Teaching as Songdog: A Musical Perspective on Teaching by Phillip Bimstein
In Navajo legend a coyote, or “songdog,” emerged from a hole in the ground and sang the world into existence. The songdog story, and the feeling of possibility it engenders, has inspired all my work as composer, mayor and citizen. My goal as teacher is to spark that feeling and develop that capability in my students, helping them to become conscious and intentional co-creators—songdogs—singing ourselves and our communities into existence.
My experiences as musician and mayor dispose me to think of learning taking place within collaborative frameworks, where ideas are proposed, elaborated, tested, counterpointed and reprised like themes in a classical sonata or issues at a town meeting. It is key that each participant interacts with the subject from his own experience, and speaks with her own voice. As a teacher I try to sustain the “pedal point,” the grounding referential harmony, the awareness of a meaningful and personal context within which the learner can integrate the subject we are studying together. Music becomes a cultural tool for insight into dialogical and thought processes. We look for similarities and differences, where points of differences, when pressed, become membranes through which can pass awakening interpretations and catalytic understandings.
I teach like I lead a band or conduct a meeting: Create the welcoming space, put a “song” on the table, propose an agenda, and have at it together. I present when useful and I listen always, my ears tuned to response, whether silent or spoken. The subject is then articulated in collaboration with one another. My students and I create a community of learning, and we learn in concert with each other. Thematic investigation and improvisation are cultivated. But we stay attuned to form, so that the subject develops coherently. When unfamiliar material is presented, rather than implying a privileged way of knowing I promote the cultivation of “beginner's mind,” hopefully allowing a fresher, more open encounter and a more deeply penetrating— and educating—experience.
My goals for my students and myself are to achieve critical understanding in three areas: music, community, and participatory democracy. (1) I want us to become curious about, and familiar with, varying musical styles, genres and practices from different cultures and historical periods, and to enter into the forms and processes of the music in ways that make sense within our own experience.
(2) I want us to ferret out and understand relationships between musical texts and the communities that produce and express them, and therefore be able to interpret and understand different communities.
(3) I want us to develop dialogue skills in tandem with music listening/participating skills—to develop citizenship skills though musical analogy. I want us to become more conscious of, and better at performing, our roles in our communities as “composer/citizens”—songdogs singing the world.
My implementation includes listenings, readings, presentations and (most importantly) discussions about musical form, processes and experiences; about cultural and ideological contexts for music; about musical analogies for dialogue, social organization and government. Though as teacher I carry the baton and traditional role as conductor, and therefore try to foster all the listening, responding and articulating skills of a small chamber orchestra, I seek and welcome ways the class can become at times a good jam band, with each student taking turns at solos and supporting each other's turns, respectfully performing our own music of dialogue and learning. Students are evaluated not merely on their understanding of the material, but also on their development of analytic musical/dialogue skills, and on the degrees to which they incorporate their understandings and skills into their practices of community citizenship, as demonstrated by the quality of their class participation.
Composing a Community
This student-centered, community-cultivating course will engage and critically assess music as a socially-reflective art. Music will be our vehicle for a journey into multiple dimensions of human behavior, with side-trips through rhetoric, political theory, sociology, narrative, ideology and identity. Mixing freely from Haydn to Hendrix, Prokofiev to punk, jazz to jam bands, and rhapsody to rap, students will correlate musical forms, processes and expressions with the societies from which they spring—including their own. Cross-cutting themes will include: music as dialogue; music as ideology; music as a mirror of government; music and social movements; and music's evolutionary role in human development. Class sessions will at times be conducted as examples of interactive musical and dialogical processes, whereby students “compose” their own community. Other sessions will explore the practice and performance of “deep listening.” Readings will be selected from cultural studies, musicology, the sociology of music, music criticism and music theory. Listenings will be selected from a wide range of musical genres of various cultures, from the Middle Ages through today—including music proposed by the students. Assignments will include short papers, oral presentations and taking turns conducting the discussion. The goals are for students: 1) to achieve a more articulated experience of music through the filters of other disciplines; and 2) to gain an enriched understanding of community through musical manifestations of participatory democracy. A touchstone for the course is the Navajo “songdog” myth that we “sing” our world into existence, coupled with Benjamin Barber's conception of citizens as “makers” who “create a common future”; students will develop, combine and apply their musical and political potential to “sing” their world into existence.