Rufus Wainwright and growing up immersed in music

Last week the Association for Psychological Science posted a summary for a session called Music, Mind and Brain. While it’s far from my academic area, I always enjoyed reading about research into the physiological, neurological and social effects of music. Even more than usual though, this one caught my attention. After several scholarly presentations the panel concluded with remarks from bassist Victor Wooten. He made some very interesting comments about how we should begin to treat musical education more like first language learning.

Parents don’t really sit their infants down and teach him or her to speak. They don’t really practice language so much as use it. They never really know they’re a beginner. And often parents will adopt the cute saying their child employs rather than correct it.

Basically, said Wooten, from the very start of your linguistic training, you’re allowed to “jam with the pros.”

I found inspiration in these remarks as a way of thinking about science education – wondering if we could think of immersing students in a natural conversational science, where they can jam. I wrote about it in more detail at Boundary Vision this morning but his words were so strong I wanted to pick an artist who would embody the same kind of musical learning for today’s song of the week, something to listen to as I think more about how it might be a useful analogy for science learning.

This week’s selection comes from Rufus Wainwright‘s 2012 Out of the Game (with bonus Helena Bonham Carter). Like Wooten, Wainwright grew up surrounded by music, likely learning as a natural part of his early life and starting to tour while only a middle-schooler. His father is prolific folk singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III (also the singing surgeon on M*A*S*H and Undeclared’s Hal Karp) and his mother Canadian folk godmother Kate McGarrigle whose contributions with her sister Anna earned her the Order of Canada. Rufus’s sister is singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright.

But while Wooten seems to recall his early family music fondly, Rufus’s family has made beautiful art out of ongoing friction, sadness and reconnection. His parents divorced early on and he grew up with him mother, starting his career with The McGarrigle Sisters and Family. The series of songs written about each other range from Loudon’s Be Careful There’s a Baby in the House  about Rufus’s recent arrival, to Martha’s Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole and back with Loudon’s Father-Daughter Dialogue. Their history also includes  exquisite moments, like Rufus and Loudon singing one of Kate’s songs together during a tribute show at the Royal Opera House after her death in 2010.

I’m sure just like Rufus’s family, no relationship with science is ever simple or straightforward so songs like this one will be my soundtrack for thinking more about what it might mean to learn science in an immersive first-language way, like Wainwright came into the world of music.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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