Soul, spirit and sound in music education

Chris Woods
Monday, May 1, 2023

Chris Woods of The Music Education Podcast offers a fresh perspective on music's other-worldly qualities, with the help of two experts.

AdobeStock / Pakhnyushchyy

Music across the globe is built on a foundation of profound connection. ‘Losing yourself’ to the music is a universal experience and something we all expect from music. How on earth can we ensure we bring this magic into the classroom? How can we help our students to make that connection and in turn help their audiences connect with them?

In this article and the accompanying podcast I explore the ‘almost’ magical side of music education, looking at how we can bring the more emotive and visceral side of music into the classroom; after all, it's probably the very reason we all got into music in the first place.

I'm supported by two guests: The Reverend Professor June Boyce-Tillman MBE, from the University of Winchester and of North-West University, Potchefstroom (South Africa), and Dr Diana Harris, researcher in music education and former associate lecturer at the Open University. Both are perfectly placed to comment on the world of music, soul and even, dare I say it, spirituality. You can listen to the podcast by following the link at the end of this article or by searching online for ‘The Music Education Podcast’.

What are we talking about?

Chances are you got into music for the ‘magic’, for the feeling, for the moments that you transcended the reality of your surroundings. You lost yourself in the music and probably with the people you were playing it with.

In some ways that magical feeling or moment of losing yourself is what we expect from a concert or a recording. In fact, it's a base line requirement, both for audience member and participant. As Boyce-Tillman describes it: ‘If you go to a concert, even a classical concert, and at the end you are thinking about what you are going to buy in the supermarket afterwards, most people would say it hasn't worked. They expect to be taken into this other way of knowing.’

While this might be a basic expectation of music, we still don't have a universal way of addressing it, or describing it. It's almost as if it's unsaid. To have any chance of building this magic into the classroom, we need to agree on what this ‘deep connection’ or ‘transcendence’ is actually called. Sometimes a label is necessary.

We often use colloquial terms or phrases to describe the ‘magic’: ‘Oh man, you were so into that’, ‘lost in the music’, ‘feeling it’ etc. But in a more formal context we always seem to struggle to define it. Part of this is down to facing something that operates outside our own immediate understanding. So the words we have access to are often limited to those with religious, or mystical, connotations which can create barriers. In a religious context, it might be considered to be a ‘connection with God’, which works great for those that are religious but less so for those that aren't. A ‘spiritual connection’ seems slightly more universal, but this phrase carries so much weight even the most agnostic can be triggered into conjuring images of incense sticks and yoga retreats, which isn't helpful either.

Boyce-Tillman's definition or term of choice is ‘liminal'. It's a wonderful word. Google gives me this definition: ‘Occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.’ I think this serves our needs well enough, and shouldn't trigger strong objection from either side of the theological divide. She also describes this state we all love as striving to ‘Access a different way of knowing’. Profoundly strong descriptions for a profoundly strong experience.

Why don't we teach it?

If this ‘magic’, ‘connection’ or ‘experience’ – this liminal state – is so integral to music itself, why is it so neglected in the classroom? Why, as someone who spends a lot of their week discussing music education, do I so rarely hear educators talk of the importance to focus on this, to nurture it, to include it in the curriculum?

Surely our first priority as music educators should be to enable students to experience this liminal state through music, to help them get better at accessing it. And, in turn, be able to conjure it for others, their audience.

The reason for its absence could be because the idea of liminality, or ‘deep connection’, is not something our Western culture holds at its core. As Boyce-Tillman explains, ‘The way in which we construct education in this country is based on the individual heroic journey, and the individualism that characterises Western society. That has meant it is very difficult for music because the thing that it's supposed to do is not at the heart of Western society.’

If you look through your life experiences, you'll probably find many examples where you had to readjust from a liminal state and ‘snap out of it’ in order to contribute to the day-to-day running of Western structures and society. I know that, even as someone whose entire life is based around making music, deep down there is a voice telling me to ‘stop daydreaming and get a proper job’. And, actually, that is reinforced by music education itself, because music education is widely based on deconstruction or decoding rather than entering that liminal state or connection.

Just consider how we assess students. As Boyce-Tillman explains it, ‘If we take the Associated Board exams as an example – when in making music does one person sit in front of another; whose job it is to critique it? I mean, how does that ever examine what the nature of music is?’

She adds, ‘You are more likely to get that sense of liminality, of spirituality, in the processes of making music that we are used to. Rather than this bizarre notion of a single person playing to a single person whose job it is to go to that space, usually to check whether they've decoded the notes correctly.’ Historically speaking, ‘That process of decoding a literate score in a literate society meant that we lost quite a lot of the other aspects of music which are essential.’

If we accept that such examinations are the driving force behind our education system, then imagine for a moment the scenario where you are telling your headteacher that you intend to measure students’ ability in music by how they access the liminal state. It's not compatible, it's not something that would be entertained – we don't examine in this way. We test the ability to decode, to deconstruct and, to quote Boyce-Tillman again, ‘If we examine in this way, then we teach in this way.’

How do we bring this into the classroom?

There is an immediate, simple and achievable approach that Diana Harris offers that should, I think, be our first port of call: ‘Take them somewhere different’.

Harris recommends heading to the drama studio, the art room, the library, the hall, just a space that they haven't been used to making music in, to give students the physical space and a fresh perspective. Then, crucially, give students the time to connect.

We might be able to regulate our expectations of students when it comes to physical technique or theoretical knowledge, but it's not commonplace to be patient when it comes to giving students time to access music, to allow them the opportunity to ‘lose themselves’ to reach a liminal state. We should, however, make an effort to be patient with this as the pay-off can be huge.

These simple ideas can be so successful that Harris suggests being aware and ready to support students who might be triggered by such an experience, because ‘we are talking about deep feelings that you might release’.

While that might seem like hyperbole to the sceptical, it shouldn't be, as that is what music does – it's just not what music education is generally regarded as doing.

Boyce-Tillman offers four domains which music educators can be aware of when helping students reach the liminal state. Engaging students with all four in everything you do should help set up fertile ground for losing oneself in the sound:

  • Materials. The notion of the body/instrument and how it works. This can be taught by exploring the instruments, without limitations.
  • Expression. What can you say through music? What does it make you feel? What is communicated?
  • Construction. What is repeated and not repeated? How is it constructed/deconstructed?
  • Values. What context are you working in? (e.g. Punk band in a pub, drones in a meditation room, choir in a church.)

The idea being that if you engage with music and the music education is aware of these things, you are more likely to reach a liminal state. That said, there is one simple caveat: ‘You can only set up the conditions in which it's likely to happen; you can't make it happen.’

I think the blend of Harris' observation of giving time and space alongside Boyce-Tillman's four domains gives us a heartily-sized toolkit to bring some of that much needed magic, that losing yourself, that liminality into the classroom.

Listen to this article's accompanying episode of The Music Education Podcast, hosted by Chris Woods, sponsored by Faber Music and brought to you by Soundstorm the Music Education Hub:

Music Teacher is media partner of The Music Education Podcast.