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?

2 thoughts on “Raising Musical Standards

  1. Dear Jason

    Firstly, may I say that your wonderful, reflective blogs warm the cockles of my heart. As a woman who has spent too many sleepless nights trying to make sense of what we are able to achieve through Teach Through Music, your responses are a reassuring reminder that it is through the bringing together of disparate stimuli and individual perspectives that we evolve in our understanding and focus. Not in reinventing the wheel.

    I too was really struck by the contrasts and contradiction between the sessions last week – and the importance of Rob’s introduction that asked us not to see any of the content as something to be exported, wholesale, into the classroom (and certainly not in the order presented!). Instead, the sessions were meant as ideas to be combined, adapted (or rejected) to best meet the needs of pupils. The issues of cultural hierarchy you identify are hugely important for us to reflect upon, in this process of application. I would argue, particularly, that within this we would benefit from a more open and sophisticated debate about the value we place on the cultural and musical differences between ourselves as teachers and educators.

    Julian chose the poetry of Ted Hughes, while Randolph used the medium of vocal percussion, but both explored how young people of mixed ability can quickly engage with the process of creating a musical performance. The processes they chose may best suit different young people and may, importantly, also best suit different teachers. I am not sure anyone would want me (or Julian) to lead them in a vocal percussion workshop…. I am often struck by the extent to which Secondary School teachers are expected to be a ‘jack of all trades’ equally confident and competent in teaching across musical cultures and genres. Yet most of us have trained and work/perform in one or more specific musical traditions. When is it OK to be best at what you are best at? And how does this fit with responding to and valuing the diverse musical cultures and traditions?

    The sharing of a teachers’ own musicianship, musical interests and skills is one of the most compelling tools through which to engage pupils. Is the pressure to include diverse cultural traditions in the curriculum one of the reasons that (according to Ofsted) too few music lessons are based on doing music? How do we reconcile genre and repertoire choice – and associated learning styles – with our own musical strengths and interests? Can we be effective in placing value on the cultural interests of pupils, if we do not place value on our own? These are complex questions and contentious ones. I wonder how much your concern that Julian’s approach could be seen as a progression from Randolph’s comes from Julian’s role in a Conservatoire? Like you, I reject the idea that Julian’s approach is somehow better or more advance than Randolph’s, but too often we see music that reflects the cultural interests of young people as a fun ‘way in’ to what we really want (i.e. an appreciation of our own). This is sometimes fed by the culture of outreach fostered by funded cultural organisations (including my own) who are still, by and large, classically orientated. When it is middle class, white, classically trained poetry buffs like Julian and I that predominate in Conservatoires, there becomes an implied cultural hierarchy that is difficult to avoid. We have much to do on this front. The new GCSE and A Level specifications seem to be reinforcing, rather than taking the opportunity to dispel, such underlying assumptions.

    There are pedagogies that draw on aspects of self directed learning and focus on the cultural interests of pupils which avoid the imposition of cultural hierarchies and subvert traditional concepts of progression. Here at Trinity Laban we have been experimenting with these to challenge preconceptions of the ‘order of events’ in the development of musicians within the orchestral tradition (www.animateorchestra.org.uk). It feels, to me, as if this ability to cross fertilise between the learning processes associated with different cultural traditions is a rich vein of exploration. It is my experience that, in monitoring ourselves for assumed cultural hierarchies, we open up avenues of opportunity. But in doing so, it is vital that teachers are not forced to become blank cultural canvases – a pale shadow of their musical selves – in order not to be seen to impose their musical interests on others.

    May the debate continue…
    Best wishes


  2. Dear Andrea,

    Thanks for the great comment. Not sure I can do it justice – I think the debate should continue! Sometimes debate is sidelined by practicalities: the NP for M, Ofsted, the latest reincarnation of GCSE, EBaac, accountability, and the latest QA innovation from the SLT. There’s always a deadline to respond to and new policies to take on board. The increasing micro-management of SLT creates conditions in which keeping a sense of what is important becomes harder.

    My concerns are driven by a wider social context of increasing inequality and greater regulation and control of youth in education. As you know many writers have noted the rise of neoliberalism and a growth in transmitting the “best that has been thought and said” whilst putting to one side inequalities and the struggle for groups to have their history recognised. Indeed I have seen it argued that the best way to close the gap is to first ensure everyone has the same access to great culture.

    There is an increasing marketising of education and an attempt to lift education out of the area of ideology onto the firmer ground of science – the “what works of education.” There seems to be a move towards seeing learning as something that happens inside students’ minds – minds that are divorced from their social context. My concerns are around how does the presentation of work by Julian and Randolph fit into current educational narratives? Of course none of this is uncontested – many music teachers, writers and academics are fully aware of the various issues!

    What I feel, and this may be unfair, is that most of the official music organisations do relatively little to challenge the musical hierarchies and have a certain investment in the narrative of Cultural Capital as tool to empower the poor and preserve tradition. Hubs are tied to a commitment to bolster and recruit for youth orchestras and provide employment for orchestral players.

    I don’t think teachers should become blank cultural canvases but I wonder if as teachers we are always aware of what constitutes our own cultural canvases? Is it possible that even cross fertilisation can mean co-option and absorption without the dominant party needing to do anything to change the structures that already exist? At present the pressures from exam boards, the government, and music institutions (and various reports) exert conformity around the kind of cultural canvases valued, transmitted and promoted.

    What really is at work when large amounts of privately funded money provide orchestral lessons to students in deprived circumstances? How is it that rich patrons can influence musical policy to such an extent that it becomes nearly impossible to raise the question of validity? What are the roles of the various bodies and organisations that are set up to support music making in highlighting the limits and social/cultural roots of certain types of pedagogy and music making. Is it really possible for organisations to admit to their own limits and deficiencies? Music organisations and institutions seem to privilege a view of culture as tradition and transmission over culture as a way of life – maybe that’s unavoidable.

    It comes back to the discussions around the aims of music education and the aims of TTM and I feel that issues of what counts as music and whose music are important to hold onto. So despite all this I know dozens of music teachers in and out of school doing amazing stuff with young people – and TTM has done a great job in highlighting this and bringing together often isolated teachers and promoting debate….

    So thank you,



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