Finding purpose, finding music education

Music Education debate in recent times in England has hovered around the problems of participation, inculsion and diversity. The question is asked why and how is it that not all children and young people benefit from a music education? It is claimed that the potential benefits are many and perhaps best summed up as gaining a sense of musical well-being with the promise of a wider well-being. That a music education contributes to the child’s present and future well-being and flourishing (eudaimonia) is a noble purpose. Can there be any greater? (I have done a shimmy here, moving from talk of benefits to purpose.)

Wayne Bowman asks a question that is contingent: what kind of person is it good to be? No easy answers please. But such a question, unless aksed, leaves music educational practice ethically weakened. Clearly there are many musical pathways to human flourishing, all of which call for an ethical commitment to social justice. But as Gary Spruce points out, music education policy in England is not helping in this. (See ‘Participation, Inclusion, Diversity and the Policy of English Music Education’ in Music Mark’s book ‘Reaching Out’.)

The debate is not easy to have at this time.

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Whose idea of culture?

Impromtu variations on ‘I saw three ships’ as an organ voluntary in Chettisham Village Church this morning and on to our city’s new supermarket for coffee and the Observer. It is on stilts and so you can park under cover before hearing the injunction to stand still on the escalator soon overwhelmed today by the sound of Ely City Band in great form with French horns delighting in their Jingle Bells counter melody. Music as culture lived.

Other manifestations of culture have caught my imagination in the last week. There was the recreation of the first Nine Lessons and Carols from Truro Cathedral, news of the carolling in the pubs around Sheffield, conductor Mark Elder, talking about his recreation of a little known Offenbach work Fantasio and the City Academy, Hackney’s Christmas Concert. Of course, in one sense of the term, culture is everywhere, however, for the powerful, culture is something to be administered and contained.

So, I am again wondering about the idea of culture and whose idea of culture are we beholden to in our music education?

I have been reading Thomas Hardy and enjoying all the references to music thought of as having social meaning and being of value to groups of people in social circumstances very much in the here and now, the there and then. This is how it seems to be with the Sheffield pub carolling with at least five settings of While shepherds watched and where singers move between bass line and melody and sometimes keep repeating the final sections simulating spontaneous togetherness. There was something of this in Hackney where the concert was a mix and mash response to the diversity of a lived global-local culture with Handel’s ‘And the Glory’ challenging the young people’s gospel styled voices to find another voice. In this view culture is something forever renewing itself springing to life from the socio-political realities of lived experience, sometimes alternative, sometimes resistant, sometimes compliant. But there is another view of culture, a more restricted one, the one being administered by the powerful.

Our music education is currently moving in response to a national plan for music, a cultural plan, a new curriculum and Ofsted’s reading of the runes. Whose idea of culture is moving on the waters? Ask the SoS for Education.

But rest assured there will always be a struggle for culture. The pupils and staff of the City Academy, Hackney may know rather more about culture than those wielding political power. At the end of ‘And the Glory’ the compere commented: ‘And the Lord should be mightily pleased with that’. Watch this space in 2014.

(See ‘The Idea of culture’ Terry Eagleton and ‘Culture Counts’ Roger Scruton, and their Youtube debate)

Half-cocked ideas about music education

‘Music Education’s market place of half-cocked ideas is flourishing as never before’ is what I tweeted.

Rather than half-cocked perhaps I mean half-baked, un-thought through. Anyway, here are my top 20 challenges for 2013.

Aural learning is a meaningful category

Cultural relevance is a subjective matter

Music has power

Music teachers don’t need to be well educated

Music is a more rigorous subject than art or drama

Doing music is less cognitive than thinking about it

Music teachers know what is best for ‘their’ pupils

There are no culture wars in music education

Folk theories of music education are sufficient

Music brings people closer together

Reading about music and music education is a waste of time

All music is commensurable

Independent learning exists without dependency

Creativity is anything other than being fully alive

Musical understanding is dependant upon concept formation

There is a one best music

Children are digital natives

It is possible to have ‘dialogue’ with Ofsted

There is something that works best

Music is a universal language

Another way of thinking about rigour in the music room

‘The class worked intensively as a unit in the assimilation of new musical material and at the same time mastered unfamiliar compositional strategies. In all this there was a persistent and insistent demand from the teacher for musical precision in the cause of individual and ensemble musicianship. Musical gestures had to be given intention by being imagined, sculpted and attended to in their execution. It mattered greatly that there was precision in attack and quality in duration. It was a matter of priority that each sound in relationship to the positioning of other sounds was understood as part of an architectural whole.’

This is a description of a year 9 lesson where the teacher was demanding embodied musicianship and not letting go until a baseline of physical musicality had been achieved.

For other thoughts about rigour more generally in music education see below:

Rigour and ‘the greater theory of music’

I wonder what ‘rigour’ in music education means. Echoing the Secretary of State for Education, the recent Ofsted report ‘Music in schools: what hubs must do’ refers to music as ‘a rigorous, academic subject for all’. The chief injunction of the report is to demand that music hubs communicate to schools that music be thought of as a demanding academic discipline and so transform standards of musical achievement for all pupils. One assumption appears to be that rigour is evidenced through the dispensation of ‘the theory of music’ appropriately lowered into, or perhaps imposed upon, the inviting context of demanding musical activity.

Another way of thinking about ‘rigour’ might be to focus on ‘critical engagement with music’. The new National Curriculum for Music makes reference to ‘critical engagement with music’. Critical engagement implies ‘thinking’, not a word found in the Ofsted report. Might rigour lie in the ways in which pupils learn to think about the practice of music, how it is made, its social-cultural significance and its ontology. This may well embrace what is understood as ‘the theory of music’ but prompts us to think bigger than this.

I recently worked with undergraduate music students at Newcastle University and together did some thinking about music education. At one point I gave the group of twenty five the following extract from The Observer newspaper, an example of musical criticism referring to the 6 Music Prom 2013.

‘Personally I’m of the firm belief that pop music based on punk or hip-hop doesn’t work with an orchestra: the lush, classical sounds overload the music, turning it into a Music for Pleasure easy-listening parody. Punk and post-punk tunes are built on insistent guitar riffs and the space around them: hip-hop is about the beat. Orchestras just add mawkishness and fuss’.

This was given as an example of a talking point and the students in twos and threes talked. What we discovered was that Neil Mercer’s three types of talk: explorative, cumulative and disputational were all used but that disputation dominated.(1) No right answers, no conclusions but a great many fresh propositions, fresh talking points in the cause of developing what I will call ‘the greater theory of music’ and putting into a fuller context what now I will call ‘the lesser theory of music’. But now to a year 9 classroom.

A music teacher tells me that: there is a song that was released originally to a limited Bhangra audience. It was then taken by the rapper Jay-Z who added a rap and re-released this to global success.

The teacher used this case of musical appropriation as a talking point about music as a cultural practice. Was it all ‘right’ for Jay-Z to alter the meaning of the song? The talking that followed was largely disputational in nature. The pupils’ subsequent writing about this ‘theoretical’ issue proved stimualting too. Perhaps music becomes academically rigorous when it is thought about, talked about, written about, when musical criticism is an embedded feature of practice, embedded in the making of Bhangra conceived of, in this case, as an enquiry into a contemporary musical practice. And as we know the capacity to engage in thinking about things is there in young children. This is not something only to be allowed for after induction into ‘the lesser theory of music’.

And of course we may need to talk about the devil’s interval, the circle of fifths, the Tristan chord and all kinds of things.

In the recent Ofsted report there is a passing reference to ‘the power of music’, a lazy, rhetorical, casual reference. Music on its own has no power to do anything. It’s power acrues when people, children, young people have agency over it, when they are able to see themselves and others in it. The power of music lies in children and young people gaining powerful knowledge. This will require attention to thinking music and thinking about it enabling ‘the lesser theory of music’ to be put in its place.

In the Ofsted report 2009 ‘Making more of music’ a theory of musical intelligence was vaguely outlined. In the Ofsted report of 2012 ‘Wider still and wider’ a theory of the ‘mind’s ear’ was tentatively trailed along with the significance of ‘musical provenance’. In the 2013 report ‘Music in schools…’ the place of ‘the lesser theory of music’ in music education is intimated. It would seem reasonable to ask Ofsted to produce a well argued Philosophy of Music Education. Without this we will all be confused.

(1) ‘Interthinking’; putting talk to work’, Karen Littlejohn and Neil Mercer, Routledge 2013.

What kind of subject is music?

In an engaging and elegantly written blog of December 3 (amusosmusings.wordpress.com/2013/12/…/is-music-an-academic-subject…) Muso asks the question ‘Is music an academic subject?’ This is in reponse to a headteacher who is not at all convinced that Music is like EBacc subjects History and Languages, for example. Muso proceeds to make the academic case by pointing out that Music, and unlike the other arts, has a long theoretical history (Plato’s generation of thought about dance, movement, poetry and Aristotle’s writing on Drama‎ seem to have been overlooked). Furthermore, so the argument runs, there was a time not long ago when musical analysis and more general thought about music were widely recognised as central to the subject’s identity, an identity to some extent lost so it is inferred.

Muso’s musings led me to respond by writing:

‘My definition of an academic subject is that engagement with it is intellectually demanding, that it is mindful. Improvising, composing, perfoming music are all intellectual behaviours calling on mind and body. There is a demand for thinking, thinking in sound and thinking about it-critical engagement with it. To bifurcate the making and the thinking is unhelpful.’

In response, Muso made the point that ‘academic’ is commonly understood as meaning ‘scholarship’ and for there to be scholarship thinking is not enough, a body of thought about the nature of music is required, and there is a history to this. But now the question arises ‘to what extent is it scholarly to examine this body of thought critically and to question its authority?’ Not to do so would seem to be un-scholarly. ‘Scholarly’, ‘academic’ can very quickly gain an aura of authority masking a particular world view rooted, in the case of music, in a particualr musicology, a way of thinking about and studying music.

In the current climate of political debate thinking of music as an academic subject all too easily becomes part of a wider ideological programme of cultural restoration enthusiastically and zealously enacted by the minsiter of state for education, and uncritically reflected in the Ofsted report ‘Music in schools: what hubs must do.’ That the report makes no reference to ‘critical engagement’ is telling.

The advocates of music as an academic subject often draw upon music’s relationship with maths and its abstract qualities. Like maths, music proportions time. No it doesn’t. It is people who proportion musical time in relationship to the tempo of lived experience as part of social and cultural practice.

Jonathan Hicks of Oxford University Music Faculty writing about contemporary music scholarship, tells about the shift from looking at scores, notes and their composer in the 1980s to thinking about music as something alive today in the world where there are people-listeners, critics, producers. ‘Music is experienced live and that is what matters to people.’

Such a view leads us to think of music as a set of human practices, demanding much critical thought.

Ofsted’s dubious provenance?

The recently published Ofsted report ‘Music in schools: what hubs must do’ has understandably caused great irritation and confusion. (See http://engagedlearning.co.uk/?p=2136 #mufuchat for a view on Ofsted’s undue influence and dubious legitimacy.) The report speaks a different language from the previous ‘Wider, still and wider’ report. The former set out a view of what musical learning and good progress by pupils are like, mindful and respectful of the ongoing dialogue within the community of music education and beyond. The recent report sets out a different view. The report speaks of music as ‘a rigorous, academic subject’ and as ‘a demanding academic discipline’. This noble sentiment, not new and entirely admirable, is used however to infer an approach to music education that will serve only to demean the rigour and intellectual demands of the subject. There are many examples of this in the report. I give this one because it is the most revealing. The report states:

‘Schools failed to grasp the fact that, for example, a Mozart Symphony or song be based upon the same three chords – tonic, dominant and sub-dominant – and be in the same time signature as many pop songs and a typical 12 bar blues pattern, and that understanding one of these styles could lead directly to understand another.’ (page 12)

In other words ‘the theory of music’, that reductive codification of singular sensuous experiences, is to be used to make all music the same. This process of sameing by which ‘the other’ can be brought into the totality thus does violence to difference. Violence is done to Mozart, to pop songs and 12 bar blues. In this view the Blues is worthy of study because it prepares students for the study of Bach Chorale. The Blues can have academic rigour never mind any kind of meaningful provenance. And why doesn’t Mozart’s Overture to the Magic Flute begin with I, IV and V? You got that wrong Wolfgang!

The doctrine of sameing proposed by Ofsted through the application of a reductive musical code ensures a hierachy of musical categories and a hegemonic order which becomes hostile to thinking of music as an intellectually demanding subject. That the report makes no reference to critical engagement with music and the values, beliefs and ideologies that surround it is telling.

In the weeks prior to the report a young music teacher had been teaching an eight lesson sequence based upon Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. For seven lessons music had been the medium of knowing and understanding. And in the eighth lesson appeared an Ofsted Inspector to observe a reflective lesson, albeit active and mentally engaging. The inspector (non specialist), while acknowledging the kind of learning in evidence, declared the lesson to be not good enough. You can guess. He was following the view of Wider, still and wider – the line of not enough musical action. Now this inspector will receive a copy of the more recent report and who knows, returning to that lesson might see things differently. But in all this the music teacher continues to be victim to a regime of terror, while the moral blindness of Ofsted expands at an alarming rate, victim themselves of being in fear and of favouring.

I call upon Ofsted to write a Philosophy of Music Education or at least a pamphlet called ‘What Ofsted has not learnt from Music HMI reports 1870 to the present day’.