The Stories We Live By: Exploring Music Learning through Personal Narratives

By O'Neill, Susan | The Canadian Music Educator, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Stories We Live By: Exploring Music Learning through Personal Narratives


O'Neill, Susan, The Canadian Music Educator


In this edition of the journal, you will find a call for chapter proposals for the next CMEA/ACME Biennial Book Series Research to Practice. The title of the next book is Personhood and Music Learning: Multidisciplinary Perspectives and Narrative Voices. In addition to scholarly research contributions, a special section of the book will be devoted to narrative accounts or stories of lived experience involving music learning. Contributions in the form of stories or personal narratives are invited for consideration and possible inclusion in the book. Anyone who has experienced any aspect of music learning and/or had an impact or influence on the lives of music learners may benefit from exploring their own personal narrative from a variety of perspectives, including student, teacher, parent, conductor, musician, researcher, and so on. This article briefly explains the value of exploring music learning through stories or personal narratives and offers guidelines for producing your own autobiographical narrative account.

Why tell your own music learning story?

Storytelling is a fundamental feature of human experience that can be traced back to ancient times. We use stories to order and structure our lives; they help us make sense of our fragmented and sometimes confusing experiences by arranging them into coherent messages that offer a sense of meaning, unity, and purpose. This does not mean that the stories we tell ourselves are lies, nor are they neutral forms of knowledge. Rather, they are made up of our own truths about what we value and find meaningful. Even if we try to present ourselves in the best possible light, we do not suddenly invent ourselves through our stories or personal narratives. This is because the stories we live by are made and remade through an ongoing, self-defining process.

We do not discover who we are through our personal narratives, but they help us define and share significant aspects of who we are, who we were in the past, and who we might be in the future. According to Jerome Bruner (1996), "what people do in narratives is never by chance, nor is it strictly determined by cause and effect; it is motivated by beliefs, desires, theories, values, or other 'intentional states'" (p. 136). Our personal narratives evolve slowly over the course of our lives and are shaped by our knowledge, values, beliefs, and feelings, as well as the cultural, historical, and institutional settings in which they occur. Charles Taylor (1989) tells us that our personal narratives are essentially defined by the ways in which people, things, and events have a particular significance to each of us. This makes our personal narratives unique and yet deeply connected to what we see as good and vital to ourselves and our community.

Life stories or autobiographical narratives are a particularly useful way of attempting to envisage the coherence of our music learning experiences. From an early age, children begin to tell stories about their experiences of music learning, and often continue to recount and create order out of these experiences throughout their lives. Each time we tell the stories of our experiences, at different times, for different audiences, and in different social settings, we gain new perspectives on these experiences. This offers us alternative ways of constructing and performing meaning in our lives, and this in turn affects how we see others and the world around us.

Stories also help us bring into conscious awareness some of the details of our experiences that may have been previously overlooked, hidden, or taken for granted. It is therefore not surprising that the use of personal narratives and the collection of stories have become increasingly prominent in educational research, teacher education, and professional practice. According to Moen (2006), narratives are "thinking tools" for teachers practicing in the field, for researchers engaged in various forms of inquiry, for politicians and policy-makers making decisions that affect our schools, and for student teachers learning to become reflective practitioners. …

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