On Wednesday 13th May, at the Royal Academy of Music, Teach Through Music hosted “Raising Musical Standards” curated by Robert Wells and featuring the artist Randolph Matthews. (You can read more about the event here)
The contrast between the Randolph’s workshop and the one lead by the Head of Open Academy at the Royal Academy, Julian West was fascinating.
In a previous blog post I suggested whiteness – in ignorance of its own existence – can sometimes mean music teachers use approaches to teaching musical compositional which place a specific 20th Century aesthetic as the ultimate goal. Classical techniques of composing become an unacknowledged centre and other compositional techniques are measured from this standpoint.
Those who have seen Randolph perform will know that he uses his voice as well as movements and gestures to create music. This we were told, by Randolph, is a good way into music making for those “tricky boys.” We stood in a circle imitating Randolph’s various gestures, claps and clicks, following his smiles, looks and knowing nods of approval whilst creating a short piece together. We used nonsense words and sounds. Randolph joined in with the performances sometimes adding extra loops and sounds. He led the session in a playful manner often drawing attention to the importance of exaggerating the sounds and actions we made.
In Julian’s workshop we were invited to delve into the world of serious composition (most definitely not improvising) but the sort of serious composition that needs thought and a carefully planned set of rules or guidelines. In the session we sat and offered suggestions – this line of the poem, these words, this meaning and mood. A contemplative mood developed whilst we searched for deeper meanings and thoughtful associations. After 20 minutes of discussion we just had time compose ideas from the note choices and rhythms derived from the poem. How to best communicate our ideas? After a few minutes Julian invited us to perform.
A strange contrast had been constructed. The guest to the Academy presenting a warm up had offered music that was improvised, performance orientated, communal and fun. It appeared a kind of light relief to the kind of serious composition as represented by the very white institution of the Royal Academy of Music.
Abraham’s in the book Talking Black notes the following differences between Black English and Standard English.
|Standard English||Black English|
|Emphasis on the meaning of words.||Emphasis on the sound of the words|
|Speech as an act of information giving||Speech as a performance or Game|
|Clear distinction between performer and audience.||Patterns expression without clear distinctions between performer and audience.|
|Conversations which are highly stylised||Conversations that are unplanned, spontaneous|
|Performance as a thing||Performance as a process.|
I don’t wish to essentialise linguistic difference along racial lines. However it is curious how much the two workshops divided along these lines.
My concern is that we can unknowingly privilege a certain way of composing because it aligns most closely with who we are. We sometimes seek to change others to be more like us. One day those “tricky boys’ might be able to appreciate the abstract structures and communicate meaning instead of seeing music as some sort of game with their friends.
I’m not sure if such a strict division can be made between serious composing and improvising. One approach with thought, intelligence, structure and one without. To do this reduces much Afro-American music to the body, the moment and the ephemeral whilst simultaneously valourising European classical compositional strategies as somehow more complex, abstract, serious and intelligent. In short a part of the racist discourse that as educators we try and challenge.
I doubt that many in the workshop saw the composition tool as confirmation of their own whiteness. Most likely it was seen as just one of many approaches we might use to identify the musical and raise musical standards.
The structure of the evening led us from the performance based Randolph to the discovery of serious compositional strategies. We need to take care that our musical teaching doesn’t do the same.
Many people are currently involved in thinking about the purpose of music education. I hope we manage to create a model that values cultural and musical differences. We need a music education that values whose voice is being heard. We need a music education that is able to recognise and support the way the young are already culturally energised. We need a music education that is able to see the limits of its aims and desires. An education that is willing to question its own values.
When raising musical standards how can we help young people attain the musical standards they wish to reach? How do we avoid trying to move our young people to a universal standard of musicianship that doesn’t in fact exist?