In recording the 1985 album Canyon, the Paul Winter Consort rafted 279-miles on the Colorado River, four times, improvising music in various places to entwine their music with the music of the Grand Canyon, including the sounds of physical forces and biological organisms. See the liner notes for the Paul Winter Consort’s album Canyon. And listen to the album on YouTube. A group of people in nature, traveling and stopping at various places, and improvising to co-create a composition. This sounds like a fun and life-filled musical experience.
Scholarship has long suggested that learning improvisation can foster both musical skills and empathy. What happens when we take students outdoors to improvise? What if we, in a miniature refashioning of the Paul Winter Consort journey, grabbed our school instruments and rafted down a local river or creek with students? We could record these improvisations and students could create their own albums. Would it still be music education? I suspect so. What would we hear when we stopped the raft and listened to varied places? And would our students be better prepared to protect Mother Earth from destructive forces in our economy?
The U.S. National Parks Service identifies two sources for soundscapes:
“The natural soundscape is comprised of two main sound categories: physical and biological. Physical sounds are created by physical forces (wind, rock fall, rivers, for example), whereas biological sounds are created by organisms (bird song, wolf howls, and frog calls, for example). The presence and abundance of sounds from these two categories is used to characterize different habitats. Different habitats have specific soundscape characteristics that are an important attribute of the natural system, with distinct impacts on human perception of the environment.”
Putting these ideas together, when we take our students outside to listen to soundscapes—identifying the physical sounds and biological sounds—and improvise in these places, students and teachers alike can cultivate empathy with one another and with non-human animals; and deep feelings for places that we need to protect in the 21st Century. It seems logical: people who empathize with non-human nature advocate for its protection.
According to the Indian activist Siddhartha, “we can save the earth only if we believe it is sacred” (p. 99). Taking students beyond the yellow-painted walls, sterile fluorescent lights, and machine-like soundscapes of school buildings, we, teacher-students and students-teachers, can explore the sacred—not as a religious dogma but as an exploration of free persons living and embodying our species-creativity within the diverse beauty of Mother Earth. This, for me, can be a music education worth cultivating.
Link to image of Black Moshannon State Park (a half-hour drive from my home): https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b5/Black_Moshannon_SP_Lake_Panorama.jpg