" chapter entitled "A Master Class in Musical Performance." The case study of this chapter is supplemented by anecdotal accounts of other classes, one of which involves Bernard Greenhouse (formerly of the Beaux Arts Trio) recalling his cello studies with Pablo Casals. Following the theoretical foundations of the first book, the second explores educational strategies for cultivating the practice of knowing-in-action and then evolving that practice into reflection-in-action. I agree with Schön's premise that this approach is relevant to the study of musical performance, but I believe it is also appropriate to how we learn to be better listeners. Indeed Greenhouse's anecdote about Casals was about learning "how to improvise in Bach;" and it struck me that Casals' method was concerned as much with cultivating Greenhouse's listening skills as his execution skills with his instrument. From this point of view, much (if not most) of the communication that takes place between teacher and student involves the description of musical experiences, either as-heard or as-made. It also stands to reason that such communication involves far more than verbal exchanges, which is one of the paths through which Mead's social behaviorism comes into the picture.

This raises an interesting broader question, which is how we communicate descriptions of anything. Description is one of the fundamental categories of text type theory; but the only thorough account of it that I have encountered has been Philippe Hamon's Du Descriptif (which, to the best of my knowledge, has not been translated into English). I have had one round with this book, and the going was pretty rough. I owe myself another try, but I suspect that my current reading is warming me up for that next bout.

Accepting that description can be a tough nut to crack, there is still the Mead-based behavioral path through which we can examine our communicative actions; and this is basically the agenda behind The Theory of Communicative Action by Jürgen Habermas. What Habermas calls "communicative action" is actually the fourth (and most refined) of four "sociological concepts of action" that he examines in his book. These deserve a brief summary:

  1. The teleological concept is based on the formalist principle that an action effects a state transition. We thus understand actions in terms of the states they are intended to achieve, either directly or as part of a more extensive plan; and actions are described through rules that map a state and an action to a resulting state. The major flaw in Herbert Simon's naive approach to a theory of design is his assumption that all actions are teleological.
  2. The normative concept assumes that actions are regulated by socially determined norms. In other words the "goal state" of an action is less important than whether or not that action is acceptable in the social setting in which it is taken. Because that setting is rarely (if ever) static, this concept is more firmly grounded in the dynamics of behavior than is the state-based teleological concept.
  3. The dramaturgical concept views the acting subject as "playing a role" in a social setting that provides an "audience." It is perhaps best captured by the title of Erving Goffman’s pioneering analysis, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. This concept, again, is grounded in the dynamics of behavior.
  4. The communicative concept refers to both the dynamic and state-based properties of the interpersonal relations of at least two subjects who seek a shared understanding of a given situation "in order to coordinate their actions by way of agreement" (as Habermas put it in his book). These are precisely the personal interactions that take place in the most effective of educational settings, not to mention over work practices in offices concerned with "knowledge work." It is in this concept of action that Habermas drew upon Mead as his primary source.

This classification draws upon a Habermas theme that I continue to emphasize, particularly when I am exercising my critical chops over some egregiously technocentric thinking. This is the theme that we all live (and communicate) in three worlds: objective, subjective, and social:

  1. The teleological concept of action is strictly a product of the objective world and can only function in that world.
  2. The normative concept of action is grounded in the conventions of the social world.
  3. The dramaturgical concept of action deals with "performance" as behavior in the subjective world.
  4. The communicative concept of action transcends the other three by synthesizing behaviors grounded in all three of these worlds.

From this point of view, is there a "world" in which we learn about performing and listening to music? Schön's examples actually cover two of the concepts of action. One teacher (pseudonymously named "Rosemary") works with her student from the teleological stance of problem solving. Performing a composition (in this case the first movement of Johannes Brahms' Opus 108 violin sonata) is a problem, which may then be decomposed into subproblems, each of which may be addressed independently. After all the subproblems (which may need to be further decomposed) have been solved, they may be assembled back into a coherent whole. On the other hand the (also pseudonymous) "Franz," who is coaching a student in the first two sections of Franz Schubert's Opus 15 "Wanderer Fantasy," takes an overtly dramaturgical approach, using a rich repertoire of both musical and bodily performance to make his points to his student.

I have seen both of these concepts in action, so to speak, at Master Classes I have attended at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I would also suggest that Robert Mann has explored the normative concept, particularly in his belief that a composer is best understood in terms of the music to which that composer was exposed. However, this might be selling Mann short. He may be one of the best examples of the synthesis necessary for communicative action that I have encountered. His own dramaturgical approach has certainly been similar to that of "Franz" in Schön's account; but he was at his most interesting when I saw him coaching a performance of the music of Elliott Carter. While Mann was clearly subjective is talking about his experiences in performing Carter's music with the Julliard Quartet, he was not shy about addressing the need from some nuts-and-bolts objective problem solving that was necessary to the process of preparing for performance. It thus seems that, in his own efforts in teaching the performance of music, Mann appreciates (even if only intuitively) the necessity for the full scope of communicative action and does not do a bad job in satisfying this ideal.

Does this approach also apply to how we learn how to listen to music? Since this is not treated as a discipline to the same extent that performing is, even in a conservatory setting, there is no conclusive answer to this question. Personally, I believe that the richness of communicative action may be necessary for any effort of description; but I cannot support my conviction with anything more than scattered anecdotes, most of which are personal. In another setting I might be able to pursue this as a serious research project, but for now I can content myself with the realm of idle speculation!

1 comment:

Wes said...

My comment on listening skills. Yesterday, I was listening to my daughter's graduation recital from New England Conservatory. It opened with Bach's French Suite III. During that performance, our cat attacked a tennis ball, batting it, chasing it, etc. As soon as the music switched to Schoenberg's Five Piano Pieces Op. 23, she stopped playing and went away. Obviously Schoenberg requires more active listening skills.