Iris and the country choir singing for meanings

Iris is one month old and it is my turn to cradle her in my arms. Iris sleeps a lot and she is sleeping now. My movements sometimes cause a stirring from Iris and now she sounds out the quietest of cooes. I reckon it’s a high E and with my gentlest falsetto I respond matching Iris’s E. It’s an example of ‘motherese’, the word we use to describe these kinds of early childhood musical relationships. I told this little story at my recent time with teachers on the Trinity Laban Teaching Musician programme. [1]

I was very pleased to have been invited to share with the group a significant influence on my thought and practice. The invitation provided a challenge. Regrettably I would need to leave aside my first and formative teachers, my first piano teacher Mrs McNally and my first lessons aged 14, and my choirmaster Henry George who encouraged me to sing and play the organ, and my school music teacher who asked, ‘had I thought of opting for A level music’? (I hadn’t, but the question was sufficient encouragement for me to follow that path and on to becoming a secondary school music teacher). But then came to mind the transforming experience (and I don’t use the phrase lightly) of higher degree study and being introduced to a vast music education literature. It was news to me that there was a psychology of music, a sociology of music and music education, and I had been only dimly aware that music education had a history. I was to meet the thought of John Blacking, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Theodore Adorno, John Curwen, Emile-Jacques Dalcroze, for example.

I eventually fixed on Christopher Small and my reading his Music-Society-Education. [2] The encounter was not a Damascus Road experience but rather a slow burning fuse and only now am I realising the fuller implication of Small’s thought on the way I understand what music is and the implications for music education and of course on reflection its limitation.

In his seminal Music-Society-Education Small addressed the symbiotic relationships between music, society and education. Without understand how music is in the world, how it has functioned in societies past and how it functions here and now throughout the world, there can be no understanding of the role of music education in society.

The work provided the ground for Small’s subsequent thinking. In his next book, now little known, he coined the term ‘musicking’ and provided a framework of thought about the nature of music as a social practice.

Music of the Common Tongue published in 1987 has a sub-title: ‘Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music’. [3] Here Small examined the search for identity and community of millions of Africans in the Americas through their encounter with a European tradition, taking from it what was needed to explore, celebrate and affirm who they were and who they might become.

[I told the group how depressing it was to continually meet with the woefully inadequate idea that there were two musics –classical and pop. What a relief to speak of Afro-American music and to imagine the richness and complexity of its infinite diversity, for example.]

It was in Small’s 1987 book that he makes clear:

‘My first assumption is that music is not primarily a thing or a collection of things, but an activity in which we engage … the act of musicking is central to the whole art of music the world over. In most of the world’s musical cultures this is taken for granted without even having to think about it; it is only the dominance of the classical tradition that obliges us to state it so bluntly.’ [4]

What a talking point.

Ok, yes, music is a thing. When I cooed to Iris my cooing was a sound, a physical thing, an object of consciousness, a thing. But Small rejects the objectification of music in favour of activity. In doing this musical meaning is detached from the musical work and its fixed intra-sonic properties and moved to the here and now of musicking. New relationships are created, new meanings experienced.

In his 1998 book Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening he writes:

‘Musicking creates a web of relationships between, and among, musical sounds and people situated in the physical and cultural space of musicking. Observing these relationships makes it possible to gain an understanding of the society that gives birth to musicking’. [5]

Thus, we are freed to ask the question wherever there is musicking: what is going on here?

All this has proved helpful to me and I have grown to love what is a kind of anthropological perspective on music and music education and to understand music education as being fundamentally relational in character.

A conundrum for myself and others is Small’s insistence that musicking has no moral dimension. It is not a matter of good or bad musicking. There is just musicking. The idea is ethically neutral. It exists as a conceptual tool.

Randall Everett takes up the problem in his argument for an open philosophy of music education. [6]

‘Small longs, like many of us do, for an open conception of music that is free of predetermination and prejudice and in which ‘’the value of the [experience] is tied to the consequences of the actual ‘event’ of musicking, and these consequences can not be determined beforehand, as they change according to the actual conditions of the ‘event’.’’ [7] But for teachers and learners who wish to work and play outside of prevailing norms, or for musician-artists who want to call attention to injustices and indecencies, Small’s vision is insufficiently venturesome, leaving critics struggling to articulate an open and inclusive concept of music education in which a multitude of values and perspectives intersect.’ [8]

Small’s insistence that musicking is to be seen as being beyond ethical consideration is out of tune with much contemporary philosophy of music education which sees music education as being essentially ethical in nature. Wayne Bowman, arguing for thinking of music education as induction into a set of musical practices points out that:

‘… musical practices like human practices are places where we learn and rehearse right action: where we learn to formulate and address the fundamental human question, what kind of person it is good to be, what kind of people we wish to become. Practices, musical and others, are where we learn our most important lessons about who we are and who we aspire to become. On this account, human practices [including musical practices] are profoundly important ethical resources.’ [9]

On Maunday Thursday I joined a rural Norfolk church choir to sing the plainsong/Vittoria St. Matthew Passion. My part was that of Jesus set in a low bass register which suited me well. Here was a case of musicking and for Small all who were present were part of this seeking to affirm a common identity. Most of the choir had never been in a choir or thought of themselves as singers until the recent formation of the group. In Small’s terms our musicking created ‘a web of relationships between, and among, musical sounds and people situated in the physical and cultural space of musicking.’ [10]

Thinking about these relationships makes it possible to gain an understanding of the micro society that gave birth to this musicking, and its relationship with a much larger society and how the coming together of people from three small village communities created meanings there and then. I think there was an ethical dimension to the event as there was to my recent cooing with Iris as we learnt about who we are and who we aspire to become.

Notes:

[1] See http://www.trinitylaban.ac.uk/about-us/overview/the-teaching-musician

[2] Small, C. (1977/1996) Music-Society-Education. John Calder.

[3] Small, C. (1987) Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music. John Calder.

[4] Ibid, 50-51.

[5] Small, C. (1998) Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan University Press. p. 9.

[6] Everett, R. (2016) Remixing the Classroom: Towards an Open Philosophy of Music Education. Indiana University Press. p. 133.

[7]Odendaal, A., Kankkunen, O., Nikkanen, H. and Vakeva, L.. (2014) What’s with the K? Exploring the implications of Small’s ‘Musicking’ for General Education. Music Education Research 16, (2) 163.

[8] Everett, R. (2016) Remixing the Classroom: Towards an Open Philosophy of Music Education. Indiana University Press. p. 133.

[9] See jfin107.wordpress.com ‘scholarly work’, The ethical significance of music making. Wayne Bowman.

[10] Small, C. (1998) Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan University Press. p.9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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