Instrumental skills v musical knowledge

Music Mark @musicmarkuk

Great panel discussing Future of Music in Curriculum. @danfrancismusic @hantsmusichub @musicforall @aboorchestras @TrinityC_L #MusicMark2017

John finney‏@Johnfinney8 Nov 25

A Pandora’s Box. (Too) Many separate strands emerging and some conceptual confusions that need a whole conference to sort out. Fun to listen to. Thank you.

This was my twitter response to the Music Mark conference session of Friday last. The session was titled ‘instrumental skills v musical knowledge’. (See Anna’s crystalline after-thinking on the session.)

The session was once again seeking to create a coherent view about the place of music in the school curriculum so that its future would be secure and valid. In response to Dan’s blog which Anna read as Dan’s contribution to the presentation in his absence, the following questions have come to mind which might form the basis of the imaginary conference that I referred to above. There could be a number of others and I acknowledge that I will fail in doing full justice to Dan’s blog.

  1. What are the ends of a music education for all children and young people as part of a general education?
  2. What is the distinction between a knowledge-rich and a skills-rich curriculum?
  3. In what ways can classroom experience be ‘relevant’ to the lives of our pupils?
  4. To what extent is a music education concerned with the development of generic skills and dispositions thought to be of value to, for example, the creative industries, and more generally the future (creative) citizen?

These are mighty complex questions and I will only give a brief response here. It does really need a whole conference.


If ends are expressed as purposes I propose three.

  1. To equip all children and young people with the knowledge, skills, dispositions and understandings so that they will know how to make music well.
  2. To induct all children and young people into existing musical traditions and their practices of making-music with the potential for their regeneration and creative transformation.
  3. To enable all children and young people to become unique individuals, subjectively enriched and able to know a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through making music well.

When we make music in the world we strive to make it well and if we have sufficient ‘know how’, ‘know that’, ’embodied knowledge’ and ‘musical knowingness’ we succeed. By achieving the end of knowing how to make music well we are in touch with the richest kind of knowledge possible. And we can confidently speak about a know-how-based music curriculum allowing the skills-knowledge debate to be transcended. The instrumental skills v musical knowledge dichotomy is dissolved.


But to be really rich it will need more than making ‘my’ music well. It will require pupils to be introduced to and taught how to critically engage with a range of existing musical practices. Of course we will need to make judgements about which musical practices. I would say culturally significant practices.

I propose a dialogic approach that creates space for negotiation where the wisdom of the teacher and the musical minds of their pupils together create a curriculum. (Music teacher Eleanor provides an example.) In this process the teacher (and the pupil) have a responsibility to bring to the table challenging and even disruptive material – the voice of Cathy Berberian in Eleanor’s case, and for me Steve Reich’s Different Trains, Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit, Bob Marley’s Exodus, Schubert’s Erl King might be among my selection (carefully considering age and stage).

And now I am touching on relevance, that most slippery of concepts. My examples, and they are only examples, ooze with relevance because they are rich in human interest and are able to draw creative and highly personal musical responses from both pupil and teacher. The example of Different Trains is particularly rich. It is this kind of contextual richness that gives substance to music as a curriculum subject so that it is much more than learning to play an instrument, finding your musical voice or being a musician.

And now the question that is central to Dan’s blog.

To what extent is a music education concerned with the development of generic skills and dispositions thought to be of value to, for example, the creative industries, and more generally the future (creative) citizen?

One major confusion arises when skills (like knowledge) are talked about in an undifferentiated way. Is a skills-based music curriculum referring to musical skills or is it including what are labelled as 21st century skills and which are not subject specific but generic?

Dan is right to challenge the idea of music for its own sake and for nothing else. This is an untenable position. Wayne Bowman has a view on this.

I take the view that if we seek out the ends as set out in 1, 2 and 3 above, all kinds of benefits are likely to accrue (epiphenomena). 1, 2 and 3 above move beyond music for its own sake while not claiming to support specifics such as the creative industries or making the creative citizen of the future. This would be to make promises that can’t be kept. (To serve the creative industries, for example, would require a specialist component in a music education, that is, a vocational pathway and this is not the concern of a general music education.)

But then, you may start from quite a different place to my 1. 2. and 3.

Final thought

Ours is a liquid modern music education where it is near impossible to establish and maintain an agreed framework, where it is in a perpetual state of formation and reformation. Dan’s blog captures this state of flux and accompanying anxiety well. And it is for this reason, if no other, that we should attend much more to music educational ends or as I prefer, purposes.

But should ends determine means? Perhaps ends and means need always to be in  conversation with an ultimate eye on human flourishing.


Have you noticed that I now know how to make use of hyperlinks?









More than finding your musical voice

And so to Biesta’s second factor preventing the arts (music) from being properly educational.

That is, the arts are promoted as an opportunity for children and young people ‘to express their own voice, to give their own meaning, to discover their own talents, to enact their own creativity, and express their own unique identity …’ [1]

In the light of an overbearing system of accountability where an audit culture rules, where opportunities for self-expression appear exceptionally constrained, this positioning of music education as antidote is attractive. Engagement, creativity, the child’s unique expressive voice easily become an unqualified starting point and end point of a music education.

While recognising the opportunities provided by a music education for children and young people to express themselves, to have a voice, or as Biesta puts it, ‘to appear as individuals in the world’ [2], expression in itself is never enough.

Biesta develops his argument by considering what it might mean to exist as a subject, a person who doesn’t simply do what they want to do, or who is concerned merely with shaping their identity, but one who learns that ‘to exist as a subject means to exist in dialogue with the world’. [3]

Biesta uses the image of infantile existence as opposed to grown up existence, the one placing ourselves at the centre of the world, the other in dialogue with the world. And it is in being in dialogue with the world that we learn not simply to follow our desires. [4]

I hope readers will bear with me for leading them into questions of what it means to exist, to be in the world, and in dialogue with it. But I do think it relevant to questions about what makes music education educational and what it might mean to be musically educated.

To be in dialogue with the world, (and now let’s say the world that is drenched with music and inhabited by music makers), involves learning responsibility for that which is different and strange, alienating and other.

In this way the musically educated person will be the one with an altered musical outlook rather than the one who has merely learnt to express themselves.


[1] Biesta, G. (2017) What if? Art education beyond expression and creativity. In (eds) Christopher Naughton, Gert Biesta and David R. Cole. Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and the Arts in Education.  London: Routledge. Page 14.

[2] Op cit

[3] Ibid, page 15.

[4] I am reporting Biesta’s argument in an extremely concise way and in danger of barely doing it justice. However, I hope something of its character is communicated.




Is education disappearing from Music education?

Why minimalism? Why this way of making music and not that? This was the concern of last week’s blog.

These kinds of questions I argued should be at the front of our minds as we do what we do in the name of educating children and young people musically. These kinds of questions are imminent, burning through our desires to make good and what we think is worthwhile. Answers to such questions frequently lie unarticulated.

In last week’s blog I wrote of a teacher being excited about her upcoming venture into minimalism. But in thinking about our excitements, passions and convictions about what we do, I would suggest that we have a responsibility to face a more objective reality where we leave behind passions, desires and the imminence of the day-to-day, stand back and attempt to clarify what a reasonable justification for a music education might consist of.

In the book Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and The Arts in Education chapter 2 is titled What if? Arts education beyond expression and creativity [1] and written by the philosopher of education, Gert Biesta.

Biesta states a two-sided problem for the arts (in our case, music).

  1. The potential disappearance of the arts from art education
  2. The potential disappearance of education from art education.

Biesta proposes that there exist two particularly noxious factors standing in the way of establishing the arts in education.

The first addresses the persistent use of instrumental justifications for the arts.

‘Such justifications usually take the form of a statement in which it is claimed  that engagement with the arts is useful because of its potential significance for or proven impact on ‘something else’ … In education there is a wide range of options for this ‘something else’. This includes the suggestion that engagement with the arts will drive up testable performance in specific curricular domains (most often those that appear to have a high status, such as language, mathematics and science), and the claim that engagement with the arts will promote the development of a range of apparently desirable qualities and skills, such as empathy, morality, creativity, critical thinking, resilience, and so on.’ [2]

Then there is music and the brain. Let’s not go there.

By instrumentalising the arts, arts education is placed low in any hierarchy of subjects – ‘where, after all’, Biesta writes, ‘is the research that shows that doing mathematics will make you a better musician …?’ [3]

Biesta’s point, of course, is not new and indeed well-worn and can mistakenly lead to stating that the arts, if not useful, are useless. [4] But this would be a category mistake by making the assumption that education is merely a process aimed at the production of things. ‘Yet the educated person is not a thing or a product, but a human being with an altered outlook. … Rather than asking what education produces, we should be asking what education means.’

‘What does education make possible?’ [5]

This is a challenging question viewed in the context of education systems leaning towards a focus on measurable learning outcomes in curriculum subjects that ‘count’, reducing children to test scores and objects to be managed in relationship to performance measures. [6]

And here Biesta’s second point emerges, the second noxious factor diminishing a place for the arts in education. The arts are promoted as an opportunity for children and young people ‘to express their own voice, to give their own meaning, to discover their own talents, to enact their own creativity, and express their own unique identity …’ [7]

This point will need its own blog next week.

All this is important because it addresses the question of ‘who is the musically educated person?


[1] Biesta, G. (2017) What if? Art education beyond expression and creativity. In (eds) Christopher Naughton, Gert Biesta and David R. Cole. Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and the Arts in Education.  London: Routledge.

[2] Ibid, page 12.

[3] Op cit

[4] Ibid, page 13.

[5] For a perspective on the claim that music is useless or, put another way, has intrinsic value, see

[6] This easily resonates with the place accorded to music outside the Ebacc qualification in England.

[7] Biesta, G. (2017) What if? Art education beyond expression and creativity. In (eds) Christopher Naughton, Gert Biesta and David R. Cole. Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and the Arts in Education.  London: Routledge.

Why Minimalism?

You will have noticed that the term genre is widely used to describe what are vastly differentiated areas of musical practice. Classical music, popular music are described as genres. This was not how it used to be. Genre, a term taken from literature, was reserved for a particular characteristic style: crime thriller, science fiction, the Welsh 19th century industrial novel and so on. If popular music is to be a genre then I suppose there is much scope for sub-genres and I will just have to get used to it.

One way of providing breadth of experience in secondary school music is to present pupils with a range of musical styles to engage with. Or are they genres, or perhaps musical traditions? Even better, they could be thought of as musical practices. This I think expands our thinking. Let’s welcome chair drumming, lip syncing, riff making, melisma crafting. We wouldn’t describe these as genres.

But why are we doing these things?

In a previous blog I set out twenty-seven reasons that might be given for teaching the Blues, a significant source of multiple musical practices. The Blues entered the secondary school in the 1970s and shows no signs of leaving. And there is a more recent entrant.

After a recent conversation with a new secondary school music teacher telling me how excited she was to be teaching minimalism soon, I have been wondering what it is about minimalism which, like the Blues, is a popular source of classroom practice.

Why place this ‘genre’, this ‘musical style’, this ‘musical tradition’, this ‘set of musical practices’ before our pupils?

Some thoughts:


  1. Enables the use of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music to extend pupils’ rhythmic capabilities.
  2. Is a significant contemporary musical practice dissolving boundaries between musical practices.
  3. Challenges and disrupts listening habits.
  4. In emphasizing repetition pupils are able to master riffs and perform with fluency.
  5. Koyaniskatsi by Phillip Glass raises important talking points about how we live now.
  6. Employs musical techniques that are useable in the pupil’s own composing.
  7. Is well suited to whole class musical workshop-ing and performance.
  8. Enables worthwhile use of digital technology.
  9. Enables the use of both indeterminate and aleatory phasing.
  10. Is ideal for mixing media.
  11. Can be used as a basis for nurturing musical improvisation.
  12. Terry Reilly’s ‘In C’ is an impressive work to explore.

Make a diamond nine to sort out your thinking perhaps.

Giving thought to the musical practices we as music teachers place before our pupils is a great responsibility. Articulating why this and not that is important. And might we use the term ‘genre’ with care?




Emulating musical models

Online tutorials these days have a simple format. Just follow and of course you will need to slow it down, freeze frame it and work it up bit by bit in emulation of the model.

This is what students do in coming to GCSE study in one Cambridgeshire secondary school and no doubt more widely.

Enjoy the Chopin.


Their teacher writes to me about how it works for her students. I had asked about where students start.

‘I think the students do start with easier tutorials, but they assess whether they’ll be able to manage by watching it or trying to play a bit. The videos are made by all kinds of different people and there’s no way of the students knowing how difficult the piece is compared with other pieces other than by just trying it. Many of them really challenge themselves without necessarily realising how difficult the piece is – I was particularly impressed by the student who chose that Chopin!’

In GCSE performance there is the idea of difficulty. There are more difficult and less difficult pieces that can be performed and marking is calibrated accordingly.

This Chopin performance would get full marks presumably.

But why if students capabilities are seemingly fluid do we labour the idea of easy-difficult? What’s this gradus ad parnasum all about?

I think this needs looking into. It’s not an idea prevalent in many musical cultures.

And I’ve never been convinced about the idea of graded-ladder-climbing rock musical progress.