In praise of common culture [1]

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 a little 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 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 in the edicts of our cultural administrators, 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!


[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’

[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 for this year’s programme of singing.

[6] Michael Young contrasts ‘The knowledge of the powerful’ with ‘powerful knowledge’. See 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.

The scripted music lesson – the long view

In my musings in last week’s blog about silent obedient school corridors and the contemporary rhetoric of zero tolerance in regards to children’s behaviour, I made reference to Swiss children of two hundred years ago singing on their way to lessons.

The organisation Sing Up responded showing how singing could be a part of school life and used to make sense of transition times. Thank you Sing Up.

I had been reading Bernard Rainbow’s The Land without Music. And now chapter 10 titled The Synthesis of Indigenous and Continental Methods: John Curwen.

In the chapter Rainbow provides an extract from a scripted music lesson devised by John Curwen and published in the Independent Magazine in 1842. This was the first in the series.

Curwen begins with a note to the teacher:

Where I suppose a pause while anything is done, I will mark it with an asterisk.

“Now, children, we are going to learn the art of singing in tune. What are we going to learn? First, then, you must remember that any musical sound is called a note. What is a musical sound called? This is a note.’’

(I hear you singing to the sound ah any note you please.)

“I will sing another note. *    Could not some of you sing a note? Hold up hands – those who can sing a note. Do you –  *    and you.”    *

‘’I want to distinguish the same note from a different one.’’

‘’Sing the same note as this.   *      Sing the same note as this. *    Sing the same note as this. *     Hold up hand – those who will sing me a note, and I will sing the same. Do you –  *    and you.’’   *

‘’Now hold up hands – those who will sing me a note and I will sing a different one.   *    If I sing a note, which of you will sing a different one? Hold up hands.’’  [1]


Curwen’s purpose is to enable other teachers to teach children to sing in tune. His method is both direct and sensory. But Rainbow points to another feature which might easily pass the reader by and which for the time was novel.

While other pioneering music educators of the time were propagating their methods through their charismatic public style – a ‘this is how I do it, go forth and do it like me’, Curwen was aware that there was no guarantee that those who went forth would bring the same degree of charm, patient manner, responsiveness and humanity to their teaching as was publicly presented.

There was a translation gap and in Curwen’s view it was by scripting the lessons in a way that sought to capture something of the subtlety of the teacher-pupil relationship that mechanical replication of a method could be avoided. [2]

While the idea of scripting music lessons may seem an oddity to many today, (oh, but see the recent Guardian article) it is worth noting Curwen’s concern that the success of any lesson rested on the manner and attitude of the teacher.

This remains the case today. But isn’t classroom climate, with the teacher-pupil relationship at its heart, a tricky thing to catch hold of, share with others and replicate. I’ve long been interested in just what it is that teachers say, how they respond to the responses of their pupils and so on.

John Curwen reminds us that music teaching, whether scripted or not, has a relational centre. The teacher, the pupil and what is being learnt work in productive mutuality where the pupil has ‘a voice’ to lesser or greater extent. [3]

I feel the challenge of writing a scripted music lesson coming on. Something for the new year perhaps.


[1] Rainbow, B. (1967) The Land without music: Music Education in England 1800 – 1860 and its Continental Antecedents. Novello and Company Limited: London. (p. 148)

[2] Alas, I have no evidence that Curwen’s scripted music lessons were successful in achieving their purpose. He was certainly successful in teaching his own pupils to sing in tune and at sight.

[3] In the extract above I have taken the liberty of enlarging the asterisked spaces, those places where the teacher pauses ‘while anything is done’. I am assuming that Rainbow’s transcription of Curwen’s text to be faithful.

Singing as a way of school life: a note from the past

Part I

Two hundred years ago in 1817 the very idea of ‘the future of music education for all’ would have been barely conceivable.

While the European Enlightenment had given a twinkle in the eye of progressive educational thinkers, there were few signs of enthusiasm in England for establishing a system of schooling for all children in which music would play a part. Yet within fifty years not only had the idea of education itself become immensely popular but the term popular music education had become widespread. And, of course, it was singing that counted as music education. Singing as a communal activity had caught the popular imagination.

There were Joseph Mainzer’s mass singing classes for workmen – Singing for the Million, singing classes for children after their long hours of factory work, Sunday School singing, Sarah Glover’s pioneering work with infant children in Norwich, the official approval given to John Hullah’s fixed doh system and John Curwen’s promotion of a rival system.

Music education had been established in the national consciousness. It was here to stay.

For these nineteenth century pioneers justifications were several: there was the desire to improve singing in religious settings, singing for recreation, the moral well-being of the working classes and singing as a means of strengthening national sentiment.

The music education innovators of the time, for the most part, like those of today, were well read in the history of music education. They had engaged critically with ideas of the past and in particular the progressive breaks with sleeping forms of traditionalism.

Part II

You see I have been reading Bernarr Rainbow’s The Land without Music and amongst so much that intrigued I was pleased to find reference to a practice I had heard of a good number of years ago, one that had lingered in my ever curious mind. Yes, here were children going between lessons, not in silence, but singing their repertoire of national songs. This was in Switzerland and under the influence of the reforming educator Johann Pestalozzi.

I find the image appealing in the light of some of the stringent practices emerging in our own times in schools where ultra-strictness, no excuses and the silent movement between lessons is championed.

This silent obedience comes as a contrast to the Swiss children of two hundred years ago, providing an image at odds with the joy often associated with singing, singing playgrounds and the contemporary call to Sing Up and for music to permeate the whole life of the school.

So I am wondering, is there a school in 2017 where children sing on their way to lessons? may know or perhaps @EarlyYearsMusic

Is there a school where children arrive at their music lesson singing? @LauraMullaly may know.

As we ponder a future for music education in 2017 I am reminded that the past is always useable.

Next week I will consider John Curwen’s scripted music lessons and not without its topical resonance. See