More than finding your musical voice

And so to Biesta’s second factor preventing the arts (music) from being properly educational.

That is, the arts are promoted as an opportunity for children and young people ‘to express their own voice, to give their own meaning, to discover their own talents, to enact their own creativity, and express their own unique identity …’ [1]

In the light of an overbearing system of accountability where an audit culture rules, where opportunities for self-expression appear exceptionally constrained, this positioning of music education as antidote is attractive. Engagement, creativity, the child’s unique expressive voice easily become an unqualified starting point and end point of a music education.

While recognising the opportunities provided by a music education for children and young people to express themselves, to have a voice, or as Biesta puts it, ‘to appear as individuals in the world’ [2], expression in itself is never enough.

Biesta develops his argument by considering what it might mean to exist as a subject, a person who doesn’t simply do what they want to do, or who is concerned merely with shaping their identity, but one who learns that ‘to exist as a subject means to exist in dialogue with the world’. [3]

Biesta uses the image of infantile existence as opposed to grown up existence, the one placing ourselves at the centre of the world, the other in dialogue with the world. And it is in being in dialogue with the world that we learn not simply to follow our desires. [4]

I hope readers will bear with me for leading them into questions of what it means to exist, to be in the world, and in dialogue with it. But I do think it relevant to questions about what makes music education educational and what it might mean to be musically educated.

To be in dialogue with the world, (and now let’s say the world that is drenched with music and inhabited by music makers), involves learning responsibility for that which is different and strange, alienating and other.

In this way the musically educated person will be the one with an altered musical outlook rather than the one who has merely learnt to express themselves.


[1] Biesta, G. (2017) What if? Art education beyond expression and creativity. In (eds) Christopher Naughton, Gert Biesta and David R. Cole. Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and the Arts in Education.  London: Routledge. Page 14.

[2] Op cit

[3] Ibid, page 15.

[4] I am reporting Biesta’s argument in an extremely concise way and in danger of barely doing it justice. However, I hope something of its character is communicated.





Is education disappearing from Music education?

Why minimalism? Why this way of making music and not that? This was the concern of last week’s blog.

These kinds of questions I argued should be at the front of our minds as we do what do in the name of educating children and young people musically. These kinds of questions are imminent, burning through our desires to make good and what we think is worthwhile. Answers to such questions frequently lie unarticulated.

In last week’s blog I wrote of a teacher being excited about her upcoming venture into minimalism. But in thinking about our excitements, passions and convictions about what we do, I would suggest that we have a responsibility to face a more objective reality where we leave behind passions, desires and the imminence of the day-to-day, stand back and attempt to clarify what a reasonable justification for a music education might consist of.

In the book Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and The Arts in Education chapter 2 is titled What if? Arts education beyond expression and creativity [1] and written by the philosopher of education, Gert Biesta.

Biesta states a two-sided problem for the arts (in our case, music).

  1. The potential disappearance of the arts from art education
  2. The potential disappearance of education from art education.

Biesta proposes that there exist two particularly noxious factors standing in the way of establishing the arts in education.

The first addresses the persistent use of instrumental justifications for the arts.

‘Such justifications usually take the form of a statement in which it is claimed  that engagement with the arts is useful because of its potential significance for or proven impact on ‘something else’ … In education there is a wide range of options for this ‘something else’. This includes the suggestion that engagement with the arts will drive up testable performance in specific curricular domains (most often those that appear to have a high status, such as language, mathematics and science), and the claim that engagement with the arts will promote the development of a range of apparently desirable qualities and skills, such as empathy, morality, creativity, critical thinking, resilience, and so on.’ [2]

Then there is music and the brain. Let’s not go there.

By instrumentalising the arts, arts education is placed low in any hierarchy of subjects – ‘where, after all’, Biesta writes, ‘is the research that shows that doing mathematics will make you a better musician …?’ [3]

Biesta’s point, of course, is not new and indeed well-worn and can mistakenly lead to stating that the arts, if not useful, are useless. [4] But this would be a category mistake by making the assumption that education is merely a process aimed at the production of things. ‘Yet the educated person is not a thing or a product, but a human being with an altered outlook. … Rather than asking what education produces, we should be asking what education means.’

‘What does education make possible?’ [5]

This is a challenging question viewed in the context of education systems leaning towards a focus on measurable learning outcomes in curriculum subjects that ‘count’, reducing children to test scores and objects to be managed in relationship to performance measures. [6]

And here Biesta’s second point emerges, the second noxious factor diminishing a place for the arts in education. The arts are promoted as an opportunity for children and young people ‘to express their own voice, to give their own meaning, to discover their own talents, to enact their own creativity, and express their own unique identity …’ [7]

This point will need its own blog next week.

All this is important because it addresses the question of ‘who is the musically educated person?


[1] Biesta, G. (2017) What if? Art education beyond expression and creativity. In (eds) Christopher Naughton, Gert Biesta and David R. Cole. Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and the Arts in Education.  London: Routledge.

[2] Ibid, page 12.

[3] Op cit

[4] Ibid, page 13.

[5] For a perspective on the claim that music is useless or, put another way, has intrinsic value, see

[6] This easily resonates with the place accorded to music outside the Ebacc qualification in England.

[7] Biesta, G. (2017) What if? Art education beyond expression and creativity. In (eds) Christopher Naughton, Gert Biesta and David R. Cole. Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and the Arts in Education.  London: Routledge.


Why Minimalism?

You will have noticed that the term genre is widely used to describe what are vastly differentiated areas of musical practice. Classical music, popular music are described as genres. This was not how it used to be. Genre, a term taken from literature, was reserved for a particular characteristic style: crime thriller, science fiction, the Welsh 19th century industrial novel and so on. If popular music is to be a genre then I suppose there is much scope for sub-genres and I will just have to get used to it.

One way of providing breadth of experience in secondary school music is to present pupils with a range of musical styles to engage with. Or are they genres, or perhaps musical traditions? Even better, they could be thought of as musical practices. This I think expands our thinking. Let’s welcome chair drumming, lip syncing, riff making, melisma crafting. We wouldn’t describe these as genres.

But why are we doing these things?

In a previous blog I set out twenty-seven reasons that might be given for teaching the Blues, a significant source of multiple musical practices. The Blues entered the secondary school in the 1970s and shows no signs of leaving. And there is a more recent entrant.

After a recent conversation with a new secondary school music teacher telling me how excited she was to be teaching minimalism soon, I have been wondering what it is about minimalism which, like the Blues, is a popular source of classroom practice.

Why place this ‘genre’, this ‘musical style’, this ‘musical tradition’, this ‘set of musical practices’ before our pupils?

Some thoughts:


  1. Enables the use of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music to extend pupils’ rhythmic capabilities.
  2. Is a significant contemporary musical practice dissolving boundaries between musical practices.
  3. Challenges and disrupts listening habits.
  4. In emphasizing repetition pupils are able to master riffs and perform with fluency.
  5. Koyaniskatsi by Phillip Glass raises important talking points about how we live now.
  6. Employs musical techniques that are useable in the pupil’s own composing.
  7. Is well suited to whole class musical workshop-ing and performance.
  8. Enables worthwhile use of digital technology.
  9. Enables the use of both indeterminate and aleatory phasing.
  10. Is ideal for mixing media.
  11. Can be used as a basis for nurturing musical improvisation.
  12. Terry Reilly’s ‘In C’ is an impressive work to explore.

Make a diamond nine to sort out your thinking perhaps.

Giving thought to the musical practices we as music teachers place before our pupils is a great responsibility. Articulating why this and not that is important. And might we use the term ‘genre’ with care?




Emulating musical models

Online tutorials these days have a simple format. Just follow and of course you will need to slow it down, freeze frame it and work it up bit by bit in emulation of the model.

This is what students do in coming to GCSE study in one Cambridgeshire secondary school and no doubt more widely.

Enjoy the Chopin.


Their teacher writes to me about how it works for her students. I had asked about where students start.

‘I think the students do start with easier tutorials, but they assess whether they’ll be able to manage by watching it or trying to play a bit. The videos are made by all kinds of different people and there’s no way of the students knowing how difficult the piece is compared with other pieces other than by just trying it. Many of them really challenge themselves without necessarily realising how difficult the piece is – I was particularly impressed by the student who chose that Chopin!’

In GCSE performance there is the idea of difficulty. There are more difficult and less difficult pieces that can be performed and marking is calibrated accordingly.

This Chopin performance would get full marks presumably.

But why if students capabilities are seemingly fluid do we labour the idea of easy-difficult? What’s this gradus ad parnasum all about?

I think this needs looking into. It’s not an idea prevalent in many musical cultures.

And I’ve never been convinced about the idea of graded-ladder-climbing rock musical progress.



Practical knowledge and music education

In last week’s blog I wondered about the idea of a skills-based music curriculum at a time when there is an intensified discourse surrounding the idea of a knowledge-based curriculum extended to a knowledge-rich curriculum. [1]

In my blog I differentiated between ‘knowing how’ and ‘skill’. However, I have to say that the difference is close to being one of semantics. So musical knowledge thought of as ‘knowing how’ is worth pursuing as a significant but of course not the only way of thinking about musical knowledge.

I am particularly attracted by the idea of knowing how to make music well. In the world we see a lot of music being made well. In school this is not always the case as evidenced by a lack of fluency, expressivity and where there is a paucity of personal and shared meaning making.

The conservative culture critic Roger Scruton writing about types of knowledge makes a point of valuing ‘knowing how’ (practical knowledge, skill) and is thinking in terms of ‘technique’, knowing how to ride a bicycle, for example. Or we might say knowing how to create melodic patterns over a chord sequence. [2] Both knowing how to ride a bicycle and how to create melodic patterns over a chord sequence are intuitive processes, that is, not in need of theoretical knowledge (knowing that). In the case of the latter it will be what feels-sounds right. And this is a crucial part of developing aesthetic judgement and critical thought about music.

The current propagation of knowledge-rich curricula and its associated notion of cultural literacy is in danger of missing the heart of the matter. Their bodies of knowledge may all too easily become corpses.


[1] See Knowledge-rich teaching brings us all together, Mark Lehain, TES October 20, 2017, (30-31) for an exposition of how the knowledge-rich curriculum will ’empower students later in life.’

[2] Scruton uses the terms knowing how, practical knowledge and skill interchangeably. See Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Scruton, R. (2007) Encounter Book: New York.

The book’s sleeve notes that Scruton is ‘Boldly standing up to today’s nihilisms and debasements of taste. Culture Counts offers a noble and compelling defence of high culture and the centrality of rich aesthetic experience for a full human life.’

For Scruton knowing how takes us to knowing what to feel, knowing what are right feelings and to moral ends.

His argument deserves engaging with.

Skill and knowledge in the music curriculum

Currently there is much talk of knowledge-based education. The minister of state for schools has this to say about it, for example.

A narrative is created whereby skills are set against knowledge. Skills bad-knowledge good.

While knowledge is being conceived of as subject-based, skills are being thought of as generic and it is maintained that curricula based on generic skills such as the ability to problem solve, collaborate and be creative work to counter the primacy of each subject’s store of knowledge.

Mention skill and the wrath of the new guardians of culture is likely to be roused.

Music teachers however, like to speak of a skills-based curriculum and I think they mean ‘musical skills’ and not generic skills.

So what is a skill? I have added musical examples.


1. the ability, coming from one’s knowledge,practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well:

Carpentry was one of his many skills.
Being able to shape a musical phrase when singing folk songs was one of his many musical skills.


2. competent excellence in performance;expertness; dexterity:

The dancers performed with skill.
The musicians performed with skill.


3. a craft, trade, or job requiring manual dexterity or special training in which a person has competence and experience:

the skill of cabinet making.
the skill of composing music.


In this view a skills-based curriculum is built on and for ever permeates our musical knowing.

But now let’s be reminded of how musical knowing can be thought about.

In this I make no mention of skill. Instead I refer to ‘knowing how’. So for example we can say ‘knowing how to make music well’. Is skill interchangeable with knowing how. Well not quite. The once skilful keyboard player sadly lost his/her hands in an accident and now, while having know how, is no longer skilful.

The distinction between skill and knowledge is a valuable one.

And if a music teacher wishes to speak of their skill-based music education then it may be helpful to make clear that these are musical skills derived from and feeding musical knowledge while keeping in mind the particular nature of musical knowledge. 

Music curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and the order of things

In last week’s blog I wrote about assessment in music education. As part of this I offered a working definition of assessment.

‘Assessment consists in evaluating or judging the value of something, or someone, in accordance with certain expectations, an idea or a reference, related to personal and/or shared values.’ [1]

I also suggested that assessment, curriculum and pedagogy exist in a symbiotic relationship, needing each other to live and speak. [2]

Ok, so let’s have a definition of pedagogy:

‘Pedagogy, understood as ‘the core acts of teaching (task, activity, interaction and assessment) framed by space, pupil organization, time and curriculum, and by routines, rules and rituals.’ [3]

Here we note that pedagogy is framed by curriculum. So it may be that curriculum has the upper hand in this three-fold relationship.

In my recent post (see I reported on ways of thinking about curriculum as developed by Carolyn Cooke and as set out in chapter 5 of the book Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School. [4] Here curriculum is viewed as ‘lived experience’.

All this prompts me to offer a definition of curriculum and in particular a music curriculum. Here goes:

The music curriculum can be defined as a dynamic set of musical processes and practices framed within historical and contemporary cultural discourse and dialogue that comprise the material musical encounters of pupils and teachers.

A definition that is partial and of course ideological. Discuss.

In the October edition of the Music Teacher Magazine Anthony Anderson makes a case for ‘Time to Think’ about the music curriculum and above all else the process of curriculum design. [5]

This call would seem to be prescient in view of recent utterances from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools.



[1] Beauvais, M. (2011) Assessment: a question of responsibility. UNIVEST. Retrieved from

[2] See Bernstein, B. (1975) ‘On the Curriculum’ in Class, Codes and Control, Volume III Towards a Theory of Educational Transmission, Basil Bernstein, Routledge and Keegan Paul.

[3] Alexander, R. (2005) Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk. York: Dialogos.

[4] Cooke, C. (2016) What is a music curriculum? In Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School edited by Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce (3rd edition), Routledge.

[5] Anderson, A. (2017) Time to Think. Music Teacher Magazine, October, pp. 47-48.