To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries. -Aldous Huxley
Prior to my travel, Brazil was under the microscopic view of world news. The 2014 World Cup wrapped up less than a week shy of my visit. The World Cup was a test-piece for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Many asked whether or not Brazil had the infrastructure and economy to host such large events. I was nervous hearing many stories out of Rio, stories of the favelas, police crackdowns, the drug economy, gangs running neighborhoods—it sounded like a scary place, where I would have to be on-guard at all times. As is often the case, things were different when I got there. I found the people in Porto Alegre warm, willing to help, and equally as curious about my life as I was about theirs.
For a couple of months prior to my travels, I used a free online program to learn some Portuguese. I was glad to have prepared, as most people in Brazil do not speak English. I created a study book including simple greetings, conjugated verbs, nouns with pictures; being able to speak a little helped enhance my experience, converse with local folks I would not have otherwise had a chance to speak with.
Program: International Society of Music Education
The program I attended, the International Society of Music Education, was one of the most inspiring events I have attended as a teacher. I attended music performances of traditional Brazilian music. I was able to make connections with music teachers and researchers, and confer with scholars from all over the world. I attended presentations and panel discussions on topics ranging from Darwin’s research from an ethnomusicology perspective, to the effect of forced Chinese nationalist music education curriculum in post-colonial Hong Kong, to social justice issues in music education in the United States.
I also heard a stunning paper asking an important research question: What do we lose when we require that music education research papers be published in English? This concept has made me think about language and communication in a completely different way, including in my classroom. How can I get concepts across to my many students who are just learning English? I also realized how fortunate I am to teach music, often described as a “universal language.” I was able to share these reflections and a general overview of my trip with colleagues at our district in-service in August. Experiencing other cultures makes us more complete beings, allowing us to become more empathetic, aware of, and involved our world. Being a teacher allows me to share these experiences with impressionable young people in hopes that they, too, wish to become worldly knowledge and experience seekers.
This conference offered information and scholarly commentary a massively wide variety of topics in music education. I have been quite interested in the effect of music brain growth and development. I attended a keynote address devoted to health and wellness of musicians, not solely relying on medicines but brain structure and processes–natural processes to being well while performing.
Dr. Eckart Altenmüller is both a medical doctor and a classically trained flutist who directs the Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine at the Hannover University of Music and Drama in Germany. His research is built upon helping suffering musicians play their instruments as naturally as possible, regaining performance ability and confidence. Dr. Altenmüller’s presentation encapsulated his work in music and medicine, focusing on particular neurological disorders that can be devastating to musicians. I took some of his more specific information about body posture back to my classroom. Health and wellness is a large portion of the instrumental music curriculum. I want my students to be able to play without straining or hurting themselves, as is prone for string players, so Dr. Altenmüller’s presentation was applicable for my classroom.
Another talk I attended presented the idea of Charles Darwin as an ethnomusicologist. We tend to think of him solely in terms of evolution theory, but he was documenting cultural practices the world over. Dr. Nicholas Bannan, PhD, gave many examples of how Darwin documented sonic phenomena and music of other cultures. After discussing Darwin’s travels, Dr. Bannan went on to discuss the process Progressivism, or how European music became “standard” and “superior,” versus Universalism, which holds that cultural musics rise out of language, and that human song is the bridge between animal sounds and speech. Ultimately, Dr. Bannon asks an incredibly relevant question I take back to my classroom: How do you share and create a holistic musical experience? If I have my students perform music from another culture, is that truly an authentic experience?
Tying together the themes of authentic cultural experiences and song/speech music making, I also attended a session given by Brazilian music teacher educator Maura Penna. She began her presentation giving a quick overview of music education in Brazil; she related that most music study focuses on 20th and 21st century European classical music. Looking to bring more native authentic experiences to her students (and their future students), she designed a really neat activity. Students are given a poem, in this case, a Brazilian poem about a train. Students are then to create sounds with bodies to narrate the poem. The final product is a performance, the poem is recited along with the body percussion/sounds to help narrate the story. While this particular activity is aimed more at elementary-age students, it gave me great insight into current practices in Brazilian music classrooms.
Brazilian Music and Cultural Experiences
The first night of the conference featured an amazing opening ceremony concert. Traditional Brazilian musics, musical instruments, and cultural phenomena of import were featured in this special presentation. Folk instruments seemed to be most common, guitars, accordions, and simple percussion instruments such as tambourines and drums, however, a modern jazz trio (saxophone, electric bass, and drum set) also served as a back-up ensemble.
Famous Brazilian singers and instrumentalists were featured along with children’s choirs, a scholastic string orchestra, and a recorder (simple woodwind instrument) ensemble. One of the central themes of the opening ceremony was music throughout childhood. The puppeteering company featured “Mandinho,” a Brazilian puppet character, whose name means “little child” in South Brazil. Mandinho was a central figure throughout much of the beginning of the presentation, following a story from birth through late childhood. The accompanying musical selections depicted a range of childhood activity, from a lullaby in infancy to childhood play and dance songs. The group performed traditional Brazilian music and recently composed, showcasing Brazil’s rich musical history as well as forward artistic progress. While the musicians performed, puppeteers and dancers also performed interesting routines. I had no idea that chickens and puppets (marionettes, hand puppets, and oversized stick puppets) were so important to Brazilian culture! (Editorial note: I wound up taking many more videos than I did still shots of music performances, better to share with my students upon my return to school.)
The music presented during the conference was a celebration from all over the world. A collegiate women’s choir from the US presented a concert, but I also heard a xylophone ensemble (which would hail back to African musical roots), guitars, and native vocal groups. It was an incredible opportunity to hear and learn about diverse music from all corners of the globe.
I am so very grateful for this experience. The conference was amazing, a professional development and networking experience unlike any other I have experienced thus far. The breadth and depth of research and its applicability and relevance to my classroom would not have been available anywhere except at this international conference. My students are mesmerized when I talk about my travel experiences, and Brazil has been no less. I was inspired to select a piece for my orchestra that features samba, a Brazilian rhythm/dance/music style, bringing my experience further into my classroom. I was able to share these reflections and a general overview of my trip with colleagues at our district inservice in August, as well as with my colleagues at school. I am thankful for the people I met, the acquaintances I made, and new lifelong friends found. I realized that a key similarity among people of any culture is that we have an innate curiosity about each other, and the best way for us to satiate that curiosity is explore it firsthand.