Lunch and Learn: Peacebuilding through Choral Singing

On March 30th  the Desmond Tutu Center Tutu Fellow Dr. John Perkins, Assistant Professor of Music at Butler University, spoke at our bi-monthly Lunch and Learn. His presentation, entitled “Peacebuilding through Choral Singing”, covered his reflections on the nature and practices of music education in universities, and how his own experiences as a music educator, both at Butler and during his time at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, have changed the ways in which he thinks music can be used to educate in a university setting.

Perkins began the presentation by sharing some of the lessons he was taught during his own music education. Being educated at a music conservatory rather than a liberal arts college, Perkins was always explained precision was the key to success in music. Perkins remembered his professors telling him not to tell stories with music, but rather to play the music as perfectly as possible. As one professor told him “Don’t tell them why you’re doing it- just let them think it’s magic.” This idea has persisted as Perkins attested incoming Butler students have grown up in a system where technical expertise is emphasized above all other traits in their prior education.

Perkins saw this emphasis on technical expertise challenged when in 2008 he was invited to the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to develop the country’s first music program in higher education. Perkins worked with a group of students who, for the most part, were completely new to music, or at the least choral singing. As Perkins put it, in the context of no context, meaning no prior professional musical education, the UAE students challenged many of the preconceived conceptions of the goods of musical education that Perkins had carried with him till that point. As Perkins witnessed, while in the United States technical education was emphasized in choral classes while things like social bonding and group unity were secondary concerns of students, in the UAE the students were most excited about the chances choral singing provided for helping them to feel more connected to each other and to form a stronger group identity.

With this reversal explained Perkins then led Lunch and Learn attendees on a short aside into the subjects of neuroscience and psychology. Citing neurological research Perkins shared with the audience that “Researchers observed brain activity, via CT scans, of participant’s reactions to videos of people being poked in the hand with a needle. Caucasian observers registered empathetic responses to other Caucasian hands being poked, while they did not register empathy with African-American hands being poked. The opposite was true with African-American observers who felt empathy for African-American hands being poked, but, not so with Caucasian hands.” Perkins continued to explain that when researchers presented these same test groups with images of purple hands being poked with a needle both Caucasian and African-American observes elicited empathetic responses. What this led researchers to conclude is that we are not born with biases, rather this is something we learn.

Conversely Perkins pointed to other studies that suggested choral music could serve as a facilitating medium through which people could unlearn their cultural biases and learn to have empathy and feel connected to those who look or act different than themselves. Perkins shared the results of neurological studies which showed that singing together with other people created higher levels of oxytocin, which is the chemical that is associated with feelings of social bonding, in people’s brains. In fact, singing with others created a much higher level of oxytocin in the brain than what would be created by a similar amount of time spent in simple conversation. Perkins explained that singing, in contrast to other activities that could lead to social bonding, has the distinct advantage of having properties of enactment, synchronization and entrainment inherent in it, and these properties lead to a stronger embodiment in empathy which allows people to have a stronger sense of unity and cohesion with each other.

With these neurological discoveries shared Perkins then explained how he created a class at Butler that focused on replicating the social bonding and group unity first experience of choral singing that he witnessed in the classes he taught in the UAE. This class was also informed by the concept of transformative learning, an education theory originally introduced by Jack Mezirow, which is “a process by which previously uncritically assimilated assumptions, beliefs, values, and perspectives are questioned and thereby become more open, permeable, and better validated.” In essence Perkins’ hope was that his class would use the medium of choral singing to increase unity between people of different cultures and challenge the learned biases that neurological research has demonstrated we have toward those who are different than ourselves.

The course, called “Peacebuilding through Choral Singing” combined reading through a textbook on social justice which covered topics like racism, gender and sexuality, and immigration, with a repertoire of choral pieces that touched on these very same topics. In addition to this students in the class engaged in skype sessions with choirs from the UAE and Brazil, and learned about the music of other cultures throughout the course.  The course also exposed some of the cultural biases and Eurocentrism that is part of the repertoire of many liberal arts music programs. At the conclusion of the course the Butler students spent nine days with visiting singers from Perkins’ choir in the UAE and performed at a concert, called an “informance”, with their UAE guests, three other university choirs, five high school choirs and two guest artists.

This experience of blending voices with people of other cultures allowed for the exact experience of cohesion and challenging of assumptions that Perkins hoped for, and the anonymous course testimonials which Perkins shared with the group testified to this. Students spoke to the new perspectives they were exposed to through the social justice textbook, and how the pieces chosen for each topic helped them to create a stronger emotional connection to the experiences of those who are different than themselves. In short, through the added activity of singing, students were able to gain a deeper sense of connection with those perceived as an “other” than they would have simply reading about people and cultures different than themselves. Through his own research and teaching Perkins was certainly able to demonstrate the unifying power that music can have, bringing people from all walks of life together and allowing them to better understand each other’s struggles, hardships and triumphs.

Join us for our final Lunch and Learn of the school year May 25th when Tutu Fellows Susan Adams and Brooke Kandel-Cisco share their documentary on the experiences of Burmese refugees in the Indianapolis area.
By: Andrew Weller

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