Knowing how to make music well (i)

Anna G@tallgirlwgc @Johnfinney8 I like “knowing how to make music well” – it removes complexities around musical/musician

Anna’s tweet was in response to the final point made in my blog of last week.

I proposed that instead of the overambitious music educational aim of making all pupils musicians, a more sensible goal would be to equip all pupils ‘to make music well’.

However, I need to place this proposal in a much wider context if it is to have value lest it becomes no more than a sweet sounding slogan.

The context is the talk I gave with Felicity Laurence at the Royal College of Music on Thursday, February 25th.

What are the purposes of Music Education for all children?

OR ‘What is a good music education for all children?

Come with me:

I am in a year 8 class room in a rural Essex Comprehensive School and the lesson begins with the teacher playing a recording of Mars, The Bringer of War. The teacher asks the pupils to write down a question they would like to ask another pupil in the class about the music. The teacher asks: who would like to start the conversation? The first question is addressed to the teacher. ‘Miss, why did you choose this piece of music?’

Children want to know why. Don’t we all want to know why? Why music? Why this music, and now why music education, what is its purpose?

On November 30th 2015 the Education Select Committee called for written evidence in response to three questions:

What the purpose of education for all children of all ages should be;

What measures should be used to evaluate the quality of education against this purpose;

How well the current education system performs against these measures.

So why the select committee’s call? Why this out of the blue interest in the purpose of education? Did it represent some disquiet about the narrowing of the school curriculum? Was there some unease about the proposed English Baccalaureate which excludes amongst other things the arts? I doubt it, for the questions asked are ultimately directed towards the efficiency of the education system.

Questions of purpose subordordinated to the discourse of effectiveness, efficiency and learnification.

In his book ‘Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics, Democracy’ the philosopher of education Gert Biesta points out that asking the question ‘what is the purpose of education’ has become increasingly difficult, because our education system has become almost entirely focused on the measurement of educational outcomes. At the same time he points to the ever expanding rhetoric of ‘learning’ – learning gains, life-long learning, flipped-learning, learning partners, learning walks, slow learning, deep learning, SAM learning, e-learning, on-line learning, learning futures, assessment for learning, we are a learning school.

Instead of asking what is education for, or what is good education, attention is paid to ‘the effectiveness of learning’, is this approach effective, what is the most effective way to teach for the best outcomes, outcomes expressed as data, and all of this without considering effective for what.

Questions concerning purpose, instead of being continually at the forefront of thought as a part of ongoing debate, are quickly settled. Despite a seductive rhetoric to the contrary education is now so thoroughly instrumentalised that the very concept of education is in danger of being reduced to issues of efficiency and effectiveness.

And then the problem with music education advocacy

In addition to the problem of the focus on effectiveness there is the discourse of music education under siege giving rise to an incessant advocacy, and in particular the promotion of music as a source of, and servant to all good things, its supposed inherent goodness and power to transform and redeem, and as both Beethoven and Michael Jackson mistakenly thought, its power to heal the world.

Advocacy yields a thousand blooms and ten thousand witnesses. In this way the question of ‘what is music education actually for’ raises constantly a plethora of muddled responses and above all, the persistent narrative, wherein music’s value is given in terms of how music education might facilitate the learning of other (more important…) subjects, and indeed the development of individual personal qualities and virtue.

While there is an important role for advocacy, it too easily becomes a surrogate for, and distraction from considering purpose. But how are we to go about the question of purpose keeping in mind that out task is to consider the purpose of music education within a general education for all pupils?

Creating a framework for addressing the question of purpose

I am grateful to Gert Biesta for offering a framework for addressing the ‘what for’ question. Biesta proposes that there exist three different yet interrelated functions that education performs. And by considering these as a composite framework it becomes possible to discuss and dispute what the purposes of education are and for our purposes here to consider what the purposes of music education might be.

The first is Qualification.

Qualification – the process that provides for the knowledge, skills, and understandings [1] that allow us to do something. What has our education allowed us to do? What has it enabled us to know and understand, think about, make judgements about? How has it enabled us to find a place in the world, the world of work, the world of leisure, community life, family life?

How has it enabled us to enter into discourse about the world, to be politically literate, for example?

Understandably, the qualification function is given great significance in any system of education. And some would argue that it is not only a necessary but a sufficient purpose.

In the case of music we might ask in the most general of terms, and remember we are thinking about a general music education for all children: in what ways does a music education qualify the child to do musical things-equipping them with knowledge, skills and understandings TO MAKE MUSIC WELL? 

‘Well’ – what does this imply? I have in mind making music in a way that is ethically sound, that engenders good relationships and in which all who take part flourish. [2]

This then is the first of three purposes.

All pupils should be equipped with the knowledge, skills and understandings to make music well.

But this needs to be made sense of alongside my second and third purposes.

Next week the second purpose arising from education’s socialisation function.


[1] The nature of musical knowledge, skills and understanding is of course a point of debate and much confusion. See, for example, Embodied Musical Knowledge ; Practical Wisdom

In finding purpose a common starting point is what is the nature of music? And then questions such as: what is education? What is music education? What is the nature of childhood? What kind of citizens do we want? What kind of society etc.?

The approach adopted, following Biesta, starts elsewhere while reaching into these questions.

[2] I recently read the accounts of two integrative music projects bringing together pupils from special schools for children with moderate and severe learning difficulties with children in mainstream schools. In one case music was made well. In the other it was not.

Making music well invokes an ethical framework for music making. See Ethical Significance of Music Making and ‘Through the Lens of Levinas: An Ethnographically-informed Case Study of Pupils’ Practices of Facing in Music-making’, Kathryn Jourdan, PhD University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education. (May not yet be available on-line.)






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