Zen and the Art of Music Listening

Donald Funes

I would like to begin my presentation by thanking the planning committee for asking me to participate in this important historical event. My paper draws its title from two books that I enjoy reading and at times in my life have used to focus my thoughts on important problems. They provide a place to stand aside of my "everyday" problem solving environment.

Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (William Pirsig)l and Zen and The Art of Archery (Eugen Heffigel)2 are rich treasures and the fact that one can examine curricular issues with sources that appear to be totally "outside" might be the single most important message of this paper. We need new methods to solve old problems.

The issues we are exploring today cannot be framed in the form of a true or false question. Each aspect, in fact, must be probed using a variety of modes. One mode will not do. Like the gear box of a motorcycle each gear has its own range of efficient or appropriate function. You can lug down or overdrive an intellectual engine just so far before you must shift gears. Running in the wrong gear will ruin the engine and transmission—your journey will end.

It takes gumption to solve difficult problems. Running in the wrong intellectual gear is what Pirsig calls a gumption trap. The gumption trap might be better understood by a second example. If it is time to change your spark plug (literally or figuratively), you have to approach the problem with grace. A spark plug can be extracted with a chisel and a hammer. It is hard, gumption defeating work, but it can be done. You will, of course, have to repair the head assembly or rebore the plug socket but you can get the plug out that way. There is a special spark plug wrench that does the job quite easily.

Intellectual gumption traps are more subtle. I am not sure that they damage your head assembly as severely as the hammer and chisel, but they can bark our mental knuckles. That is not to say that an intellectual hammer and chisel have no function. Try carving a surface with a spark plug wrench. The point is that our problems cannot be solved using tools that trap the gumption. That simply creates a new problem.

The two biggest traps I see standing in the way of "repairing" in music teaching are the tools (translate that to books) we bring to the task and our own technical training.

Books on listening tend to screw and hammer home a finite view of the infinite. Instead of opening worlds of wonder they build boxes of artificial certainty around a narrow set of concepts. Many books published in America perpetuate the image of Western European superiority. The image is not created with malevolence or cunning. But by modeling a very narrow aesthetic spectrum the message of exclusivity and dominance is easy to infer. This is a terrible gumption trap for as long as we rely on books with a severe cultural bias we support the old party line of "Machlis uber alles." We'll never improve the condition of man with such faulty tools.

I am a living example of one trapped by one's own training. Like most highly trained musicians I tend to err toward the classic. Our training forces us into an ever-narrowing musical environment. That is the curse of higher education. In 1965 I achieved a classic ecological climax, so to speak. While lecturing to my music appreciation class, operating at a very high level of virtuosity, I scaled a crystal mountain and provided the perfect proof that Western European Classical Art Music was indeed superior to all, other music. I was a thing to behold. A virtual oak in the forest of thought. A perfect product of my classical, training. The problem with my model was that I was almost totally ignorant about music outside of the classical realm. Remember, during the 40s and 50s dance bands were still considered as extra-curricular activities and we had to enter the music building illegally on the weekends to have jam sessions. Pop, Rock, Musical Theatre, World Music, Jazz, and New music (beyond Orff) had no place in music schools. Some things were simply not appropriate. Is there any wonder our minds were fitted with snuggy, footed pajamas.

Pirsig teaches us much about appropriateness in his beautifully uplifting and purely Zen discussion about the components of the motorcycle experience. Pirsig savors both the classic and romantic aspects of this experience. For him the ability to understand the mechanical operation, repair and personal maintenance of his bike is as important as the powerfully sensual component of "the ride." His companions on a transcontinental motorcycle journey (one of them, incidentally, a musician) disdain all information about the machines and all other objects related to technology. Pirsig argues that by denying the importance of technology or other classical components of life they artificially limit the limitless force that binds all things into a whole. And as they diminish the whole they diminish themselves and all of us.

By inference you can probably detect my bias about courses for general education students. These students are generally responsive to some type of music but they do not possess particularly sophisticated perceptual skills. For most of them, music has been a background for social interaction. A number of them have performed in high school groups but this does not seem to have given them a significant advantage in regard to high level listening skills. We all know that music majors, as a group, are woefully poor listeners. It would be wonderful if we could offer a comprehensive sequence of courses for general students but since "Music Appreciation" is usually the only one we can offer for general education credit, the content and instructional process of this course are of paramount importance. The course must contribute to the student's quest for personal freedom. It must not narrow the student's imagination or attempt to be an arbiter of taste. The repertory must be the world. This is the first step.

On one level, the incorporation of a wide assortment of music in our courses appears to be an overwhelming task. With many years invested in the development of our individual musical backgrounds it is logical to assume that a similar investment of time is required to become fluent in all musical styles. This would be an impossible task. If our primary focus continues to concentrate on musical details that are specific to a single culture, details requiring cultural interpretation, (what cross-cultural psychologists and anthropologists refer to as the emic), one life time is too short.

Pirsig suggests a possible path. We could continue to separate things by attending to and amplifying their apparent differences (a popular technique exercised by bigots). We have the freedom, however, to choose an alternate path that seeks to discover how objects, ideas, processes and people are related and share common characteristics. Pirsig suggests that this latter mode can be very rewarding. I believe it is the very key to our solution. Much progress can be made within our discipline and the human race by adopting a mode of inquiry that seeks musical and human congruence. One can develop a small list of core musical processes or phenomena that thrill and move the spirit and then begin to draw unfamiliar music toward that core. As we develop our pedagogical language, we must be willing to discard terms and descriptions that place some music outside or at a disadvantage. Comparing all instruments to those in the traditional orchestra is both counterproductive and unfair to non-westem or folk instruments. It creates an "other." Our language should not reflect a narrow bias. It can be inclusive rather than exclusive. Can the fugue be examined in such a way that works falling outside of the cultural content also be perceived as exhibiting or manifesting the same process? Is the word fugue more important than the process? Can we find the deep structural connections that link so-called musically estranged pieces? For those who have already experienced music at its deepest structural level the journey is one of assimilation and expansion. For the beginner, we can help them to perceive and describe the elements that contribute to the ultimate experience—the ecstasy of music. This is a good wide path. We should not clutter it with unimportant rubble. A hint of this ultimate experience is described in Zen and The Art of Archery. The archer struggles to conquer the physical limitations of the body—struggling to send the arrow on a straight path—but we must learn to "loose" the arrow not guide it. The ultimate Zen experience is to become the bow, the arrow, the shooter, the target and the path. This is the experience I seek with music. Body, mind, and spirit at oneness with the music. All activity and learning must contribute to that state or it is a distraction. It is the beginning, middle and end.

My ideal requires rethinking all music teaching for the fusion of self with sound is critical to every musical experience. Teachers that act as agents for change must model openness and acceptance if they expect their students to change. In this regard I remain an existential humanist. I have faith that man is self-surpassing and has the free will to make choices. Choosing is freedom! Our students have a lifetime of growth ahead of them but missionary zeal allows me to count on having only 45 hours of class meetings to till the soil and plant the seed of musical freedom. As a crucial component part of the liberal arts core we have the obligation to liberate spirits held hostage by ignorance or rigid, hackneyed traditions.

We must approach this task with a sense of urgency. Urgency has always been a pivotal concept in my academic scheme. In summary, it is my conviction that we must prepare our students to be generic listeners. Great efforts should be made to reduce to a bare minimum the instructional time devoted to concepts and materials that have meaning to only a very narrow spectrum of pieces. It is a matter of focus. Stopping to give the proper pronunciation of foreign terms is perfectly appropriate e.g, passacaglia, but pursuing the evolution of this process and surveying all literature including a passacaglia at this stage fails to show a proper appreciation for time. The exploration of the unity and tension generated in works utilizing recurring ostinati is a more fruitful and generic approach. This approach opens doors. The other is another squandered opportunity. The generic journey helps the student view music as a group of perceptual objects belonging to a single class, an aesthetic genus. When we believe that music is a single unified whole we will discard worn out chauvinistic attitudes about the superiority of one style over another. Our journey of freedom can only begin when we choose a good path—a path free of bias, narrowness or intellectual dead ends.

Each step of the journey should be joyous but there can be no final destination.


1 Pirsig, William, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, New York: Morrow and Company, 1974

2 Herrigel, Eugen, Zen and the Art of Archery, translated from the German by R. F. C. Hull, London: Routledge, 1972.