Musical autonomy revisited

I have been interested to see which of my blogs have been most read over time. There are two that stand out and still draw in readers daily. The one ‘representing musical experience’ written in honour of Jerome Bruner and providing deep insights into the bridges between musical experience and the ways in which we represent it through enactive, iconic and symbolic means. If you want to discuss musical notation acquisition then this is one place to start.

The other, ‘what is musical autonomy’? gets the most read prize.

There are three points that should be added in republishing this blog.

  1. It is not about ‘musical autonomy’ understood as the contentious aesthetic concept that raises music above its social-cultural existence. That is quite a different thing to
  2. The idea that we can become musically autonomous beings with the agency to act independently musically. Much lazy talk within music education latches on to this and that was my motivation for the blog. Perhaps the title was disingenuous.
  3. The blog deals with the educational aim of achieving rational autonomy. One obvious critique of this position is its rejection of human interdependence.

What is musical autonomy?

If a goal of education is to develop self-governing critically engaged citizens, and if this is considered fundamental to making a democracy, then there needs to be a carefully considered balance between autonomy and heteronomy. These are big ideas. First autonomy.

The idea of ‘autonomy’ emerged from the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, that time when we came to understand ourselves a bit better and imagined that with the aid of rational thought we could make progress and achieve a more perfect state of humanity. Most haven’t given up on this despite disappointments. [1] 

The idea of being an autonomous human being is very attractive. We take this to mean that we exercise the capacity for self-government. Our actions are truly our own. We have agency and we can act authentically. [2] Music teachers like the idea of pupils having autonomy over their music-making. Autonomy is thought to be a good thing and a worthy goal. 

But autonomy has an antonym, heteronomy, meaning ‘under the will of others’. This is interesting because until recently it was under the will of others that autonomy was thought to be achieved – the will of the school, the teacher, peers, examination boards, for example. 

Education’s big idea, the achievement of what has been called ‘rational autonomy’, expected a submission of the will to the authority of the past, its store of knowledge, know how and the formalities of the school.

This noble educational goal was to bring students to a point of rational autonomy through taking them beyond what they already knew or felt at home with. Education released the student from being bound to their immediate context and limited experience. Their thinking would become ‘context independent’. It was the school and the teacher who were vested with the authority to mastermind this process. 

Despite a common conviction that the music teacher can take their students from what they know (i.e. their music) to what they don’t know, this process of musical enlightenment has not proved successful for the majority. 

Now it is argued that heteronomy must give way to autonomy in order to make space for musical critical thinking and reflection to be achieved, and that this requires space in which students are able to express their opinions and to participate in the making of their musical cultural environments. [3]

While there is currently much energetic and enthusiastic rebalancing of the autonomy-heteronomy scales, little attention has been paid to defining the curriculum in these terms. The focus has been on pedagogy. [4] 

In Ronald Meighan’s view the place to start is to be clear about how the curriculum is defined. A conception of curriculum precedes pedagogy. [5] Three possibilities are offered.

Consultative Curriculum
Imposed programme; student given regular opportunities to input thoughts and feelings. Feedback can be reflected upon by the teacher and modifications made.

Negotiated Curriculum
Power sharing between teacher and student is increased, and where a common understanding is developed between both about the course of study that is to be undertaken

Democratic Curriculum
The learners create, deliver and review their own curriculum.

In the book ‘Masterclass in Music Education’ secondary school music teacher Eleanor Vessey analyzes the move from a consultative to a negotiated curriculum. [6] A remarkable degree of trust was built up between teacher and pupils opening up the possibility of an ongoing mature dialogue about how the curriculum might unfold. The teacher’s authority was enhanced. The pupils became self-governing and critically engaged and on the road to achieving musical autonomy. The Democratic curriculum beckons. 

Meighan’s model may be more useful than the ‘Informal, Non-formal; Formal’ one.

Notes:

[1] The Enlightenment project, as it is called, has come under severe criticism expressed in the move from modernity to post-modernity. Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘The Dialectic of the Enlightenment’ argues that the dominance of scientific rational thinking has served to dehumanize and instrumentalize society. Christopher Small’s seminal work ‘Music, Society, Education’ critiques the tradition of Western European music as being hidebound by scientific rationality.
[2] The idea that we are free to act authentically is of course challenged.
[3] See ‘Music Cultural Pedagogy in the ‘’Network Society’’’, Winfried Sakai at http://jets.redframe.com
[4] One example of the emphasis on pedagogy is Lucy Green’s influential ‘Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy’.
[5] See Meighan, R. (1988) Flexi-Schooling. Education for Tomorrow, Starting Yesterday. Ticknall, Education Now Publishing Cooperative.
[6] See ‘Masterclass in Music Education’, (Eds) Finney, J. and Laurence, F. 2013, Bloomsbury.Advertisements

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The struggle for the music curriculum

If music is to be a part of general education then any consideration of music education’s purposes needs to engage with wider educational debate.  And this will involve considering what conceptions of education we hold alongside our conceptions of music education.

Of course, conceptions of education and music education have never been fixed or agreed upon, rather continually contested. There have always been, as we might say, ‘interested parties’, groups promoting this or that as the desired purposes.

Raymond Williams proposed that the 19thcentury debate about the purpose of education could be best understood in relation to three such groups:

  1. The public educators (who saw education as a natural right).
  2. The industrial trainers (who saw education as a means of economic efficiency).
  3. The old humanists (who saw education as a liberal or humane way but not as vocational training).

Williams maintained that the school curriculum which emerged was a compromise between all three with the industrial trainers holding the upper hand. [1]

Gordon Cox, in his distinguished account of music education in England 1924 -1999, suggests that ‘the struggles between groups representing different conceptions of what musical experiences should be embodied in the curriculum, and to what ends the curriculum in music might be directed’ [2] can be understood with reference to analysis by Kliebard. [3]

In characterizing the groups who have competed in promoting what conception of education should prevail Kliebard proposes that there are:

1. The humanists, the keepers of tradition, tied to the finest developments of the Western canon, and committed to the traditional skills that were associated with it.

We might note the current interest in establishing a knowledge-based/knowledge-rich curriculum.

2. The developmentalists, committed to a curriculum in harmony with children’s real interests.

We might note the ongoing advocacy for a learner-centred curriculum.

3. The social meliorists, who maintain that schools act as major forces for social change and social justice.

We might note claims made by both 1 and 2 above in the cause of social justice.

1. Being the birthright of all and providing all with a particular form of high cultural capital derived from 1 above where social change would take a cultural restorative form, and

2. In liberating children and young people from the structures that prevent equity and the hegemonic power of 1 above.

4. The advocates of social efficiency, who believe that social utility was the supreme criterion against which the value of school subjects was measured.

We might note the 21stcentury skills movement and the linking of music education with the creative industries.

Of course, such typologies are not intended to be exclusive and I have barely used them to analyse the case of music education. Therein lies a task for the reader that I hope will  cause reflection on the purposes we each promote and the kind of curriculum we each desire.

Gordon Cox points out that while all this changes to some extent over time, it is the humanist tradition, (1) above, that has always been pre-eminent. Its relationship to academic status works powerfully in its favour in the case of music. (The new model music curriculum will demonstrate this presumably.)

One response to all this contestation is to seek out the dissolving of the types into one unified conception.

Alas, music education, like education itself remains, and is likely to remain a contested concept.

There are struggles to pursue and compromises to be made across what are for the most part irreducible tensions. [4]

Notes:

[1] Raymond Williams (1961) The Long Revolution. Penguin Books.

[2] Gordon Cox (2002) Living Music in Schools 1923-1999: Studies in the History of Music Education in England. Ash gate. Page 129.

[3] Kliebard, H. M. (1995) The Struggle for the American Curriculum 1893-1958. Second Edition. Routledge.

[4] The process of reforming the GCSE (2013-14) examination makes for an exemplary case of such struggle.Advertisements

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Appreciating Music

‘The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’(1)

In response to this the first of the curriculum’s two aims, the new National Curriculum for Music proposes that ‘As pupils progress, they should develop critical engagement with music, allowing them to compose, and to listen with discrimination to the best in the musical canon.’(2) Elsewhere there is reference to ‘great composers’ and ‘the history of music’, reinforcing a commitment to a curriculum that conserves and honours the past – the best that has been thought and musically created – as a birthright of the educated citizen. 

The new curriculum is striking in its deployment of the retro language of ‘the canon’, ‘the history of music’, ‘appreciation’ and other prompts recalling the period following the Second World War when such language was common currency in our schools and when ‘music appreciation’ was a distinctive entity within the music curriculum. 

Classroom ‘music appreciation’ lessons involved listening to recorded music supported by a teacher underlining points of significance through talk and piano demonstration. It was a practice inherited from the pioneers of the music appreciation movement responding to the invention of the gramophone and the wireless at the beginning of the century. The intention had been to cultivate musical taste through the introduction of music from the classical repertoire not easily accessible to the average child. 

However, its introduction was not without some concerns, as seen in the Board of Education pamphlet of 1933, which noted:

‘…that singing of songs may be elbowed out of the syllabus by over-indulgence in Eurhymics; that listening to a wireless lesson leaves little time for the less colourful but very necessary practice of sight singing; that our children enjoy more and more culture and perform less and less music.’ (3) 

The rigour experienced through singing, sight singing and music reading was threatened by a time consuming and overindulgent music appreciation lesson as well as other novelties of the time. 

By the post second world war period the problem posed by ‘music appreciation’ was one of a narrowly conceived repertoire coupled with ways of teaching that were increasingly linked with pupil passivity and disaffection. One influential response came from the publication ‘Sound and Silence’ in 1970. John Paynter and Peter Aston’s 36 projects inviting creative experiment were interpenetrated by some 350 musical works. A fresh relationship was being struck with the past and its authority. The school music canon had become differentiated if not dissolved.

There now came the possibility of music being known and appreciated in the context of pupils’ own creative work. Disparate components of the curriculum could be seen in a more integrated light where the acquisition of skill, including the skill of discrimination and judgement, went in tandem with the development of pupils’ creativity. A die had been cast that opened up imaginative approaches to bringing an eclectic range of musical practices into close proximity to pupils’ own making and thinking and thereby furthering their appreciation of music.

Whether through approaches developed by educational outreach such as the LSO Discovery programme, where music from the orchestral repertoire came to be known and appreciated through compositional workshop-ing, or through newer forms of integrated practice derived from the informal learning practices of popular musicians, pathways to fuller appreciation of music have become many and diverse. 

Taking appreciation to imply learning to value, respect, understand, give due regard to music’s provenance and to do so with a sense of pleasure and even gratitude, we have a counterweight to ‘I know what I like’ and the contemporary search for personal authenticity. 

However, the proposal that an undifferentiated musical canon exists to be deferred to and appreciated, where there is a ‘one best’, is at odds with much that is vibrant about contemporary music education as it finds a synergy with the energy and fluidity of lived culture at the current time. It is to be hoped that the tensions created will be productive.

Notes:

(1) National Curriculum Framework. DfE, October 2013.

(2) Music Programme of Study for Key Stage 1-3. Department for Education, October 2013.

(3) Cited in ‘Music in Education in Thought in Practice,’ p. 282. Bernarr Rainbow with Gordon Cox, 2006, The Boydal Press.Advertisements