In Search of the Beautiful: Bob Duke and the Curious Mind
By Ella Wilcox, NAfME Staff
This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of Teaching Music.
Bob Duke is the keynote speaker for NAfME’s National In-Service Conference in Dallas, Texas, November 12–15, 2017. He is the Marlene and Morton Meyerson Centennial Professor and Head of Music and Human Learning at the University of Texas at Austin. Among other honors, he is a recipient of the NAfME Senior Researcher Award and the author of Intelligent Music Teaching and, with Jim Byo, The Habits of Musicianship.
Bob Duke, what was your own music education like? My first memorable music experience was playing the Flutophone in second grade. Little white pseudo-recorder with a red fipple. I loved that thing—I think I was the only kid who took it home and practiced! I was captivated by the fact that I could get this inanimate piece of plastic to make musical sounds.
Was there a music teacher inspire you to go into the field? My band director in junior high was Clark Dobson, an extremely intelligent, well-read, curious, and exceedingly generous man. He loved classical music and opera, and he introduced me to my first classical recordings. Up to that time, I’d not met anyone who was so devoted to any subject matter. You couldn’t help but be inspired by it.
What got you into music education research in the first place, and what do you enjoy learning about now? I had no intention of doing research when I first went to grad school, but in my first semester, I took a class from Cliff Madsen, who was so interesting and curious, and insightful, and an utter delight to be around. The first time I walked into his office, I saw a copy of the journal Science on his desk and wondered what the heck that was doing there. I soon l learned that Clifford subscribed to Science, along with a lot of other journals, which he read every week. As I’m talking to you right now, there’s a copy of Science sitting on my desk.
How does music fit into the education of the whole person? Most people I know who are happy and have rewarding lives engage in active arts experiences, and nearly all parents of means provide arts experiences for their children. But for many children, school is their only opportunity to have arts experiences. Advocacy for music education is, in a sense, advocacy for equal opportunity. Also, I know of no learning experience other than music where there’s a clearer connection between the efforts you expend as a learner and what comes back to you as the result of those efforts. We know very well that a sense of personal agency is essential to well-being; we need to learn that we can actually make things happen. Learning music contributes to that. Plus, as a result of your efforts, you can actually make music. How cool is that?
What ideas do you currently find most intriguing, and will you expand on these at the NAfME conference? My students and colleagues and I study human learning—how brains form memories for skills and refine skills over time. What is interesting to me is how much of what we do in school—and not only in music—seems to effectively ignore much of what we know about how human beings learn. The title of my talk is “Beautiful,” an adjective that I don’t hear spoken often enough in when people teach and learn music. It’s easy to forget about the wondrousness of the things teachers can help children create. We’ve learned from our research that the expressive goals of music-making—what we intend to convey to listeners—serve as the focal point of music learning among artist-level performers. Those goals should drive the learning experiences of children as well.
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