Vanessa Candela:
Today we are going to interview a very special researcher, synesthete and singing teacher: Alexandra Kirschner. Could you present you to our readers?

Alexandra Kirschner:
I am a synesthete and voice trainer in two professinal boys choirs. Each boy in these choirs has access to single singing lessons.
Some years ago, I started to notice how children and young persons experience their synesthetic perceptions while singing.
This was when I started to integrate synesthesia in my singing classes.

Vanessa Candela:
Could you explain to our readers what is synesthesia and which kind of synesthetic experiences do you have?

Alexandra Kirschner:
One theory is that synesthesia is a result of mixed senses. When a synesthete hears music, he sees colors at the same time.
Thus there must be direct connections between the corresponding brain regions.
I have 13 forms of synesthesia.
The main forms are:
Pains- color/shapes.
Sounds-color/shape .

Vanessa Candela:
How did you decide to link in your pedagogical research synesthesia and singing and what can you tell us about what you observed?

Alexandra Kirschner:
As a voice trainer, I use my synesthesia to assess vocal voices. If I am synesthetic, why should not some of my students have synesthetic abilities?
– I observed that all of children I work with were not aware of their synesthesia before I drew their attention to it.
– Most of synesthetic children are very sensitive and intelligent.
– Many of them are visual thinkers due to their visual synesthesia (seeing colors, shapes).
I wonder if that can be the reason that some of these boys struggle remembering melodies auditively and having difficulties in holding their part. This is why I encourage the boys to use their synesthetic perceptions as a mnemonic tool.

Vanessa Candela:
You have been invited to many congress to talk about synesthesia and singing. What can you share about what you presented there with us?

Alexandra Kirschner:
At the congresses I showed a short film about my work with synesthetic boys singers. With drawings the children describe how they perceive their performance synesthetically and use it as a mnemonic tool.

Vanessa Candela:
You work especially with synesthetic kids, right? What have you discovered through your pedagogical approach?

Alexandra Kirschner:

I work with children without synesthesia as well. After a while with lot of patience I discover in some of them there special condition.
– After beeing aware of their synesthetic abilities notes of a scale sung out of tune are not just heard but also perceived synesthetically. Even though the acoustic stimulus and the synesthetic experience it triggers are perceived at the same time, the attention of the singer is either directed at hearing or the synesthetic perception.

-A false tone in a tone sequence is identified because it gets a different color. Major key may taste sour and minor key sweet.
-With a little bit of practice, the synesthetes can switch back and forth between the “two channels” of hearing and seeing to evaluate their performance: they listen to a crescendo and see, while processing the acoustic information,  how the colour changes.

-If somebody sings the second part, another colour or shape is added. Or, for example, the colour is getting darker if a note is sung out of tune. Thus, one educational target is to link the processing of synesthetic and acoustic information.
-What I consider as very important is that synesthesia is obviously also used here to understand the semantic context of a tone sequence in order to reproduce it.

Vanessa Candela:
What are your advices to singing teachers that teach music and singing to children and to them with synesthesia? How can they recognize if they are teaching to a synesthestic child and how to work in this case?

Alexandra Kirschner:
You can ask the student how his voice would look like if he could see it. Synesthetes usually respond spontaneously. Then ask if he wants to paint his voice. From the drawing one can already see whether it is synesthetic. Abstract-like drawings, such as geometrical shapes, lines, or even numbers, suggest a synesthete. Figurative drawings of landscapes, animals, and so on, do not suggest a sound synesthesia, which does not preclude the student from having a different form of synesthesia. Asking the child if he experiences more synesthetic forms than sound/color could be also very reaviling for the teacher. Perhaps the student smells or tastes sounds or feels it on his skin? .
As I mentioned before some of the boys struggle remembering melodies and have difficulties in holding their part. Their synesthetic perceptions can be used as a mnemonic tool and can help to understand the structure of a melody.

Vanessa Candela:
What can synesthesia teach us? Which new windows can it open in pedagogical approach for everyone?

Alexandra Kirschner:
I would like to quote an Asperger woman who experiences several forms of synesthesia:
“We see not only what we encounter in the external world but also what appears to us in our mind’s eye.”
Why shouldn’t it be a challenge to teach music by other senses? Synesthesia shows that acoustic stimuli are not only processed auditively, but also visually, haptically or with taste.
Think of deaf people who perceive auditive informations in an extraordinary way!
The difficulty is to discover these abilities, because even children are forced to conceal special abilities from the environment so as not to be excluded. We as educators must face these prejudices.
An important task would be to help the synesthetic student to become aware of his synesthesia and to use it when learning music. This is especially helpful for synesthetes who are struggling to memorize melodies, to distinguish between pitches, or to grasp a rhythmic pattern. Their synesthesia can used as a semantic leap to understand an abstract meaning for e.g. a scale or a triad. If you know the meaning of what you are learning it probably makes more fun.
Even non synesthetes might benefit from this idea.

Vanessa Candela:
Which are the books that you can indicate to our readers to know more about synesthesia?

Alexandra Kirschner:
There do exist two very good books:

  1. Alexandra Dittmar, Synesthesia. A “Golden Thread” through Life? Verlag Blaue Eule.
  2. Julia Simner und Edward M. Hubbard, Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia (Oxford Library of Psychology).

Alexandra, thank you very much for this precious interview!


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