In this post I will recommend a spiritual praxis for music teachers. That is, I will suggest that, just as music can be understood as sound and silence, we need both metaphorical sound and silence in our daily teaching routine. Finding silence is a benefit to our psychological and spiritual wellbeing, which in a service profession like music teaching is essential for serving well and being good to ourselves.
A recent New Hampshire Public Radio program discusses "silence." In the first part, they talk to a hiker, Denis Fallensbee, who goes into the "quietest" place in New Hampshire, the White Mountains. By silence, Fallensbee means "nature sounds; not people sounds." Though this seems like an anthropocentric (overly human-centered) definition to me, its not an entirely useless one, since absolute silence is nearly unattainable in reality. However, music studios, concert halls, and scientific labs go through a lot of effort to try to find some version of silence (side note, when I was a student at Penn State, Linda Thornton took the music psychology students on a field trip to the university's anechoic chamber; If you ever have a chance to check it out, its neat!). Fallensbee and his fellow hikers compare mountains to decide which are quietest. On his recent hike into the White Mountains, there was a motor cycle event, so finding silence was impossible. They conclude that nowhere in New Hampshire is entirely quiet. If you listen to the whole program, they talk to composer Robin Parmer about noise complains historically, which is also quite interesting.
I talk about "silence" as part of a spiritual music teaching praxis in Eco-Literate Music Pedagogy (pp. 101-2). I draw spiritual insights from my own Catholic tradition, from Buddhism, and from the Deep Ecology philosophy. I talk about the paradox of sound and silence being central to music educators. After all, if we're not teaching sound and silence in schools, who is? You cannot have music, not melody or rhythm or form or meaning, without both sound and silence. Famously, Claude Debussy said, "music is the silence between the notes." Though not an inclusive definition of music, Debussy's insight should be incorporated into how we think about and teach music. And it is certain that some of the best music includes dramatic silence ... the dramatic pause is fairly commonplace (listen to the Foo Fighters "Monkey Wrench," which has one such dramatic pause just 12 seconds in).
On a metaphorical level, what might music, simply understood as sound and silence, be in the music teacher's daily life? Since music teaching is a service profession, so much of our daily lives are filled with the sound of service to others: to our students, administrators, other teachers, parents, music ed. organizations, etc. We do this out of love. If we didn't love this service, we would have chosen a much easier and more lucrative profession. But that doesn't mean we don't also need silence. We cannot be service to others if we don't take care of ourselves. I've known too many teachers, who as they near retirement have become bitter. That bitterness has often become health problems. They have let their desire for service-to-others involve too much sound and not enough rejuvenating silence. Sound is good; and so is silence.
In talking about philosophy, Josef Pieper discussed both the need for active thought (intellectual "work"), and contemplation (which is receptive). He draws from ancient terms, ratio, "discursive, logical thought," and intellectus, "effortless awareness." He also criticizes the modern idea that work is good but leisure is not. So much of our day-to-day teaching involves lesson planning, making sense of curricula, choosing level-appropriate, interdisciplinary, culturally relevant, locally rooted musics, dances, games, or deciding how to conduct a piece to elicit from students the most artistic responses. This is ratio, that is, intellectual work. After we finish (its never finished) this intellectual work we practice actually implementing these ideas (this is our craft). None of these (ratio or craft) are silence in the metaphorical sense.
So, music teachers need to set aside time for silence! For quiet contemplation. For going into the woods, or a park, or garden, or even our desk between classes, and, with intention, closing our eyes relaxing and listening for silence. There is no perfect silence, and there is no perfect meditation practice. Every one is embedded within a tradition. My own meditation practice comes from the Catholic tradition I was raised in, and was influenced by my studies of Buddhist and Pagan practices. From my earliest Catholic lessons with Fr. Blaine, I learned to meditate on scripture. From Buddhism I learned to allow outside thoughts and concerns to dissolve. From Paganism I learned to let my imagination wander, and find a relaxing grove within my mind. Its likely that all spiritual traditions have some sort of meditation; some sort of contemplation. Just as day needs night, and summer, winter, our daily sound needs daily silence. Try it. Even for just a few short minutes a day. It has helped me!