Music Education through the lens of Levinas (ii)

‘Traditional understanding of human existence has been that it is primarily epistemological: our higher understanding in the sciences, for instance, is grounded in our view of how we can know the world around us. Levinas, however, grounds epistemological practices in the ethical condition that underlies human existence. It is our openness to the Other as we look into their face which is the condition for processes of ‘knowing’. The encounter with the Other ‘calls us into question’ and through this process of interrogation, we can come to know.’ (See Music through the lens of Levinas (i) below.)

In part (i) I introduced the work of Kathryn Jourdan who set out the basis for her research rooted in the thought of Emmanuel Levinas along with her two research questions:

What light does Levinas shed on conceptualisations of music education as ‘ethical encounter’?                                                                               

How do pupils encounter the Other through music-making?

This week Kathryn introduces her fieldwork and provides two examples of ‘facing’.

In the music classroom: fieldwork

So I went into a local high school for one academic year building relationships with staff and pupils, following one class of thirteen to fourteen year olds, in their last year of statutory class music provision, in order to gain some insight into my second research question:

How do pupils encounter the Other through music-making?

A critical realist framework meant that my ethnographic investigation could be situated within a stratified social ontology, following the thinking of Margaret Archer, where properties and powers are identified as they emerge from different levels of social structure, so that it is possible to present something of the interplay between the structural pressure pupils and staff are under, and the ways in which individuals either acquiesce to these pressures, or resist and subvert them, exercising their agency.

Firstly, in order to investigate the wider social and educational context of pupils’ experiences of music-making, multiple interviews with staff members yielded perspectives which underwent open coding, along with notes from participant observation, from which themes emerged. These themes were then re-examined through the conceptual lens of Levinas’ thinking.

Interviews with the participant class and in particular with each member of a smaller group of pupils, were similarly coded alongside observations, and emergent themes examined using thinking tools from Levinas. The stories of each participant of this smaller group were told, and themes explored to draw out and identify their ‘practices of facing’.

Just two strands which emerged are presented here, to give a flavour of these analytical and reflective processes, represented in Figures 3 and 4 of the handout.

One strand which became apparent through initial interviews with staff was the pressure to shape the music curriculum of the first two years of secondary school (equivalent to the first three years in England) in order to provide an efficient route into the specifications of the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s examination courses in the subsequent years.

One teacher commented that she simply had to ‘push out the unnecessary’ leaving in the curriculum ‘only what’s necessary to learn’ in order to pass the exams.

The effects of this pressure towards efficient curriculum delivery might be seen as part of the wider discourse of performativity within educational policy-making, where ever more efficient means need to be developed in order to produce defined outcomes.   This in the name of accountability, but a newer version of managerial, audit-based accountability rather than the older one formerly embedded in a professional ethic.

In the classroom, however, pupils did not necessarily accept the restrictions imposed by narratives of efficiency. In a lesson led by a student teacher the class were being introduced to sounds of the Javanese Gamelan, and watched a clip of video showing a group of people playing together in a public space. Here’s what I wrote after observing one pupil’s response:

Amez asks, ‘Is that not rude, Miss, that the older man playing the gong sometimes falls asleep. Is it not rude while everyone’s playing?’ ‘An older man could teach a younger one to do it’. He’s raising rich points for learning, here. These are fundamental questions of about how this music operates in this place as part of this tradition. It affects the way people relate to each other. Amez is sensitive to this.

The student teacher however was under pressure to deliver her predetermined learning outcomes for the lesson. Instead, she hurried the class on, not able to attend to Amez’s enquiry, although this might have led to a rich, if unplanned exploration which might have drawn pupils further into hearing the voice of another, and perceiving the call to ethical relationship. Instead, the class were required to turn their backs on each other, sit at individual keyboards, and this act of communal musical expression from a distant context, rich with social meaning, led into a practical task of reading pitch patterns from the board and reproducing them. The rhythmically compelling features of the music which the class has responded to instinctively earlier in the lesson by drumming fingers on desks, were now forgotten, as only the parameter of pitch was being valued here, a convenient element abstracted from another’s whole.

The commitment to inclusivity and ease of access to the music exams has shaped the written paper, where multiple choice questions and tick boxes have tended to proliferate, and complexity has been eschewed, allowing for ease of marking, in a drive for increased efficiency. This has in turn shaped the nature of the musical knowledge which the SQA values, as I found out one day early on in my year at the school:

The class is given a listening task as a lesson-opener. Using a CD of examples from the exam board, with extracts of music from contrasting genres and cultural expressions, their music teacher poses questions. An extract from the show ‘Riverdance’ is played.

Almost all the girls in the class, sitting apart from the boys, respond to the music by dancing in their seats. A frisson goes round the room as the castanets enter and two girls on the far table pretend to play them, hands held high in the air. Yet the task at hand is now to identify ‘which sort of music this is’, choosing from a selection of ‘concepts’ specified by the exam board’. ‘Folk’ most pupils suggest as they enjoy and identify with the ‘Celtic’ sounds underlying the music’s foreground. ‘It’s the rhythm they make in Latin America’ the teacher corrects, insisting on upholding the neat categorisation into which the exam board had squeezed this track. I empathise with the slightly dazed, deflated response to this outcome prevalent amongst the class. They have enjoyed the music. Some have responded physically and with pleasure, feeling that this was in some way ‘their music’, but they have reached the ‘wrong’ answer. Their responses must be corralled into one of the exam board’s own categorisations. The pupils’ openness to and encounter with the music has been shut down prematurely. The required answer is quite clear, it seems.

Here, the exam board’s categorisations of musical expressions from different places around the globe has brought about a totalising brand of knowledge, which allows no room for the pupils’ responses, visceral and joyful. Nor does it allow for complexity, for multiple influences, But the pupils manage to allow infinity to break into to closed circles of totality in these two examples, exercising their agency and subverting to some extent the totalising practice imposed upon them.

These are just two examples of pupils’ ‘practices of facing’ drawn from many which I observed as pupils encountered the Other through class music-making, and of how they might be understood as agential in response to the layers of social and educational reality which shape their experience of music-making in school.


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