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











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 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.