Music, navigation, curriculum

by Paul Maharg on 05/07/2006

Stay with that notion of the curriculum as song for a moment. How do we learn music (leaving aside oral musical learning & rehearsal for the moment [though that’s clearly the context of Chatwin’s aboriginal] since it’s a significantly different milieu), once we’ve learned the basics of reading it? 

In another life I played the guitar, so let me take that experience and see where it leads. The text of the music is really only the start, and it depends on what I want to do thereafter. But whatever I’m trying to do, I’ll not just play the music, but do two things. First, try to hear it outside myself, as if I’m listening to my own playing. Second, live it so that I become it not just with the instrument but when I’m having breakfast or cycling I’d be thinking about the phrasing or the fingering of a few bars. Or if sections were causing a problem, or if I had a memory lapse, what was it exactly about the fingering that was awkward, how come the fingers didn’t have the memory in them for that bit of the piece when they did for others, and so on. And because I was an amateur musician, I could worry away at a piece, and then leave it when I got tired of it, or if it had too many difficult bits — which could happen fairly frequently, since I only played up to grade 6 pieces. Whereas a professional will have a different attitude entirely to learning a piece, not just to keep it in fairly long-term memory, but to memorise and recall the touch, the feel, recall the sheer mass of thought-processes that go into the phrasing of a piece, without having to wrestle with it anew.

But compare that to the curriculum. I think that here’s a very tentative analogy for a model for how we might think about curriculum planning and development. Oddly enough, it’s the students, not staff, who can be said to be in the position of professionals here. They live the curriculum more than staff, because they inhabit it more frequently through all the subjects, the classes, the assessments. But if we want to plan the curriculum, maybe we have to learn it like a piece of music — hear it like it’s being played by students, and live it. A colleague of mine, some years ago, was in the teaching & learning service unit of a university. She took a course — engineering, I think — and kept a diary of her experience, upon which she based her own doctoral research. Impossible for that to happen in the vast majority of curricula, but can’t we take more time to explore the issues, think ourselves into the curriculum in a more imaginative way? If we don’t we rely on the same hackneyed pieces, our same tired repertoires based on the standard grounds of lecture > tutorial: the goldberg without the variations; Vivaldi’s glorious Folia minus variations = folly.

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