Depth, provenance and critical engagement in music education

In a previous blog I thought it likely that year 7 pupils would be singing in their music lessons at this time of the term – an obvious point of continuity and progression with their primary school experience.

In this secondary school year 7 pupils are learning to sing O Waly Waly.

The teacher has selected O Waly, Waly ‘simply because it is a beautiful song’ and is intent on teaching the class to make a beautiful sound.

I’m interested to know whether the singing is accompanied or unaccompanied.

The teacher adds:

‘I play the piano, sometimes big, juicy, arpeggiated chords, and sometimes simple, still chords. Always with much dynamic contrast and rubato. They follow me well, and enjoy it when I prolong the silence before the penultimate line. When they get it right, it is magical.’

‘I select these three verses. The meanings of the whole song are complex, so just three verses.’

The water is wide, and I can’t get over

And neither have I wings to fly

Build me a boat that can carry two

And both shall row, My love and I

There is a ship, and she sails the sea

She’s loaded deep, as deep can be

But not so deep as the love I’m in

I know not if I sink or swim

Oh love is gentle, love is kind

As sweet as a flower, when first it’s new

But love grows old and waxes cold

And fades away, like morning dew.

But wait a minute. What’s this:

‘I prolong the silence before the penultimate line.’

The teacher explains:

‘I think the silence creates a moment where not a single student can escape from being musical or from being ‘in flow’. In that silence, every student is compelled to engage in musical feeling, watching, breathing, pitching, and enjoying a resolution. All bodies need to be dancing together.’

O Waly, Waly is a song of good provenance as they say. [1] Some claim it as a song from the sixteenth century, some that it has Irish origins, some say Scottish, some English.

An internet search shows a great many performance versions and arrangements, and even a discussion forum relating to its provenance.

A Pete Seeger version of the song is near the top of the internet library along with responses from listeners. One response told that the performance was intended to draw attention to the pollution of the Hudson River. Well, we know Pete Seeger was a political activist.

As you will have noted, the teacher’s choice of O Waly Waly is leading me to open up a conversation with the song and to examine its provenance. I am reminded of Chris Philpott writing:

‘Each piece of music (whether we are performing or creating it) comes with an ‘attitude’ of its own and along with our own values and beliefs (which Gadamer calls ‘prejudices’)  engages in a playful dialogue in order to construct meaning.’ [2]

The teacher above achieves this playful dialogue with the ‘silence’ before the penultinate line of each verse. I have taken the idea of playful dialogue to a second level in searching out the song’s provenance. And I have only just begun.

O Waly Waly – the teacher has something of a treasure in her hands opening up ‘complex webs of meaning’ and placing interpretation at the heart of a music education. And this means critical engagement, and rather more than what is usually taken as appraising.

This seems to me to be worthwhile opening up the possibility of depth and rigour.

Notes:

[1] Provenance seems to have two meanings, the first begets the second.  First ‘origin’, and then ‘history-lineage’; we find the term provenance much used in relation to antiques. What is its source, origin, its life history, its condition, how has it been looked after?

If ‘musical provenance’ is important, as Ofsted suggests, we should ask ourselves: is the content of what is brought to the classroom rich, thick with possibilities? Will it defy easy assimilation and mastery?  Will it call forth thinking? Will it defy methods of assessment that prohibit openness? Will activities defy being matched with tidily delineated outcomes?

It is interesting to note that after Mark Phillips HMI introduced the concept of ‘provenance’ and its addition to the criteria for making judgments about a music department’s quality of provision, nobody has taken a blind bit of notice. I think it a valuable idea that as I have tried to show can enhance an enfebbled notion of appraising.

[2] Philpott, C. (2013) The justification for music in the curriculum, in (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching. Routledge: London.

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