Sitting by Lake Geneva (iii)

JF: In last week’s discussion we examined the central role of cognitive structure in your theory and the idea that we build and develop mental schema through the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation. Put simply, our mental schema give us something to think with. We might well have explored the fascinating idea of conservation, the process whereby we learn to hold in mind different aspects of a stimulus and come to see how these relate to eachother (those inter-related musical dimensions, for example). But we must leave this aside for now as I want to raise another matter.

So far we have been thinking about learning and development as a series of cognitive events which develop the mind so that new and better ways of thinking are established. But this form of cognition leaves out feeling. I know you have acknowledged the role of ‘affect’ in learning, but what seems to be significant about the case of music is that to think music involves both thinking and feeling. I have always found the cognition-affective-motor model unhelpful.

The idea of cognitive-feeling has been spoken of in the arts. I believe there is a grave error made by curriculum makers and strategists in the case of music who hold to some general view of cognition, and who reduce it to a matter of ‘ah, now I see and can say’. Knowing music works at a far more profound level than this, surely?

What is it ‘to know music’, ‘what is the nature of musical knowledge?’ Without clarity here dealing with issues such as assessment become confused. Assessment without an epistemological basis will be a birth-strangled babe and cause no end of confusion. And this is why cognitive-feeling is such an important idea.

JP: I see what you are getting at.

As you will know I did carry out work on the nature of play, imagination and dream work, and I think this is relevant to your question here. I recognise that fine musical performance, for example, appears to require a particular form of cognition, and yes, perhaps the idea of cognitive-feeling goes some way to capture this.

What is clear to me is that the form of knowing and understanding of which you speak is free from the tyranny of language. It is a non-verbal form of cognition. And the significance of this form of cognition is rarely appreciated by curriculum makers. Language, for all its immense power – and let’s be clear about this, it is a remarkable tool as Lev Vygotsky has shown – can so easily prevent learning and development.

JF: Yes, this is a very subtle matter in the case of music. Much more work is needed in understanding how language is acquired in the context of music making, and how it enables thought about music.

You mentioned play so allow me to return to those students I spoke about who were adapting badly to their schooling but who operated so well as musical improvisers. I think I can now see that they took to improvising so willingly because it was through improvisation that experience was easily assimilated. Thinking of improvisation as a form of play is helpful, and there needs to be much more of it in a musical education. Indeed, having playful teachers would also help.

I was wondering whether you knew of the work of a fellow Genevan, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze? His eurhythmic classes, where thought, feeling and action worked together, were the basis of growth in musical understanding and where improvisation played an important part. These were taking place in Geneva when you were a child.

JP: But of course, I was in his class. Moving to the music as well as moving the music as a performer-composer-listener is perhaps the finest form of cognition there is!

JF: Another of your ideas was that in reflecting we come to abstract. We need time to absorb experiences and with the passing of time we come to form generalisations and these generate fresh thinking. You refer to this process as ‘reflective abstraction’. I will be doing some of this on my journey home. Thank you.

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