Tower of Babel


A student at her oboe lesson plays a piece she had prepared. The teacher notices that the way she stands is unusual. He tells her how seemingly tense and unnatural her posture is. The student is puzzled. She explains that she had just had a lesson in Alexander technique where the teacher instructed her to think “forward and up” and that she’s been trying to do that. Her teacher says it is not working so well and they decide to stop thinking “forward and up” during the lesson and proceed with the “natural” way.

What is happening here? How is it possible that a learning effort in one course has been crushed in another? Is this an efficient use of resources?

Tower of Babel

We argue that the example above illustrates that all of us have our own understandings of how we, as humans, engage in the doings of our everyday life (and by extension, practicing and performing of music). As teachers we develop languages that reflect and express these understandings. While these languages do make sense within our own understanding, they might not resonate the same way in others (i.e. students). The confidence in our understanding is strengthened by thinking “it has worked for me, and I have been successful, so it must be right” and unfortunately often stops further explorations and discussions.

A student in music performance tends to have the same main teacher for several years and the likelihood is high that the teacher will impart the mindset needed to understand his or her language over time. However, problems emerge when engaging in collaborative, or team, teaching. As illustrated by the opening example the dominating teacher’s view usually wins the arguments in the classroom. But little is known how these views (inter-)operate at a more subliminal level. It is not clear whether the students’ prior understanding changes in the process or whether the views imparted by the teacher exist in parallel.

It could be argued that it is useful for a student to be exposed to contradicting views and build up their own unique understanding. While this might be true in many cases to develop critical thinking, we believe that having some sort of a common denominator is important and should not be left for the students to figure out on their own. This common denominator, we believe, might be a shared language that is based on a shared understanding of how we approach the doings we engage upon in our everyday lives.

The foundations for shared understanding

It is not the goal of this blog post to provide a comprehensive treatment for the underpinnings for the shared understanding. In fact, it should be a continuous and collaborative process and the answers cannot be known beforehand. However, there are some ideas that we believe might facilitate the construction of foundations for the understanding of how we approach the doings we engage upon in our everyday lives.

Becoming aware. The first step is to become aware of our current beliefs and habits about how we engage with our daily activities. How do you sit down? What do you do when you are thinking? How do you prepare to play your instrument? What do you do when you are teaching? We rarely examine what we do in such a detail, yet broad possibilities lie in us doing so.

Suspending judgement. Taking for granted as little as possible. This has been expressed in many different ways in different cultures and traditions. Some might have called it “mind like water” (zen, martial arts), others “bracketing” or “epoché” (phenomenology), but the basic idea is that we do not want to remain stuck with our current understanding. This is easier said than done, and it could be very difficult to part with beliefs one has had for as long as one remembers. Even if one is willing to do so, one might not be aware of the long-held beliefs.

Acknowledging that we are flesh and blood that is conscious of itself and of the environment. This is one thing that we think should be taken for granted as a starting point. Body is not the carrier for our heads! It is not a machine. It is the locus wherein our thinkings and doings are taking place.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Back to the opening example: putting the student in the position of carrying messages from one teacher to another is not an isolated case of Chinese whispers game taking place at music conservatoires. The student has to encode (or make sense of) what one teacher says and decode (or enact) it to another. Matters are further complicated by the invisible assumptions embedded in the two different languages the two teachers speak. This mediation is error prone, as both sense making and enacting are iterative endeavours that take time and require a firm foundation to grow on.

Unfortunately if the student does not get it right the first time, we as teachers tend to “shoot the messenger” as this is easier and more efficient than engaging into a dialogue. “Do as I say” is a powerful teaching technique.


Image a different scenario. What if the oboe teacher could say: “I see you are attempting to direct yourself. That is very good! I also notice that your attention field has shrunk. Could you attempt directing towards a more open attention field, and greater awareness of width?”. And then the student would answer: “Yes, that’s right. I was ‘doing’ the directing. The AT teacher told me to avoid that as well. I have to let go of trying to direct myself.”. The teacher would maybe say something like: “We can look more into this during the group lesson with the AT teacher”. They would then proceed to work on instrumental technique and interpretation of music.

This short moment where the teacher would align his language with the language that the student is trying to use in the AT lessons would go a long way towards a shared understanding. This might not even be far from what the instrument teacher would normally say. This moment would make it easier for the student to solidify the foundation upon which she builds her more specialised skills (like instrumental technique). Within an institution this would create synergies between the staff members instead of rivalries.

What does it take to develop a shared language and understanding institution-wide? We would like to invite you to share their thoughts with us.

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