Kinesthetic Teaching/Learning and its Uses in Teaching Music

Susan Lowell

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Masters Degree
in Human Development and Education

Vermont College of The Union Institute

Core Faculty: Fred Taylor

Field Faculty: Cathy Benedict
Steinhardt School of Education -New York University

February, 2006

This paper explores the question, “What is kinesthetic teaching/learning and how can it be used to enhance awareness and understanding in the context of teaching music?” I conducted research in the fields of the teaching and learning, kinesthetic teaching and learning, and the teaching and learning of music. I concluded that it is vital for educators and learners to include consideration for the body and our sense of movement when we seek to teach and learn, and to include these in the process.


Kinesthetic Teaching/Learning and its Uses in Teaching Music

What is kinesthetic teaching and learning (hereafter kinesthetic teaching/learning)1, and how can it be used effectively for enhancing awareness and understanding in the context of teaching music? In exploring this question, I have ventured into the fields of teaching and learning, kinesthetic teaching/learning and music. In this introductory section, I relate the path that led me to this study. I also provide an overview of the material I will present in the subsequent sections, and offer up discussion about the parameters of my work.

The Path; Connecting the Dots
Steve Jobs, the visionary CEO of Apple computer, gave a speech to the Stanford graduating class of 2005 in which he said that life is about connecting the dots. He told the story of taking a calligraphy class after he had dropped out of Reed College, how he loved the class, and how
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me... If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.(2005)

Jobs' dots are the experiences we have as we follow the paths of our lives, particularly, he says, if we follow our intuition and our hearts. In looking back on the path that led me to this study, I can now connect the dots in ways that I could never have imagined at the time. Here are some of those dots.

T’ai Chi and Music
When I first came to Washington, DC, I started to do two things which I thought were unrelated at the time, but which came to interconnect in surprising ways over the years to come. The first was that I decided to pick up some extra cash by teaching voice lessons out of my home. I had been singing for as long as I could remember, and I had worked as a songwriter and performer all through college and after, and had two excellent and very different voice teachers, one classical and one jazz, so I felt well prepared to teach singing to others. The second thing was that I started to study the meditative Chinese martial art T'ai Chi Ch'uan.
I discovered the T’ai Chi practice gave me a new kind of body awareness. I found myself incorporating the principles I we followed in T'ai Chi class into my life as a musician: relax, keep the spine upright, move from the center, differentiate yin from yang. Previously, I had focused primarily on my head, chest and stomach when I sang. But the T’ai Chi Classics ask us to see and feel the body as one unit, and that if one thing moves, everything moves (Cheng & Smith, 1971). I began to root my feet and explore whole-body singing, and it made sense. In both practices you use the body to create; in one practice you make shapes, in the other, sounds. Both practices involve cultivation of a seamless flowing of energy. Connecting the dots between singing, making music and practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan was a first step, an early dot, on this path.

You’ll Never be Able to Sing
One day a new student came. Someone along the way had told her that she could not sing, would never be able to, and she wanted to learn if this was really true. In school she had been singled out and told to open her mouth, but not to let any sound come out. The thought of singing brought up very painful memories for her, but she really wanted to be able to sing, so she came to me for one last try.
When she began working with me she was not able to sing with any precision. I’d play a note on the piano and she would take a stab at making a sound in hopes that it would match. I soon realized that she had never had sufficient opportunity to develop a process for and within herself wherein she could listen to a given note and find it with her voice. In devising ways to support her in this process, perhaps inspired by the whole-body singing I had been exploring, I instinctively used my body and had her use her body in a variety of ways in order to convey the concepts which I believed would help her. Now, many years later, I have lost count of the number of people I have worked with in this way, but each case reinforced my conviction that everyone can and should be able to sing, and that using the body to tune into the vibrations of the sounds we hear and produce is essential in that process.2 I have yet to encounter a person who could not be brought out of their inability to sing with pitch accuracy and eventually become a person who feels comfortable participating in music, doing music in their life. I did not realize it at the time, but looking back I can see that I often used a kind of kinesthetic teaching/learning when I worked with these people; another dot.
Thanks to this woman, I became aware of a whole phenomenon to which I had previously been oblivious: people who desperately want to sing, but who are completely afraid to because they have been given the devastating news by someone, somewhere, that they just are not cut out for singing, just are not musical, just are not a music person. Over the years I have met several people who have had similar experiences, and they all seem to be carrying a sadness inside of them. This is not trivial. It is a form of shunning, a form of exile. It creates an undeserved, unnecessary and artificial separation.
Becoming aware of this phenomenon is yet another dot I can connect looking backwards through my life. It is my conviction that music is a vital and natural part of being human; that it is our birthright, and that singing is a natural aspect of this. I am not alone in this. Rwangyenzi Stephen, founder of Kampala Uganda’s N’dere Troupe, says, “For us, singing, dancing and playing instruments is all music; we don’t separate them.”3 Now I was becoming aware of a whole segment of the population which was being left out of a process which I consider to be a healing and necessary part of being human because at some point someone declared, “You’ll just never get it.”
A few years after this, a friend who I played music with in college moved to DC and wanted to start a band. With two young children there were only so many hours in the day for musical activities. I began performing more and teaching less, but I never forgot these issues my students had brought to my attention.

Going Blind
After the band broke up I decided to concentrate on my songwriting rather than performing. My children were staying up later as they got older and I wanted to be at home with them in the evenings. During the daytime, when the kids were in school, I began to work part time and in the process learned how to use a computer. It was not long after this that a composer friend, who was also a computer wiz kid of sorts, asked me to work for his fledgling computer consulting company. One thing led to another and pretty soon I was designing GUIs (graphical user interfaces) and building databases. I kept my toe in the creative waters by songwriting, free lance acting, and occasionally sitting in with friends who were performing.

By 1996, I was the number three person at an Internet software company. The World Wide Web was in its larval stages. My job was to “make things happen” and see what I could do to promote the software. The Internet boom I had seen coming was moving steadily closer. Every six months we had to find a larger office to accommodate the new hires. Before long I was a Vice President, with stock options and hundreds of email messages every day. I was writing press releases and promotional materials, designing logos, making presentations at technology conferences, cutting deals with DuPont and paging people at the Pentagon. I got calls from head hunters. I was making more money than I had ever expected I could.
Then I started to go blind.
When I think about it now it almost seems bizarre, but I was so wound up in my work at the time that it just seemed like an increasing annoyance. More and more often as I worked, I would look at the computer screen and suddenly everything would go fuzzy and disappear. I had no trouble seeing everything else in the room, just the computer screen. So, I would stand up. walk around the room, look out the window, do some T’ai Chi, then go back and hope my eyes would be working again. My body was trying to tell me something, but I was not paying attention.
I never even considered going to a doctor. It is as if a part of me knew from the beginning that the problem did not have a physical source, although it certainly had a physical manifestation. Finally, I began to listen to what my body was trying to tell me: I was in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing. Just as thousands of people were flocking to the Internet gold rush, I resigned. This experience made me conscious of the fact that our bodies can know more than our conscious minds may be aware of, and that it is vital that we develop an awareness of this.

Teaching Music and Howard Gardner
I had taken myself off the wrong path, but how could I find the right one? Eventually the path found me. In the year I spent recovering, I did not look for work, yet I always had the sense of waiting for something to happen. I read, meditated, and finished an album of original songs I had begun work on years before. I rebuilt myself from the inside and got ready. One day I got a call from a cousin. Would I consider teaching music at her child’s school? They were desperate. It was already October and they had no prospects.
I had reservations about taking the job. At the interview I told the principal that I had no doubt about my ability to teach, share, play and enjoy music with the students. This would be familiar territory, as I had often visited my own kids’ classrooms to sing, play guitar, and pass out percussion instruments for everyone to play. What concerned me were the more institutional formalities of teaching – paperwork, grades, testing, and the enforcement of inflexible curriculum standards. The principal responded by telling me about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. “I see no need to test these children,” she said, “I just want this to be a time in their day when they can be in a different part of their heads.” With this she won me over.

You Can’t Do Anything With These Kids
The outgoing music teacher gave me a tour of the music closet, where all the music teaching materials were kept. She had several boxes of files of photocopied sheets with musical crossword puzzles, composer biographies followed by fill-in-the-blanks sentences, and other paperwork assignments, but not much in the way of instruments for the students to play. Lastly, she showed me a shelf of VHS tapes and said, “ Now, the sixth, seventh and eighth graders–you can’t do anything with these kids; here are the videos.” I felt a wave of sadness well up from my stomach. I wondered, what leads a teacher to give up on students like that?
My first day of teaching the 8th graders, the multipurpose room was not available, so I had to teach in the classroom. Knowing their reputation for being a challenge when it came to music class, and knowing that the other classes looked up to them, I felt there was a lot riding on this first class, and I had come up with a plan. Almost instinctively, I grabbed an armful of photocopied worksheets and a bag of pencils and went up to the eighth grade classroom. I smiled at the class as the teacher introduced me. Then I proceeded to hand out the papers and pencils. The teacher stood guard to make sure none of her charges stepped
out of line in trying to break in the new teacher. The students dutifully, silently and emptily picked up their pencils and started to fill out the papers. After a short while I said, “Excuse me, but I haven’t asked you to write anything yet.” There were a few frustrated sighs as they readjusted their bodies and waited for their orders. Looking back, I see this as a very sad moment, as it tells how low their expectations were for the class, a kind of hopelessness. Perhaps they had given up because they felt they had been given up on?
I ended the hollow silence by asking everyone on one half of the room to hold their papers horizontally with a hand on each side and, following my rhythm, crunch the paper in and out. When the crunching rhythm was pretty solid, I asked the other half of the room to pick up their pencils and tap on the legs of their desks to a complimentary rhythm. On top of these I added yet another rhythm by clapping my hands. It was fun, it sounded good, and with this I had them. This was a reinforcing lesson on how active participation and experience were keys to engaged learning. It was this sort of teaching experience that set the stage for my affinity with theorists I would come to know well in this study, such as Bateson, Campbell, Dewey, Elliott, Jaques-Dalcroze and Small.
Since I was free to teach music however I wanted, I would gear my classes to exploring areas I myself wanted to grow stronger in: Latin and African percussion, the blues, movement and folk dancing, improvisational composition. I knew that in their regular classrooms, the students spent a lot of time sitting at desks, so I made up games and exercises to get concepts across by using the body and physical space. We would sing solfege as we stepped forward across the rows of checkerboard floor tiles from Do to Re to Mi, then backward down to Do again. Looking back now, I can see that once again I was gravitating towards a kind of kinesthetic teaching/learning. I also continued to bring the principles of T’ai Chi into my teaching, such as the importance of being relaxed, keeping the spine upright, and allowing movement to originate from the center of the body.

Just Keep Drilling Her
The music closet, my desk and our music classes were all in the multipurpose room. This was also the church hall, the school hall, and the aftercare room. In aftercare, the students would start with a snack, then some playtime, followed by homework time. It was during homework time that students, not understanding that I was not part of the aftercare staff, would come up to my desk and ask for help with their homework. Drawing on my own experiences as a student and a parent, and with a new awareness of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence (MI) theory, I found I enjoyed solving the puzzles of how to help these developing minds grasp the concepts which would allow them to do their work. The aftercare supervisor eventually suggested that I become part of their staff as an official aftercare tutor.
One of my first assignments as a tutor was to work with a third grader who was having great difficulty with multiplication. The supervisor gave me a box of flash cards and said, ”Just keep drilling her until she gets it.” I immediately experienced a sinking, twisting feeling in the pit of my stomach–a body memory, a kinesthetic message from my own past, and I knew deep inside of me that something was wrong. The painful memory of being drilled with flash cards flooded my entire system. I had never been able to learn my multiplication tables, despite hours and years of flash cards and teachers telling me that I had no excuse for not memorizing them.
If this student was anything like me, I knew that no amount of drilling could help her. It had been decades since I had been in grammar school, but the teaching methods still seemed to have no recognition of that fact that although many students seem to be able to learn this material sufficiently with the flash card approach, some, like me, just never could. I felt like I was being given a mission–I had to find a solution for this child or she might be doomed to the same pain I had gone through.
Beginning with that student, I developed, over the following years, a method of teaching math to students whose teachers had given up on them. The foundation of the method is the idea that in order to do any work with numbers, such as addition or multiplication, one first must have an internalized, experienced-based understanding of what numbers truly mean. For example, the number “two” is not the written word nor the squiggly line on a piece of paper, “2”. These are just the symbols which represent the concept of two, and it’s the concept of two which first must be understood before one can be expected to manipulate it by adding to it, subtracting from it, doubling or tripling it or using it as an operator upon another number. Without realizing or fully understanding it I’d stumbled upon von Glasersfeld’s point that although some kinds of information are arbitrary and have to be learned verbatim (such as driving on the right side of the street), there is a second kind of information which must be understood (2005). As I progressed as a teacher, I brought this idea of understanding foundational elements of a subject to my music classes, eventually using it to teach the rudiments of theory (see the section In the Music Classroom). In addition, Howard Gardner’s MI theory fueled my interest in using the body to learn, and I explored this in helping students develop a strong internalized concept of numbers.
In this process, I was slowly developing a personal philosophy of teaching and learning. These experiences led to my conviction that whether it is learning how to sing on key or learning how to multiply, everyone deserves access to information and support in developing their understanding. I believe it is the job of a teacher to provide this access and support, and to figure out where the student is in terms of understanding, meet him or her there, and from that point figure out what the next steps might be that they can take in building their own understanding.

Overview of This Document
As Steve Jobs says, we can only connect the dots by looking backwards. In looking back over the path which led me to this study, my experiences have probably generated more questions than can be answered in one study. In the end I was able to gather up the threads of these varying experiences and formulate my question: what is kinesthetic teaching/learning and how can it be used effectively for enhancing awareness and understanding in the context of teaching music? It is through the lens of this question that I examine theories which may serve to ground previous experiences while providing jumping off points for new experiences. My process for this exploration was to conduct academic research in the fields of kinesthetic teaching/learning and the philosophy of teaching and learning, complement this with readings in music education which connected with kinesthetic teaching/learning or these philosophies, and put theory into practice in the music classroom.
In Philosophies of Teaching and Learning, I look at dictionary definitions of knowing, learning, awareness, understanding, and teaching, in order to establish common understanding of these terms as a point of departure for exploration. I then look at Gardner’s MI theory, which includes a bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and the learning styles theory of Dunn and Dunn, which includes a kinesthetic element. Next I examine theories of experiential learning (Bateson, Dewey, Llewellyn), and constructivism (von Glasersfeld). Perspectives on how we think and learn (Claxton, Gladwell) will be included with an eye for discovering links to kinesthetic experience and its value in teaching and learning.
In Kinesthetic Teaching/Learning, I explore definitions of kinesthetic teaching/learning and provide a review of the literature on what may be considered kinesthetic teaching/learning, relating this to its possible place in education. I look at history, definitions, uses and approaches of kinesthetic teaching/learning, discuss some of the problems that arise in examining this kind of learning and in implementing it.
My explorations into the philosophies of teaching and learning and kinesthetic teaching/learning did not happen in isolation. In Theory Meets Practice in the Music Classroom, I relate how my understanding of theory and attempts to put theory into practice worked in the context of the schools, community and culture I lived and worked in during my study. During this time I was a music teacher at an independent school, a substitute music teacher at a parochial school, a private voice and guitar teacher, and a T’ai Chi student and teacher. The various aspects of my life, my practicum and my studies intermingled with each other and manifested in a synthesis of experience and reflection.
This section includes discussions of lessons I created and implemented inspired by my research, how they linked back to theory, and how the experience of bringing theory into practice in the classroom changed me as a teacher. Stories from the laboratory of the music classroom serve as a departure point for literature review in music education (Jaques-Dalcroze, Bachmann, Phillips, Tomatis, Small, Wade, Elliott, Campbell) as well. I also address the transformational process I went through while examining the context in which I was teaching. As I became exposed to theorists in teaching and learning, kinesthetic teaching/learning and music, and as I lived with these theories in the context of my work life, issues emerged regarding what it means to teach music in a school, or even to be a teacher in a school at all. I include these experiences in this section as well.
In Reflections , Conclusions & Future Directions I look at the questions generated by exploring my driving question. Where does all this lead me? What questions remain unanswered? What areas are there for future study? In this section I share reflections, draw conclusions from my experiences, and assess where this leaves me as a teacher, and the field as a whole, in terms of future study. The appendix includes lessons I created during my practicum, essays on experiences and reflections along the way, and a discussion of setting up the classroom with an eye to creating a kinesthetic teaching/learning-friendly environment.
One goal for this document is to provide a review of the literature on kinesthetic teaching/learning and examine its possible place in education for the benefit of the educational community, in which this term is becoming increasingly popular. Another is to provide music teachers with ideas about how kinesthetic experiences can be a critical and vital part of teaching and learning music. An additional goal is to communicate how the process of reflection and examination in teaching can be transformational for the teacher.

I see teaching and learning are two sides of an interconnected process. In order to properly represent and recognize this process of mutual exchange while exploring it in the context of kinesthetic experience, I am using the term kinesthetic teaching/learning.
2I have read about unusual cases where, due to brain damage from an accident or stroke, people’s ability to process music has been destroyed. But, while I can envision a scenario where a person would not be able to learn how to sing on pitch, I have never in my experience met one.
3Personal conversation, June, 2004.

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