Thinking outside the noise box
The meeting took place in a classroom at school, with the parents sitting on the wooden chairs our children usually sit on, at their desks. The discussion revolved around serious matters concerning teaching, socialization, methods of assessment and children with learning difficulties.
During a pause, when it seemed that the meeting was about to end, I raised my hand and asked to make a suggestion. To tell the truth, raising my hand in a classroom was very scary because the old trauma of doing that has still not been forgotten, and also I knew that my proposal was going to sound bizarre: to improve the acoustics in the classroom. Initially, the parents cast strange glances at me, as though I were an unpopular child, but after a few experiments they understood what I was driving at.
First I asked everyone to be very quiet and asked one parent to drag his chair; the noise exploded in the room like a bomb. We also tried having two people speak at once; the result was disturbing. When I asked one parent to play the role of the teacher and to try to lecture us for a minute or two, he had to shout to overcome the huge echo.
A few days earlier, I had visited the class, I told the parents: Imagine 39 children sitting here and each of them making even a slight noise, and the teacher shouting - with the lack of clarity of sound in the room, there's not a chance she will be understood - while at the same time, someone is asking a question. It was a nightmare, I said, and our kids are experiencing it five or six hours a day. The parents began to understand.
All that was needed to understand the reasons for this situation was a quick look at the learning environment: stark white walls; a high, bare ceiling; a bright-white plastic board of the sort that has replaced the traditional blackboard; smooth wooden tables - all surfaces that bounce back sound waves that scatter in every direction and, of course, are translated in the children's minds into an intolerable and incomprehensible din.
For youngsters who have attention deficit disorders or problems concentrating, this is hell, I continued. It is enough for someone to be tapping his pen or sending a text message to drive a child like that crazy and then to disrupt the whole class. To further substantiate my case, I whipped out a number of research studies describing the results of improved acoustics in a classroom: for example, a decline in the number of days teachers are absent; a decrease in the number of teachers' complaints about damage to their health (especially their vocal cords); and better identification of children with hearing and comprehension difficulties. All this is in addition to predictable results like a dramatic improvement in grades, a reduction in discipline problems, improved attendance rates and learning, and a rise in satisfaction and the degree to which children like school.
In the United States, Canada and European countries, there are strict standards for classroom acoustics. These include requirements for the minimal echoing and decibel levels, prohibitions against using noisy electrical equipment like air conditioners, and various stipulations related to the blockage of outdoor noise, and to ensuring the comprehensibility of speech and the muffling of low-frequency sounds.
I am not so naive as to think that these standards could serve as any sort of model here, or that the school would invest in improving the acoustics in this particular classroom out of all its rooms - those acoustical torture chambers that have been deafening and depressing young people for generations now, especially children who have even temporary hearing problems like ear infections, those for whom Hebrew is not their mother tongue, or simply youngsters who find themselves trapped in a vortex of noise and just aren't able to make any sense of what the teacher is saying, day after day, year after year.
I therefore suggested only that the ceiling be padded with egg cartons, as in the teahouses of Tel Aviv in the 1970s. Immediately the parents got organized: It turned out that one has connections and can obtain hundreds of empty ones for us for just pennies; another has a large vehicle to transport them to the school; and a third volunteered to get the children to decorate them and glue them to the ceiling. The enthusiasm was great and it seemed as though this was the major achievement of the parents' meeting.
However, the following day our wings were clipped: No way, said the person in charge of the building - the safety regulations do not allow such an undertaking. And when it comes to safety versus acoustics in this country - it's clear who wins.
Thus, one feels like saying to the top brass at the Education Ministry: Before the next reform you devise to rectify once and for all - and yet again - the ills of the education system, before you commission experts on teaching methods, marketing and psychology, please examine some current research on acoustics in classrooms. There are numerous articles in journals of education, music education, environmental psychology, ecology, medicine and communication therapy. And if there is not enough money to spend on improving classroom acoustics here - allow us to paste up egg cartons on the ceilings in our schools. At least that!
Last week Argentinean-born Prof. Violeta Hemsy de Gainza, a leading international figure in music education during the second part of the 20th century, visited Israel. De Gainza is a pioneer in her field in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parts of the world, and is well known elsewhere in Europe as well. Her books - there are more than 40 - and her research studies, which have been published in journals covering all aspects of music education, have been translated into many languages and serve as an important source of information for people who work with ensembles, or who teach musicians, musical improvisation and theory, from early childhood through university.
De Gainza was one of the guiding forces in the International Society for Music Education, and has taught in countries on five continents. She has a modern way of thinking about musical education in a multicultural context, and, in one of the small rooms at the Stricker Conservatory in Tel Aviv, she demonstrated some of the principles of her method to an audience that included leading figures in the field of music education in Israel.
"A person learns to talk, to draw and to walk, not by means of lectures on theory and demonstrations with the help of a blackboard and chalk, and not through intellectual understanding," said de Gainza in a conversation after her workshop. "It's simply necessary to do it. To learn to talk and draw, there is no need for a teacher - just for interaction with the environment. And learning music is identical to this: Music is no different from language. We are programmed to learn it just like language because there are certain areas of the brain that are intended for this: Everyone has them, regardless of culture or formal education. The trouble is that music has been idealized and people have related to it as something sublime, sacred. This is correct, those aspects do exist, but at the highest and most advanced levels. We are tainted by these perceptions and we have to dispense with them."
De Gainza sees the piano keyboard as an infrastructure for play - as a territory intended for a person's communication with himself, or even between a mother and child.
"Nowadays when people approach the piano, they immediately think about how you are supposed to sit, how to hold your body, at what angle your hand should be, how to hold your fingers, place them on the keys and curve them - and immediately you are supposed to learn to read notes and know what the scales and intervals are. But there is no difference between the piano and any other kind of play: soccer, for example. How absurd it is to think about proper training, and instead of just giving the child a ball, starting with explanations of how to swing your foot and how to run and kick, and drawing up theories on the blackboard. Maradona became the genius he was because he played with the ball as a child; he bounced it, chased it, butted it and drew it to him like a magnet, no matter how far away from him it was. Music is first of all play, and generations upon generations have not let children play with music. They were not given the freedom of access to it. You have to invite the fingers to play, just as you invite someone to dance."
Is thought not needed in learning music?
De Gainza: "Of course it is needed, always, and the more you progress, the more you need it - but it must not interfere."
She also said that "music is a basic human right, and every child is entitled to learn it at school. Moreover, it is useful: Composer and music educator Zoltan Kodaly proved this at his musical schools in Hungary, where they researched the effect of music on other areas, [and] students had much higher achievements in mathematics and the study of languages. Only now, everywhere around the world, it is hard to institute reforms in the field. Neo-liberalism isn't concerned with educating people but rather with money. It is a pity that they don't know the extent to which education is such an easy thing: Building a skyscraper or directing a feature film - these are much harder than educating someone."
De Gainza demonstrates on the piano some exercises she has learned from improvisations done by her students: There is a hand game in which one plays with the fingers between an outstretched thumb and pinky, imitations of sounds and music inspired by all kinds of styles. "This is improvisation, play, experimentation - and pure creativity," she declares.
Indeed, "creativity" is a key word in her method. It is not enough, she explains, to develop it among teachers, as during the first half of the last century, but rather it should also be encouraged among children: "The 19th century developed the theory in musical education, the 20th century, the practical aspects of it, and now in the 21st century we need a new revolution that will combine the two and lead to critical thinking and imagination in instruction. We don't need extensive research to this end. It isn't research that is lacking - it's wisdom."