Introduction – what am I trying to say?

When I gave this talk I wasn’t clear what I wanted to say. What is the case for music? I don’t’ know!

However on reflection I used the space given by the talk to review some of the many things I have discussed over the last year in my blogs. I guess in many ways I have written the same blog.

Music is a cultural practice. We know ourselves through culture. Music does not escape the confines of culture and neither can I. Music education tends to view (good) music as separate from culture and individual teachers as somehow above matters of power and inequality. How much does this matter? It isn’t clear. However one of the things that concerns me is how the supporters of Hirsch and his views on the importance of Cultural Capital ends up with young people’s culture and their own values being slowly erased. This is done for their own good. I am doubtful that the ends justify the means.

A different issue I explore comes from what it means to justify music? If Wayne Bowman says that music making and music teaching should allow its practitioners to thrive – what does this mean? Who decides what it means to thrive for others? How do I know?


A case for music: Rhianna and William Tell.

Recently Rhianna released the single Bitch Better Have My Money and with it a video which has produced enormous controversy. The Guardian writes:

an accountant has defrauded the singer out of money, so she kidnaps his wife, a spoiled, wealthy white woman complete with chichi dog and diamonds. With two friends, she bundles her into a trunk, strips her, swings her upside down from a rope, knocks her out with a bottle, then lets her almost drown in a swimming pool.

When that doesn’t get her the money, Rihanna finds the accountant, straps him to a chair, shows a collection of knives presumably used to finish him off, and then is shown blood-covered and naked in a trunk of money.

Some responses to this video have talked about the empowerment and challenge to music industry stereotypes they see others have suggested racism and misogyny. At the same time we have a version of the opera William Tell featuring a gang rape scene.

Reactions to this have been equally wide ranging – some defending the Artist right to depict the horrors of war graphically and others finding the scene ridiculously sensationalist.

The criticisms of Rhianna’s video have provoked a great deal commentary in the predictability of certain white press censoring and critiquing black artists.

So far example Barbara Ellen in the Guardian on the one hand defending graphic representation of sexualised violence in the GOT but criticised this in Rhianna’s video in a reversal of her previous argument.

Music is a part of this messiness and complexity of everyday life. A life steeped in compromise, inequality and struggle. Music is a cultural practice that is deeply ambivalent. It can’t be claimed either as a good or bad in itself. Music in part deals with the questions of who we are and what kind of person we wish to be. My own engagement with music is contingent on the person I am. I can’t escape the socially situated nature of my person. As I suggested in my previous post the personal is political.

Anyone making the case for music comes with an agenda – there may be many good intentions but there is no guarantee of good outcomes. For example, some people make the case for music by looking at how improves character or how it can help people to become better socially and culturally. For example lets briefly look at the El Sistema case as it is used in England.

The case for music – as a transformative power for good.

Many powerful groups (and in some cases individuals) lobby and make the case for music. One question not always addressed is whose interests does this serve? In making the case for music, I suggest, we make the case for a particular music and way of life.

The case for music must acknowledge that music in an integral part of the inequalities and power struggles around the world. One of those struggles has been the right of Middle Class White people to see their visions of the beautiful and good in place and recognised. There are plenty of people doing this.

There is a move towards seeing education as the provision of high quality knowledge and providing the kind of cultural capital that is seen as lacking in areas of disadvantage. Here the purpose of education is to remove those cultural and social barriers and enable our young people to access “higher paid jobs.” Students are to become enlightened and enriched by a teacher with expertise and knowledge. The argument is that disadvantaged students need this cultural capital even more than others. Without giving them access to the right knowledge we can not make sure they compete on a level playing field with those more fortunate students who already have this cultural capital. E.D. Hirsh is the strongest promoter of this position.

This seems in part a return to a much older discourse of civilising the poor.

Consider the following:

El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu recently claimed in a television interview:

El Sistema breaks the vicious circle [of poverty] because a child with a violin starts to become spiritually rich: the CD he listens to, the book he reads, he sees words in German, the music opens doors to intellectual knowledge and then everything begins.”

Compare this to the Victorian philanthropist Barnett “the want of clothes does not so loudly call for remedy as the want of interest and culture.” (Civilising Caliban)

Nothing could be more ironic and insulting – closing the gap through culture not money. Structural inequality requires the equal distribution of money not culture. Indeed here is an example of one academic who shows that school outcomes are linked to the social- economics of the intake. The best way to solve that issue is arguably to ensure that schools have more balanced intakes. It is doubtful that teaching classical music does much to challenge poverty.

Insofar as we can explain school outcomes (80%-90% accuracy) they are entirely predictable from the prior attainment and socio-economic characteristics of their student intake.

Segregation here means that children of particular kinds are more strongly clustered in specific schools than is necessary. This is linked to a higher poverty gradient in attainment, worse civic participation, lower aspirations and life chances. The quickest and cheapest way to eliminate schools below the ‘coasting’ threshold would be to change the allocation system so that all school took their fair share of disadvantage and low attainers.

Futhermore there is quite a body of evidence that shows educational outcomes are better in countries with smaller gaps between the rich and poor. (See the book Spirit Level for a general discussion)

Keith Swanwick has argued ”most music is not tied to cultural practice and is accessible to us if we let it speak. “

This is to rob music of its power – music speaks to us because it is a cultural practice. When we see music as beyond cultural practice we valorise it as an object. Music isn’t universal and we can’t experience music beyond culture.

It is indeed a powerful legacy of classical music that often music’s autonomy is seen as an ideal state, music is about itself and great music transcends time and place. (Music and Society 1987.)

The “music as autonomous object” beliefs are one of the reasons that it is sometimes hard to place music as a living social practice – and presumably partly explain the restrictions of the GCSE syllabus –with its focus on “listening.”


The case for music as a cultural practice

Christopher Small usefully rewrites music as musicking. Musicking is something we do; a cultural practice. (Music of the Common Tongue 1987)

Wayne Bowman puts it like this.

“music’ names a tremendously diverse and powerful set of human practices that may serve ends both desirable and undesirable, both beneficial and detrimental. Whether the value of a given musical or instructional practice is good or bad depends on whether, how, and the extent to which it enables its practitioners or beneficiaries to thrive. And that determination is best guided by informed professional judgment.”

I like this as a way of assessing a SOL potential success – would it allow my students to thrive?

In practice the delivery, the pedagogy that I use can often make the difference. Pedagogy is the curriculum as Dylan Williams argued.

Which may lead to questions about different styles of teaching – what allows my students to thrive, how do I know? Who gets to say?

In the case above it would appear that for some Rhianna’s music stands for certain kind of empowerment- the telling of a forbidden revenge fantasy fuelled by hate.

However for others the music represents pure misogyny. As a teacher I don’t stand outside these debates. Neither does classical music – or the teaching of it.

In what ways do the pedagogies inspired by El Sistema enable flourishing or otherwise. We can’t just rely on a claim to it being great music or the benevolence of its teachers.

There are many questions here: Why does this model seem to gain so much uncritical support and acclaim. Why now and in this political climate? Whose interests are served by promoting greater orchestral involvement in student’s music education? Geoff Baker calls it a model of tyranny and points out there are little to back it claims.

He notes how an expensive orchestral training scheme has been rebranded as a means of social salvation. Indeed we seem to be back to visions of high art saving poor people from themselves – or possibly saving them from teachers with the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Paul Willis talks about the importance of seeing creativity embedded in everyday practices. There is no automatic goodness found in everyday life – even when alternative or oppositional. However there is a richness of meaning and depth in the engagement with what he calls common culture that is not always recognised.

He suggests that we pay more attention to ways we can support, recognise and identify the cultural practices that are already in existence rather than bring Art to students.Willis argues young people are all the time expressing or struggling to express, something of their own, or their hoped for cultural significance.

Art is a given a wider more democratic focus by seeing life full of signs, expressions and symbols through which individuals creatively express something of their identity. The challenge of music education lies in energising students and equipping students with the means to further develop use of common symbolic resources.

Music remains a distinct, popular, social cultural practice. One who’s earthiness and grounding in the body and flow of rhythms seems to uniquely call the essence of who we are – despite our knowledge that we have no essence, there is no real me to speak to. Young people are already actively engaged in music. They are already using music to make sense of who they are and their place in life.

In this way we don’t need to make a case for music in fact we can’t, as the case for music is contingent on what and how we teach. There is no case for music, which is not already tainted by its origins in division.

From advocacy to justification

Jon Finney argues rather than advocate for music we need to justify music. In justifying music we return to our role as teachers and our responsibilities to create schools where students can flourish.

 A problem with some models based on El Sistema is that music becomes an intervention and primarily becomes about qualification and socialisation – a fitting in with what came before. We need to see students as already equal and already on this journey to democracy. The purpose of education is also about an understanding of students as active agents and subjects in the world. In this there isn’t a certainty or a plan that works or a model to follow. The communication between student and teacher is one that is open and cannot be determined in advance.

Gert Biesta puts it like this:

“Teaching is not a matter of following recipes but ultimately requires teachers who are able to make wise judgements about what is educationally desirable.”

He talks about the importance of openness and unpredictability and of seeing the power of the teacher as structurally limited and to “see that emancipation and democracy cannot produced in a machine like manner” we need to seek risks and not just seek to situate our students into the existing order of things.

In doing so I believe we need to take greater consideration of the musical practices that our young people are already engaged in and maintain a commitment to opened dialogue without fixed outcomes.

But what does this actually mean?

I think there are many implications some of which are difficult to follow through.

We make the case for music by making a case for it as a cultural practice. Or as Wayne Bownam puts it – music is a human practice. My emphasis on culture is to put forward culture’s primacy in determining meaning. How we are human is experienced through culture.

Taking music’s meaning away from the object we listen to and placing it in the way we experience and make it has implications for how we teach music. For me part of this is to recognise, identify and support the musical and cultural practices my students are already engaged in.

Far too much music education rhetoric concerns how music can move students forward – not enough is about how we can further encourage and develop a greater and richer understanding of the musical practices young people see themselves as actively engaged in.

In terms of the recent turn to towards orchestral models of intervention I remain sceptical. Sceptical of the a priori assumptions of the good it does and sceptical that introducing students to classical music creates a more equal society.

The case for music lies in its ambivalence not in its force for good.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s