In praise of common culture [1]

Welcome to my 250th Blog and a merry Christmas to you. Thank you for reading.

Better try over number seventy-eight before we start I suppose?’ said William, pointing to a heap of old Christmas carol books on a side table. [2]

Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, like much of his writing, contains references to music-making. Hardy’s interest in the social conditions of his characters is matched by interest in the social conditions of their music-making.

For Hardy music is social practice. Musical meanings and musical knowledge are made here and now together and bound to the meanings made through the relationships of those participating. And all this in relationship to their place in the social order.

In the case of Under the Greenwood Tree there is the story of the Melstock choir, a band of local musicians playing and singing in the west gallery of their village church. Their music is silenced by the installation of the organ and a well-tutored organist. The imagined mediocrity of the locals is replaced by the imagined more refined and civilising sounds of the organ and the organist’s playing.

The musically disenfranchised locals inhabiting Hardy’s rural Wessex had come to enjoy in Michael Gove’s words:

… a shared appreciation of cultural reference points, a common stock of knowledge on which all can draw, and trade, in a society in which we all understand each other better’. . . [3]

Well, of course, I am being facetious, for Michael Gove was not referring to local traditions, such as Hardy’s musicians and their customs held in common, but to the proposition that:

… there is such a thing as the best. Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding – intellectually, sensually and emotionally – than, say, the Arctic Monkeys’. [4]

Or shall we say, not the Arctic Monkeys but the carollers in the Sportsman Inn on the western edge of Sheffield whose singing this Christmas-time makes connections with that nearly lost repertoire of Hardy’s childhood time and now lost to the Christmas canon. [5]

Ah! ‘the best of the musical canon’, where have I heard that?

Here are two utterly different conceptions of what music is, what it is for, how it is educative; what culture is and what it is for.

While there is the knowledge of the powerful [6] exemplified by the cultural edicts of Michael Gove, it may be the carollers at the Sportsman Inn who will be in touch with incomparably more knowledge of music as a human practice and perhaps, just perhaps, of humanity too.

Number seventy-eight was always a teaser – always. I can mind him ever since I was growing up a hard boy-chap. But he’s a good tune, and worth a mint o’ practice.’ [7]

Wishing you a very happy Christmas!

Notes:

[1] First published Christmas 2014.

Readers will find a number of previous blogs dealing with the idea of culture. This blog connects well with ‘How culture counts for music education’ https://wordpress.com/post/jfin107.wordpress.com/1038

[2] Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy, London, MacMillan, 1964 page 24.

[3] Gove, M. (2011) The need to reform the education system. Speech made at the University of Cambridge, November 24.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Pubs preserve the carols dusted away by the Victorians. Guardian, Monday 15 December 2014 page 5.

See http://www.localcarols.org.uk/ for what’s happening this Christmas 2016.

[6] Michael Young contrasts ‘The knowledge of the powerful’ with ‘powerful knowledge’. See http://www.fpce.up.pt/ciie/revistaesc/ESC32/ESC32_Arquivo.pdf I have simply appropriated the phrase ‘powerful knowledge’ here and don’t necessarily imply anything of Young’s thesis, interesting though that is.

[7] I do concede that I am in some part a romantic. Philosopher Michel Foucault notes that nostalgia can be a rich source of critique should readers think I am indulging.

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Who will try a dialogic musical gathering?

‘DLG (Dialogic Literary Gatherings) is a dialogic reading activity based on two principles: reading a classical literature book (such as Romeo and Juliet, the Odyssey, Don Quixote) and then sharing meanings, interpretations and reflections with the dialogic learning methodology. DLG are organised as follows:

Before the gathering, the class chooses a classical book of the universal literature, and agrees on the number of pages to be read before the next gathering; then, each participant reads the text at home and selects the paragraph he or she liked most or that caught his/her attention to share it in the gathering. During the gathering the moderator gives the floor to each participant, who reads aloud the paragraph and explains the reasons why he/she selected it; then, the moderator gives the floor to other participants so that they can discuss that paragraph. The same procedure is repeated with each paragraph for the full duration of the gathering.’ (http://www.schooleducationgateway.eu/files/esl/downloads/21_INCLUD-ED_Dialogic_Gatherings.pdf)

Could there be dialogic musical gatherings?

I once attended a meeting of a book club. I had read the designated book by Emile Zola and loved it. In the gathering, while there was a moderator present who had great knowledge of literary matters, not all spoke. In my case, despite my many thoughts about the book and lines of interest, my voice was quickly diminished by others who were clearly on the inside of literary criticism.

It wasn’t a dialogic literary gathering.

I recall being a teacher of PSHE (in order to fill my timetable) and using a dialogic approach I enabled group discussion of issues covered. I learnt how my role as a moderator could be minimal. The less the group deferred to me the fuller seemed to be the debate. The dynamics of the classroom changed, relationships different. For me this was learning to let go. Danny Brown tells about learning to let go here: http://www.squeaktime.com/blog/letting-go

Back to Dialogic Literary Gatherings – I have heard of a primary head teacher who is thoroughly enthused by this practice, first adopted by one his teachers and now spread to the whole staff. Will there be improvement in the children’s reading, in their speaking and in their interthinking?

So what about a dialogic musical gathering?

Let’s decide on a musical work to listen to. Mmm! Now a technical challenge. How to make it possible for all the class to listen to the music at home? Any ideas!

If we can find a way then the task will be to note a passage in the music that is of particular interest. This may well encourage repeated listening and progressively sharper focus. Back in class I think we will be able to manage the sharing of thoughts about the music.

Pupils will need to communicate musically as well as verbally.

I will trial this with my U3A Group.

Coda:

Three possible reference points for DLG.

The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas thought big about things and his theory of Communicative Action is no exception. The goal was to promote reason in a world where instrumental reason dominated, that form of reasoning that is dictated by ends, bringing things under control, achieving goals. This gets in the way of mutual understanding, democratic practices and a richer form of reasoning.

DLG models a democratic practice and at the same time touches Matthew Arnold’s “disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.”

While connecting with Richard Shaull, who, drawing on Paulo Freire, Richard writes: “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

No composing before Key stage 4!

There is abroad the idea, and now shaped into an ideology, that knowledge comes before creativity. Such is the fervour of this poisition that in the case of music this is taken to mean that children should be protected from the art of composing until they reach the age of 14. This is the age that marks the transition from Key Stage 3 to Key Stage 4 and when a requirement of the GCSE exam taken at age 16 is that music is composed and presented for examination.

By knowledge is meant knowledge about musical notation (and sometimes referred to as ‘the theory of music’) and knowledge about the music of composers from the past. It might encompass knowledge of how to sing and play well, how to sight sing, but I rather think this will not be included in this particular conception of knowledge.

In pronouncing ‘no composing before Key stage 4’ we see highly stipulative definitions of both knowledge and creativity.

In an act of music educational conciliation I offer the following – how to incorporate knowledge of notation into your teaching in Year 7 and how this can enable musical composition. And how to broaden conceptions of both musical knowledge and creativity.

Notation is often introduced through playing the keyboard or some other instrument. Often teachers are mindful that this shouldn’t be some kind of code cracking exercise but that this involves aural grasp of what is to be played, so let’s sing it first, think-imagine sound etc.

Or let’s approach this through sight-singing? Here are some ideas.

Sing songs that have characteristic use of simple time rhythms ta tate ta ta-a  = crotchet, quavers, minum.

I realize that this takes Year 7 back in so far as they are capable of much more complex rhythms. But stay with me.

Up my sleeve I have the slow movement of Beethoven 7 and the rhythm ta tate ta ta  etc. and its four two bar phrases [late correction].

Introduce pitch- soh, la, me as found in song repertoire; play with a variety of patterns and variety of rhythms;

Use a two-line stave with sight singing of soh-me-la (G,E,A) with hand signs. Lots of playing with this over time, drills and starters.

Move to staff notation still on a two-line stave with ta tate etc rhythms.

Whole class instrumental call-copy using EGA patterns. Then call-respond.

Compose say Marches (have a characterful title eg March to the …; March for a…) using EGAD (two four bar phrases or say two one bar phrases plus on two bar phrase) add drone or ostinato bass. Notate on two-line stave; play each other’s marches; add missing three lines; add treble clef.

Sight singing in two parts. Two part songs.

Listen to In the Hall of the Mountain King – tate tate tate ta etc; rhythmically notate …….

So, year 7 composing with much knowledge: knowledge embodied, knowledge of processes and if the pupils’ creativity has been awakened, thought of as a life force, then we might expect aesthetic knowledge too.

What I have offered is a closed form of music education but one that makes sense of pupils composing music before Key Stage 4 as a source of providing a rich and varied form of musical knowledge and with the possibility of nurturing the creative impulse.

We might now be emboldened to engage in whole class improvisation using Beethoven’s rhythm as a starting point. Perhaps playful improvisation might contribute to fluent and expressive performance of music in general. Thus we move from closed forms to open forms.

Perhaps we might be inspired by Grieg’s creativity and conceive of a workshop approach as seen here:

https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/working-with-the-hidden-hand-of-edvard-grieg/

Walford Davies, Master of the King’s Music  1934-1941 and Professor of Music at Aberystwyth University, is remembered in music education for his radio broadcasts for children at the beginning of the second world war. Music education historian Gordon Cox has this to say about his convictions.

‘His central concern was that ‘rhythmic melody’ could be regarded as a veritable mother tongue. He pointed to children who could rap out rhythm and develop four bar tunes: he had received such examples from four-year olds.

At the heart of his thinking, however, was the belief that written sounds were a trifle compared with the experience of the thing itself. The priority was first to teach children by ear, encouraging hearty team singing, then cultivating a decent tone, and developing the ability to sing by sight. But he was adamant that only when musical construction and design were addressed would ‘the full Hamlet’ be achieved. Therefore children should be given the chance to design their own tunes.’ [1]

Should not the ‘full Hamlet’ be available before Key Stage 4?

Should we not note the way in which very young children work on the songs their parents sing to them, playfully transforming the musical material?

Should we not note children’s capacity ‘to rap out rhythm’?

Should we ignore young children’s spontaneous song making so common in mid childhood and adolescence?

Should we really deny children’s creative impulse until the age of age 14 when music in school is no longer compulsory?

Should we not develop a plural concept of musical knowledge along with variegated notions of creativity?

Note:

[1] Cox, G. (2002) Living Music in Schools 1923-1999: Studies in the History of Music Education in England. Ashgate. (pp. 33-34)