Music and Environmental Education: Guided Inquiry Auxiliary Text

*This post is intended to be an auxiliary text for my Guided Inquiry Presentation on Monday, December 5th for the ENVS 585 Foundations of Environmental Education course. Even if you will not be at the presentation on Monday, I invite you to read on to get a taste of what has been going through my mind for the entire last year.

**The presentation is divided into three movements (and a last section for further conversation), each representing an aspect of my thought process through the intersection between Environmental Education and music. They do not represent all aspects of this past year; just a sample. The linked videos have a similar idea to what I will be performing during the presentation.

I. Camp

The first interaction that I saw with environmental education and music was in an internship at camp Lutherlyn in Butler, PA. Todd, my boss, pulled out his guitar and started jamming with our students with songs about the environment! My mind was blown. Up until that point the only songs that I had heard around the campfire were fun, scream-os and Christian pieces. Singing about habitats, rivers, and amphibians made the learning fun! I didn't know the word at that time, but I had fallen in love with experiential EE.

When I started to teach Mountain School at the North Cascades Institute, many of my peers didn't see the value of the campfires in the evening. I heard many times variations of "I'm here to teach, not be a summer camp counselor." To me this 'summer camp' approach was why I loved to teach! I wanted to have a great time while having the students learn something. Even though I had always done well in school growing up having many of the ideas expressed through song cemented them in my mind.

So as much as I could I incorporated some of the environmental songs that I had learned at Lutherlyn and played them for Mountain School.

II. Diablo Dam

January, 2016. Two other graduate programs had come up to Diablo Lake for an Instructor Exchange. On the last day some from the other schools had wanted to see Diablo Dam up close (since how often is it possible to walk on a dam?!) so I volunteered to lead a walk to it. To be honest, I had never taken anyone to the dam before. Sure, I had walked on it but during the Fall I had always done night hikes and never had the opportunity to lead a group on the dam.

Don't get me wrong: Diablo Dam is an amazing sight to see. But I felt like I had to step it up a notch. Make this trip more exciting. So I suggested that we go to the middle of the dam and echo from it. Had I ever done it before? No. Did I tell them that I had done it before? Of course! So when we got to the spot and I let out my loudest mountain call, I had no idea what to expect.

Seven. I heard my echo come back seven times. I was completely blown away (but since I had told my group that I had done this before I had to play it off as if I expected that). I couldn't stop thinking about it all day so when everyone had left I went back to that spot and just called.

Nature has always been a place of visual wonder for me, but it always seemed lacking in auditorial majesty. Of course rivers are wonderful and birds are birds, but the soundscape never seemed to scratch my music itch.

Having grown up in a church, I had always experienced places being built for music. But it wasn't until I shouted from the dam that I thought about music being made for a place. More than just words about frogs, could I create a song that can only be truly performed in one place; the echo spot on Diablo Dam? Could that song also honor all of the stories that have happened in that place since time immemorial?

III. Connecting Theory w/Place

A few weeks ago I had sat down with Adam Haws (one of the music theory and composition professors at WWU) to ask for guidance in my inquiry in EE&Music. He suggested that I come to his class the next week where he was going to share a work by John Luther Adams called Become Ocean. When I arrived we spent 42 minutes of the hour long lecture listening to this piece.

Even though I minored in music theory at Allegheny, this piece was very difficult to get through. Wonderful experience! But difficult. There is no melody. No key. No time signature. It really is walls of sound that intermix in interesting and dynamic ways. There are many aspects to this that are reflections of the ocean, but lets take a look at just the dynamics.

Notes by Adam Haws on Become Ocean

Notes by Adam Haws on Become Ocean

There are three different sections: woodwinds, brass, and strings. Each of them have 'waves' of dynamics. These waves are independent of one another and sometimes overlap. Once they all crash into one another (7", 21", and 33" into the piece), the effect feels like giant ocean currents crashing into one another.

As a listener the experience of Become Ocean made me feel closer to the ocean. Unlike the "Camp" section that was based on academic knowledge made fun, this made me feel something. I felt like I was being tossed in waves. I didn't learn any new terms about marine life or hydrodynamics, but I felt something that I had not before.

But this experience was also in a classroom...with no windows...would the experience of Become Ocean become even better when listeners could see the ocean? Or even better be in it?

IV. Thoughts?

  • What has been going through your head during this presentation?
  • Have you had any experience like any I described above?
  • Suggestions on next steps in my process?