The Importance of High Culture

Recently I have come across more calls to teach High Culture. The Cultural White Paper and many education bloggers (Martin Robinson et al) have taken up the cause of High Culture. It would seem its time for me to consider more carefully my curriculum and enable all my students to have the confidence to be comfortable talking about Bach and Beyonce.


When I think about it many of my students have been let down by me not insisting they engage more with High Culture. For example just a couple of weeks ago I bumped into an ex student whilst shopping at Lidl. He told me he was training to be a manager at Lidl and DJ’d in his spare time as well as looking after his kids. He looked tired. He lacked the inspiration of High Culture.


Speaking to him made me think of the opportunities he had missed in not studying Bartok or Stravinsky. I think being a DJ is ok as far it goes but just imagine how many more opportunities would have been opened to him if he had listened to Mahler. At the very least he might be working for Waitrose.

I realise that High Culture is not specific to a white male Western tradition – some jazz musicians are pretty good too – we all know Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker and Miles Davies are talented musicians. It’s a shame they were heavy drug users. This doesn’t mean they can’t be an inspiration to our young – though taking drugs is obviously a bad thing. Their day-to-day struggles with life, drugs and racism can be separated out from their music. 

“There was a lot of dope around the music scene and a lot of musicians were deep into drug, especially heroin. People–musicians–were considered hip in some circles if they shot smack. Some of the younger guys like Dexter Gordan, Art Blakey, J.J Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, and myself -all of us–started getting heavily into heroin around the same time. Despite the fact that Freddie Webster had died from some bad stuff. Besides Bird, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons were all using heroin, not to mention Joe Guy and Billie Holiday too.   There were a lot of white musicians–Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Red Rodney, and Chet Baker who were also heavily into shooting drugs.”

Someone like Amy Winehouse (who hasn’t heard an Amy Winehouse cover in a school music concert!) isn’t High Culture – yes she was a good singer and yes she struggled with drugs but her music hasn’t Stood the Test of Time. And also she wasn’t really jazz or anything.

So Billie Holiday is in and Amy Winehouse is out!


However, replacing the simple-minded pop of Rehab and Valerie with the jazz of So What is just a first step. I need to re-evaluate my curriculum and remove stuff that does not develop my student’s ability to feel confident with the world of High Culture.


Lets talk about the Blues.


I always felt the Blues was a bit of a waste of time. The same three chords over and over again with some miserable singer moaning about life. Many Blues musicians haven’t really understood the nature of existence like Mahler did with “Das Lied von der Erde.” Blues musicians tend to sing about very specific and particular things rooted in their experience of life in racist America whereas Mahler was able to reach out to all humans with his symphony about the Song for Earth. Mahler sings a farewell, but his song of and to the earth is, at its close, a song of love and of life. Lets face it who speaks more powerfully about our existence? So the parochial Blues is ditched – in favour of the universal music of Middle Class High Culture – “Das Lied Von Der Erde”.

I’ve also wondered if my Stomp project is too rooted in progressive ideas of fun and engagement rather than real educational values like rigour and progress. Any fool can bash a few broomsticks together and pretend to be making “alternative music.” Really? Who is fooled by this nonsense – Stomp are a sell out West End phenomenon – their musical value is compromised by their need to make money. Something like Stravinsky and Rite of Spring would be much more rigorous – with those complex time signatures just blowing out of the water the syncopations and poly-rhythms of Stomp.


Also, just imagine the look of wonder on my students’ faces when I talk about how people actually rioted because of their horror at the dancing! They might also be interested in the story of a young virgin being sacrificed. Stravinsky notes:

The Chosen One dances to death in the presence of the old men, in the great “Sacrificial Dance”.

Hopefully this might connect with their fascination with blood and gore and reinforce patriarchal, misogynistic narratives. Hold on! This is clearly not the right tone for High Culture – the young virgin bit doesn’t really matter – what counts is the amazing tone colours and harmony. The Dance bits and sacrificing young women are not that important and really distract from the music. No, Stomp with its commercialism and silliness is out and the universal High Culture of The Rite of Spring is in!

I should really get rid of the Salsa, djembe and Taiko Drumming projects too. Its all very well trying to encourage students to appreciate different musical cultures and traditions but when curriculum time is tight they are missing out on the best that has been thought and said and wasting it on music which is really lacking in the sophistication and timelessness of true High Culture. Yes Taiko Drumming is a tradition of its own but is it High Culture? I know some people might think so but do they really know? They probably haven’t listened to enough Schoenberg to realise.

I don’t need to engage with the idea that Salsa is High Culture so tainted it is with its association with dance. As for using djembes – how many symphonies have you heard with a djembe?


So I’m nearly there. I’ve rid myself of some unnecessary world music and pop music. I really need to rethink the folk music and song-writing project.


Who thought a project on folk music was a good idea? Have you heard how many different chords they use? The only good folk song I heard was the theme tune from the Detectorists. I’m not sure all that political unrest and dissent in the lyrics is suitable. The Pogues protesting about the Guildford 4 and Birmingham 6 was not really music –just a bit of attention seeking. I know their TV performance was stopped and pulled from the air as it broadcast just before the contentious lyrics but did Shane McGowen really know how to sing in tune?

Folk music is out and Beethoven is in. Who better than to illustrate the importance of the individual finding a voice in an oppressive society? Beethoven knew that individual freedom was an illusion – something those Folk Singers with their petty social causes knew little about.

While I’m removing those projects that are not really musically challenging I think the rap project should go. First of all – is it really music? I mean do people really think it counts? Yes its popular, but does that mean anything? Okay so Kendrick Lamar wrote some of the most important songs so far this century but is it really music? I know there is a long list of musicologists who point out that the division between popular music and classical music is an artificial and meaningless divide but did they really mean to include “To Pimp a Butterfly” -probably not. I don’t think hip hop can count as High Culture – there’s something that doesn’t feel right.

Hip Hop is out and Schubert is in. He knew how to craft a melody and speak of things that really mattered.

The most pressing change though will be to my Musical Futures SOL. Who can imagine what good can come of allowing students to make music they love and identity with? Okay so my uptake at GCSE went from 40 to 120 students after the introduction of Musical Futures lessons but what does this really say?

The real message is that what students want is the easiest way to success. If students had been encouraged to study say Mozart and Bizet – there might be less students at GCSE but they would have been the right ones.

The students would be taking GCSE music for the right reasons. Not because they felt moved and empowered by their music making, not because in their music making they recognised something of themselves that gave them strength and confidence, not because they realised that actually music was for them and they could be musical but because they realised that High Culture opened doors that other cultures closed.

The Culture White Paper: A guide for the perplexed.

The Culture White Paper: A guide for the perplexed.

Executive Summary

  1. Everyone should enjoy the opportunity culture offers, no matter where they start in life. Poor people don’t really do culture. They need inspiring by people who know the real power of culture. It’s not fair to point out that people in the Arts are poorly paid and often taken advantage of – how many people can say they are nourishing the soul of the nation? Isn’t this reward enough? What young people need is knowledge of Great Artists and Art. Lets stop all this anything goes liberalism – teachers should teach the best that has been thought and said. Young people need to learn an instrument or at least be given the opportunity to learn an instrument. Without knowing about The Greats in Art poor people can really miss out on culture and hence lead unfulfilled lives.


I want every single young person to have the opportunity to discover how the arts can enrich their lives. Access to cultural education is a matter
of social justice.  (p.19)

We want everyone regardless of background to have the opportunity to experience culture. (p. 22)


  1. The riches of our culture should benefit communities across the country. Its time culture really paid off by improving the health of the nation. Local communities have far too long been avoiding culture –they need to make sure they work with national experts on how best to make money from their churches and old buildings. Tourists really love them. However churches and cathedrals are not making enough money at the moment. Come to think of it there are some nice old looking buildings that might look good if we spent a little bit of love, care and attention on them.

We want our national and local cultural institutions to work together to support places to harness the power of culture to drive economic growth, education and wellbeing. P.29

Its purpose is to make it easier for visitors to discover England’s national treasures and hidden gems, by encouraging partners to work together across geographical boundaries to develop iconic tourism trails. Our culture is a key draw and it will have a key role in these new ‘must-see’ routes.   P 32

  1. The power of culture can increase our international standing. This is something we can all pull together on – our slipping economic relevance might be overlooked by hyping up Shakespeare. We are a great country filled with great culture – we just don’t make enough money from it yet. Everyone who visits our country says how much they love Shakespeare and our traditions. Its time we really started to make money from our Great National Heritage. We can ignore our racist legacy and pretend it never happened.


As a nation we are lucky enough to have inherited our rich, cultural history. This strategy will not only ensure we continue to celebrate it, but makes sure we can pass on something even more vibrant and inspirational to future generations. P. 39 

Shakespeare’s reach and influence increases with time and continues to shape perceptions of the UK. In a remarkable odyssey Shakespeare’s Globe’s touring production of Hamlet will have visited every country in the world by April 2016.   P. 42


  1. Cultural investment, resilience and reform. There’s not as much money around these days and so we’ve cut money to libraries (people overstate the importance of libraries these days now we have the internet and wifi) and we’ve also cut the Art Councils core grant by 36% over the last 5 years. Despite this we need to make further cuts so everyone needs to show a bit of resilience. Multi-national are fond of sponsoring “our culture “ so we need to show multi-nationals that local culture can be just as accommodating to their needs as the main national theatres and concert venues. We can make money from culture if we really try.

One of the best investments we can make as a nation is in our extraordinary creative industries. (p. 49)

Resilience remains a key issue, particularly at regional and local levels. Cultural organisations need to ensure that every pound of public investment goes as far as possible. They must also think more broadly how they will adapt their business models and financial strategies to deal with potential challenges to funding. (p. 51)

The value of culture: (p.15)

Culture has an intrinsic value – this is generally appreciated by rich white people and multinational companies.

Culture has a social value – culture can improve the attainment of all people and make them healthier. Some educationalists are beginning to tap into this power in schools across the country. They recognise the value of tradition and powerful knowledge. Some schools are beginning to challenge the orthodoxies of the progressive left and recognise that all along white, European Culture and its values hold the key to a healthier more successful life.

Culture has an economic value. This is the least appreciated aspect of culture. This white paper seeks to radically challenge those who do not understand the economic value of culture. Even museums and galleries pulled in £5.4 billion pounds in 2014 – this is pretty exciting. Heritage tourism pulled in £26 billion. Its time we realty milked culture for all its worth and got a real return for our amazing cultural heritage. Lets face it not every country can boast of a Shakespeare or a vast Empire built on slavery.


Glossary of terms. (not on any page)

Culture – This is made by great people often for profit – sometimes it enriches lives too. Culture can both enrich and make money. We need more of this kind of culture. Culture is made by less interesting people too but it generally doesn’t make much money – also it’s often not that good.

Our Culture – too often classical music, opera, ballet and the theatre are caricatured as middle class, white people’s culture. This is wrong and this white paper will challenge this misconception. “Our culture” is universal, transcends history and social barriers and reaches to the inner most soul; it speaks to humanities inner core. We all love, breath and desire – ‘our culture’ answers those needs. It is a coincidence that our culture happens to be made by middle class white people largely from Europe. It’s time everyone appreciated our culture especially poor people and people of colour who have been a bit slow on the uptake. To do this we will put money into our culture and tell poor people to visit more often. We might even knock a few quid of the entrance price for them.

Soft Power – lets face it Shakespeare is great and so are we! Tourists around the world know how good Shakespeare is and they enjoy a trip to the theatre. Its about time we appreciated just what is great about Britian and our values. Its only a very small minority of ultra left wing Marxists who want to spoil our love for British values by bringing up our colonial past and slavery. These Marxists don’t understand Shakespeare. We could all learn from our multinationals.

Education – Culture is best caught not taught. This is why we have introduced the Ebacc so that less students will feel obliged to undergo needless arts study and instead focus on a rigorous and academic curriculum. We hope that students who have bypassed the amateurish need to study the arts might be better placed to appreciate it by spending their money and attending a concert or theatre production. This is the best kind of cultural education – learning to appreciate just how great our heritage is without spending too much time actually doing it.

In Summary

 We don’t care about culture we care about money.

Poor people don’t have the right culture.

Shakespeare is good.

Tourists want Shakespeare.

Poor people should do more to enjoy Shakespeare.

Also they might appreciate classical music a bit more.

Multi-nationals do a lot to help out culture.

Planning for learning


I find the amount of official releases and advice on education overwhelming; I try and keep up with current advice but find myself feeling bewildered by the sheer volume of information. I’m returning to reading around education again – going back to some classic texts (music related and general education) and some new ones. However time is limited and reading a slightly abstruse book on aesthetics by Adorno – though fascinating – may not obviously improve my teaching.

Would it be better to look at secondary texts – and if so which ones? Maybe I should look to academics like Finney and Faulty or philosophers like Biesta? What about the great range of writing challenging racism and sexism – writers like Fanon, hooks, Spivak, Said and Achebe. If the neo- traditionalist bloggers are right maybe none of the progressive writers are any use and maybe I should focus my attention on how students learn and to cognitive psychologists like Willingham and Sweller et al. Or maybe the recent government pamphlets and advice do help? What about the more recent education bloggers like Bennett or Tom Sherrington or Miss Smith or Leedham? Sherrington has a book list he recommends maybe I should read those? Or how about those music education organisation – what about Musical Futures, ISM and TTM and other groups that produce blogs and advice? Maybe even the new culture white paper? Will the recent workload papers help?

And why? Why do I seek to find advice and improvement – do I really think I can change? Does this reading help and if so how?


The last few days have seen some recent releases to add to the sheer volume of advice and changes for teachers. The following is just a selection.

The white paper (Educational Excellence Everywhere) was released. My favourite response (which I imagine everyone has read by now) was from @disIdealist with his blog focusing on forced Academisation. I am very grateful to bloggers like this who take the time to spell out the dangers and ideological nonesense surrounding education.  There have been many other interesting responses – such as this one from @warwickmansell or this one from Professor Michael Bassey.

The white paper was followed by some developments in the Arts.

For example we have Nick Gibbs speech delivered at the Mayor of London ‘s Summit in School Music (Jackie Schneider’s blog is here – with very useful storify) and the government have produced a cultural white paper (no guesses for the instruments covering the front cover – the first cultural white paper in 50 years apparently) (ISM response is here) My response will follow soon….

(Though I don’t think music and the arts are short of advisory papers and calls to actionWhy is this?  Why so many people ready to comment on culture – why the constant advice? What is is about culture that needs so much regulation and direction? Not that these documents seem to be halting the slow demise of the Arts in schools as putting in place a “rigorous academic curriculum” slowly supplants all other curriculum considerations.)

Cultural Learning Alliance: Case For Cultural Learning

PHF – Inspiring Music For All (4th July 2014)

Warwick University : Enriching Britain   #enrichinggb 17th February 2015

Ofsted report on Hubs WhatHubsMustDo   15th November 2013

DFE   National Plan for Music   25th November 2011

DFE   The Henley Review for Music 7th Feb 2011

Henley Cultural Review      

DFE Cultural Review     5 July 2013

ABRSM Making Music Report   Sept 2014 )


Shortly afterwards the government released a whole host of papers refining advice at assessment at KS1 and KS2. Someone counted 13 different releases.

From a leadership perspective we had a very interesting report on leadership and school improvement from the Centre for High Performance.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 16.49.46

Then there came yet further releases from the DFE – this time some advice on workload.

Martin Fautley released a few highlights quoting




Of course schools may already believe they are asking for proportionate evidence – but at least the pressure of Ofsted was flagged as an issue. Ofsted’s simplistic approach to evaluation still remains an issue.  These reports will mean little in the current context – high stakes accountability and constant interference from central government continue to set the frames of the debate and everyday context for teaching in schools.


My own school received a letter asking the principal to produce a redraft of its improvement plan so that we could show even more “rapid improvement”. (It is currently defined as coasting due to not achieving the floor target) Such pressures and the threat of Ofsted (over due now) increase the SLTs need to provide “robust evidence” of rapid improvement. This can’t be seen in the results – they are under the floor target – so this can only be seen in the paper work produced to show the kind of evidence that might prove to an external visitor that students make rapid progress in individual lessons and over time. Schools, particularly those serving disadvantaged communities, have to produce paperwork to try and convince others they are moving at the appropriate speed in the right direction (the right direction being measured by outcomes in exam results.) I can’t see these documents doing much to change this.


Then there was a huge debate about posters responding to an article I didn’t get to read. This article about the debate I enjoyed – relating the issue beyond that of posters to a more fundamental search for meaning and purpose in education via a fascinating article from Biesta.

Meanwhile Jon Finney continues to post a series of excellent articles on the purpose of music education.

There is much to read and think about. However with the all-encompassing nature of work in schools much less time to engage. Thinking about purpose is slowly replaced with thinking about utility. How can I improve the learning?

Finding a place in education – a role that is meaningful to me is increasingly difficult. The current educational climate feels hostile to those who feel that the purpose of education is not synonymous with exam success, promoting Britishness or even maximising learning. I feel there is something hugely important about my own ethical and moral growth that is often put aside for more urgent considerations of things that immediately impact – such as the latest advice or research on how to make every second count in the classroom.

Maybe this is why reading those books that do have personal resonance and try to grapple with identity, consciousness and its relationship to society and inequality hold value to me even though they rarely tell me about planning for learning.



Ideology and consiousness

I was so engrossed in reading Martin Robinson’s blog and the response from Jon Finney I missed my stop and ended up at Penge West Station – a worrying wrong turn.

I think Martin is strong when outlining how capitalism and the market have created conditions in which knowledge and thinking are subverted so that we struggle to find an anchoring in meaning and truth. I think Martin’s short outline of the issues of capitalism and pervasive influence in structuring our ways of living and its impact on education is useful. However when he moves from this discussion to the way people make sense of this I feel he is much weaker. In moving from the details of the dilemma and issues to how teachers understand and develop pedagogy he fails to give teachers agency.

Martin is making a series of crude and reductionist statements about consciousness and the relationship to ideology and assumes that from outlining a stupid system we can call people stupid.

Just because we live in a crazy market where meaning seems to have been reduced to nothing does not mean that we have become one with the system. Martin seems to be suggesting that teachers are passive recipients of social structures and ideology – “consume with little thought”. In fact our consciousness is in continual mediation between self and the external world and we cannot assume the content of people’s consciousness.

We need a more complex and nuanced understanding of subjectivity and its relationship to power, ideology and social structures; we cannot read peoples’ consciousness from our understanding of the social structures. Martin’s blog here seems to betray a lack of respect for the dynamic way consciousness creates and is created by ideology in its relationship with the material world.

In my view Giroux has a more useful way of framing the pedagogy debate:


“In both conservative and progressive discourses pedagogy is often treated simply as a set of strategies and skills to use to teach prescribed subject mater. In this context, pedagogy becomes synonymous with teaching as a technique of the practice of a craft – like a skill. Any viable notion of critical pedagogy must reject this definition and its endless slavish imitations even when they are claimed as part of a radical discourse or project. Pedagogy in the more critical sense illuminates the relationship among knowledge, authority and power. It draws attention to questions concerning who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge. Moreover, it delineates the ways in which the circuit of power and authority are constructed within particular sets of social relations…. Pedagogy is simultaneously about the knowledge and practices that teachers, cultural workers and students might engage in together and the cultural politics and visions such practices legitimate.”  


For me Martin in his desire to stress the importance of what is of value – “Just as in an art world in which all can be art the most important thing to say is ‘well, that isn’t art,” he is missing the importance of a pedagogy that: “illuminates the relationship among knowledge, authority and power. It draws attention to questions concerning who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge.”


For example the cultural intellectual heritage that Robinson draws on is mainly white. He could have drawn on other writers – Fanon, hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and Spivak to make similar arguments – though its possible these authors may have taken Robinson in a different direction and enriched his argument. Whilst being able to say what is or isn’t art is important – although this is something I feel people do quite freely – other important questions need addressing. Such as – why this art now? And whose Art and knowledge are we studying? Who legitimises this as art?


It is not a matter of a choice between Beethoven or Beyonce; do we believe in tradition and meaning or the ephemeral and the relevant. These debates touch issues of power, control and agency and need framing with a belief in the ability of all to possess critical thought and all to be duped and manipulated. I feel we need to broaden our sense of pedagogy as Robinson argues with a sense of values and truth but one that does this with recognition to the way tradition limits and narrows by pretending knowledge is not socially situated.

the desired and desirable – a music lesson

My appraisal lesson 

In my school you are no longer graded when observed.  I am observed for a full lesson once a year as part of the appraisal process. (Learning walks of 20 minutes are a regular occurrence.) If things go wrong you can be placed on the first steps to capability. It is likely that concerns would have been noted before and concerns can be raised from a number of sources. Still, it shows the potential for misusing even seemingly sound ideas.

My appraisal lesson is a year 9 class – 50 minutes long. We are around 2/3 of the way through the project.

We are required to give students a Do Now activity so they start learning from the moment the bell goes. During break I laid out sheets on the tables. I have produced a simple sheet so that student’s can self assess which badges they have so far achieved in the project and write a target for the lesson. (We are using a tracking/assessment system that is loosely based on video gaming culture. Students work toward certain achievements as defined by musical models. My own model here is the London Nautical School – more on this in a different blog.)

Amazingly the students all sit down as they come in and start to write – ticking boxes – yes I’ve unlocked the “ch-ch-changes” badge. The pips go and by some fluke all my students are already sitting down “learning”. Bell to bell teaching I’m told.


A minute later the member of SLT arrives. It all looks good. I’m keen to move on from this moment – having taught music for a few years I know that what students write about their musical understanding seems to have little correspondence to the sophistication of their (practical or should this be intuitive) musical understanding. Still many observers don’t know this. However, the evidence that is the most unreliable seems to be the most desired.


There is of course a large part of me that wants students to be able to write about and formalise their own knowledge – its as if I feel the learning will be better my teaching more complete if they are discussing primary and secondary triads. However at the same time I know that a significant challenge is creating a climate in my classroom where all students are feeling valued musically and can express themselves confidently in musical ways.

(It may be argued that a more desirable, productive approach might be  using whole class work shopping. Here’s a discussion of this and the drawbacks of using computers: )

A count down – with a few reminders to students that this means to look at me, stop talking, look vaguely interested.

I have loaded up on the whiteboard a song on Garageband. I ask the students to think about which badges this song would unlock. Its an example drawn from the class.

We listen to 30 seconds of music . Chords bass and a beat all in place – even a melody of sorts.

Great – Think. Pair Share!

Every SLT report has mentioned this technique.

No hands up!

I ask a student to share their thoughts – I pass this comment round “can you extend of what has been said…” we come to an agreement 2 badges unlocked! I wonder how much do I change my teaching to conform to what others might expect to see? Is it possible to find your own voice as a teacher in these days of constant monitoring and supervision? Do I teach now as if I might be observed? Do I try and include the things I know will look good for others? Do I teach to standards that remain distinctly standards imposed no matter how much I try and claim them for my own? Just what is desirable for these students? 


Next step. Listen to the same piece. I explain that I have extended and added some parts to the song – they are asked to try identifying what has been changed and why it now meets the criteria for the final badge.

This is discussed and a few things brought to attention – the structure, change of sounds, and the addition of a new melody.

I know at this point extending the discussion can quickly lead to a dead end of misconceptions and increasing random thoughts – or it might lead to a productive exchange of ideas – still its an observation lesson better not risk it.

I tell everyone I have recorded for each student a video detailing what next steps they can take. It’s not something I hold up as model practice but I wanted all students to have something immediate they could watch which discussed their own work.

As if under a spell the class move to the computers and start to load their work and the watch my video. The videos are a few minutes long.

I’m feeling positive about the lesson I look at the observer she is looking worried. What could be wrong? I scan the room and see two students sitting by their computer chatting, they haven’t even loaded their home page.


I remember Ofsted inspector telling me my lesson was inadequate because two students had not worked in the first 5 minutes. How do I minimize this risk of off task behaviour and achieve optimum learning? Is rapid progress desirable? 

I walk over and encourage them to make some efforts towards logging in and wonder how I forgot to check in with the students most likely to do nothing.

The feedback seems to have worked. The students who spent most of their pervious lessons telling me “they don’t know what to do” are working – or at least they are not out of their seat yet. This obsession to pin all students down to name their progress – does it help me be a better teacher? What tells me if they have thought about the advice and started to own it as their own? Or are they too stuck with internalising standards which aren’t their own?


I spend a few minutes with each student. I listen, ask some questions –“what are you going to do next? How do you want this piece to sound?” We discuss ideas – often I am asked to show again what I said in the videos. Some students uses a formal language chords, melody, quantised, structure others don’t – as it happens I don’t tend to expect all my students to articulate and formalise their musical pieces. I do of course want them to work with the musical materials and be creative. (This being creative, composing and songwriting, making music and recreating songs needs a different blog – but I am concerned how the language of composition is used to exclude other, more informal ways of making and creating music.)


For the main part of the lesson I allow the students time to improve their work. And stop a few minutes before the end. I have only a minute or two and so against school recommendations I talk about what we might do next lesson (I should probably invite discussion and peer review)

It’s a safe lesson – including modelling, feedback, discussion, peer review, Assessment, plenty of practical work, a little talk and reflection. It is what I feel might be desired.

I feel relieved – sometimes students don’t always focus so well.

My school has 1150 students –of which around 50% are Bangladeshi in origin and 25% white British – 30% of our students speak English as their first language. Around 78% of our students are eligible for free school meals and Raise Online gives our school a school deprivation indicator of 0.61. Many students seem quite fragile learners. It often seems that they do not want to wait to be corrected and improved; they would rather not attempt the work than try and look like they can’t. Even space and a pedagogy of encouragement sometimes seems to be treated as a trap. Other students though work independently only seeking the occasional bits of advice.


Many like to have a great deal of autonomy and ownership but seem to lack the skills and knowledge to carry this through for the lesson. For example, students were originally given three examples of a 4 chord trick to work from – many student immediately asked if they could use a different set of chords from their own songs but then became immediately stuck.


Reading Anna Bull’s blog on teaching music she talks about a pedagogy of correction “in my experience so much classical music pedagogy is about correction rather than about exploration.”

I wondered if my approach encouraged enough exploration but also how much scaffolding/modeling was needed before students seemed happy that what they were doing sounded good.

In my observation a student (the student most likely to do the least work) had been asked why he didn’t just sit back and do no work – he responded that his music was starting to sound good and so he wanted to carry on. I know it sounded quite good because I have spent quite a bit of time each lesson sitting with him and showing various ways of playing chords and melody. Just what is the progress? And is it possible to evidence the progress that is the most meaningful? How do we manage to encourage students who have little belief in own musicality to become more confident with musical materials?

Is it possible to develop a pedagogy of encouragement rather than correction? In my view the accountability processes such as my own appraisal lesson are more closely aligned with a pedagogy of correction; problems are seen as flaws to be corrected rather than issues to be explored. There is a growing trend for being more prescriptive about techniques and teaching in the classroom that is sometimes at odds with the growing demands for autonomy in the classroom and the professionalism of teachers.


What’s missing from my account is how it feels to be in my classroom; a richer sense of student’s perspective that isn’t reduced to “student voice”. How might I have explored musical meaning more with my students?


Biesta notes a difference between “being taught” and the experience of “learning from.” He argues that we need to hold a different conception of teaching than the facilitation of learning:

“This is a story where teachers are not disposable and disposable resources for learning, but where they have something to give, where they do not shy away from difficult questions and inconvenient truths, and where they work actively and consistently on the distinction between what is desired and what is desirable, so as to explore what it is that should have authority in our lives.” p57


He argues we should see schools as a place where we are taught and not as a place where we learn. Are my videos showing students possible next steps examples of facilitation in the hope that “students will leave as satisfied customers”? In which case how might I offer a more disruptive lesson which challenges what it is to make music? Or are my videos, showing an alternative ways of completing and ending pieces, a sufficient disruption? At times the gap between what is desirable and desired is difficult to bridge in music education. So often it seems to me Key stage 3 music making is under some pressure to conform to what we might wish to see at GCSE and A level – exams which encourage analytical literacy at the expense of musical meaning. At the same time I am invited to see my professionalism as part of a process, which seeks to reduce risk in the classroom and produce students as happy customers.


I am fortunate to work with colleagues and Senior Leaders who are able to discuss and challenge ideas of teaching (and learning). I learn loads from the blogs I read and the online thoughts of the music education community ( See here for example: )

– but for me the issue of whose authority to accept – what is desired and desirable – is one that is constantly presented and increasingly difficult to grasp.





The importance of the aesthetic – part 2

In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” Walter Benjamin

The last 40 years have shown that what we used to call classical music no longer exists in any meaningful way – though it appears many of the music institutions and organisations connected with secondary education seem unable or unwilling to work through the implication of this. In this blog I continue thinking about the importance of the aesthetic and discuss why a grounded aesthetic is such a useful idea when considering music education. I draw on Andreas Huyssen’s work on postmodernism and Robert Fink’s discussion of musicology to help me.

Classical music has lost its authority as Art music.  The loss of its symbolic value as a definer of taste and cultural authority has resulted in a great deal of ideological work and material/economic work to try and maintain the illusion of its status. For example: the GCSE syllabus requires the compulsory study of classical music; A level is centred around classical music and is seemingly unaware of the radical de-centring of music – containing a whole section dedicated to Art music but limiting this definition to classical music since 1910; Hubs seem predicated on a priori attachment to the classical tradition and developing and maintaining orchestral provision; rich patrons throw money at classical music in schools – especially if they suspect poor people are around; the BBC hammers home the lack of symbolic importance of classical music through its repeated aims to educate the public with programs such as the 10 pieces series, and every 5 seconds someone on twitter will talk about the importance of tradition and “our cultural heritage’ or “the best that has been thought and said” without seeming to be slightly concerned that this coincides with mostly white male cultures, traditions and histories. (The recent A level music syllabus changes – in response to an online petition showcases just how male some people perceive the best that is though and said to be.That it was changed is fantastic – and well done to the student who made this happen – but that this needed to be done in 2016 is rather depressing.)

When popular music is accorded value and importance in Secondary School education, classical music and its values remain as an absent centre – framing how music is assessed and valued. (e.g. see my blog on assessment and whiteness)

In my last blog I argued that a conception of the aesthetic is important in appreciating that the value life and experiences hold cannot wholly be explained by reason. Art gives a powerful voice to this part of our lives. It is through aesthetic experiences that we mange to make sense of those things in life that cannot be reduced to the rational or objective. As Adorno argued- we need to first grasp what is ungraspable about art. To try and pin down our aesthetic experience and explain it through critical thought and (cognitive) science rather misses the point of Art.

However at the same time we need a theory of music that is able to understand it as a cultural practice. That is we need a grounded aesthetics (As Paul Willis argues – see an earlier blog) and a return to a sensuous view of aesthetics – an appreciation of fun and pleasure. Or as Susan McClary once argued an understanding of how music “kicks butt.” What we need is in music education is a stronger sense of the importance and value in the everyday use of music and its common cultural symbols as opposed to reifying Arts supposed abstract value. In this there is a need to historicise music and its contexts. As Small argued – music is one of the ways through which we explore our social relationships and identity.

What this points to is:” the work of grounded aesthetics may be in the holding and repairing (through meaning-making, creation and control, even in desperate seas) of the precariousness and fragmentedness of identity whose source of disturbance is outside structural and beyond the scope of individuals to influence.”  Willis

So what makes me think that Art and classical music are no longer synonymous? Is this really true? Is there really no such thing as classical music now? Are we really in a position were it makes more sense to look for Art in the music of the young rather than point to its formation in acknowledged cultural classics? Do I really believe that young people should be denied access to “the best that has been thought and said?”


Andreas Huyssen in his collection of essays called After the Great Divide defines the “Great Divide” as the kind of ideas, beliefs and thinking that is characterised by an attempt to make a radical break between High Art and mass culture.

In his view modernity defined itself in opposition to mass culture – as if exhibiting “an anxiety of contamination by its other”. The radical separation of Art from everyday culture was challenged from within by the Avant- Garde cultural movements – however this ended in reinforcing the divide.

Huyssen argues that postmodernism is a response to the Great Divide of Art and mass culture. It is understanding this divide and the cultural and artistic responses to this that is important for a historical and theoretical understanding of postmodernism.

He argues that blurring of boundaries between high art and mass culture is something that artists have been responding to for many years. This has happened in both directions – from “low” to high and vice versa. However many critics and we might add educationalists do not seem to have joined in with what our artists already know – that Art is no longer the preserve of the white educated middle classes. Indeed the recent death of David Bowie seems to have sparked a great deal of recognition that popular culture can be Art. I suspect many would hold Bowie as a special case. However there are many different musics, many different cultures and traditions all seeking to make sense of our experiences. Crucially, from my point of view, Huyssen argues:

“Today the best hopes of the historical avantgarde may not be em-bodied in art works at all, but in decentered movements which work toward the transformation of everyday life. The point then would be to retain the avantgarde’s attempt to address those human experiences which either have not yet been subsumed under capital, or which are stimulated but not fulfilled by it. Aesthetic experience in particular must have its place in this transformation of everyday life, since it is uniquely apt to organize fantasy, emotions, and sensuality against that repressive desublimation which is so characteristic of capitalist culture since the 1960s”


Musicologists have also been quick to point out that classical music no longer stands for Music. For example Robert Fink in Elvis Everywhere makes this case in his discussion of the relationship between musicology, cultural studies and popular music. He discusses a wide range of examples of how popular music borrows and adapts classical music but also how composers from the academy frequently use ideas from pop and rock to appeal to a sense of authenticity. In his discussion of musicians and artists he argues that it is rock and pop that continue to have a greater hold on the public’s imagination and that: “Really, postminimalism’s embrace of alternative rock/jazz culture is arty composers turning not away from artiness, but towards it. It is a tacit admission by university-trained musicians that they and their institutions have lost control of what constitutes “art music.”

In one section he reflects on how attempts to assert classical music end up as empty gestures or “third order simulacrum.” – Baudrillard’s term for the way obvious fakes disguise the lack of an authentic reality.

Fink shows that many of the debates and disagreements around musicology and what he calls new musicology arise from the continued attempts to separate popular music from classical music. In attempting to make sense of popular music he notes that we need a careful, critical and interpretative stance that whilst attending to the music is also aware of its historical construction and context. He is very aware that of the dangers of a musicology importing methods from its analytical toolkit onto popular music and in doing so dangerously distorting the musical object under discussion. Indeed he suggests Musicologists are in danger of being the  bad Elvis impersonators of popular music!   In discussing the divide between formalism and hermeneutics  he discusses Susan Langer’s “Against Interpretation” which points towards the importance of getting to know how music makes you feel rather than what it means.

What we have are academics both within music and outside of music arguing that it no longer makes sense to maintain the Great Divide between classical music and popular. Indeed they argue that contemporary music making seems no longer troubled by this divide.  The only people left doing upholding this divide seems to be music teachers and many of the organisations that exist to support the teaching of music to our young people. It seems to me that GCSE and A level music are no longer fit for purpose and they need replacing with something that reflects the status of music as a cultural practice. Otherwise it seems we music teachers are in danger of becoming the Elvis impersonators of education.

If we can wrest the classical tradition from conformism a first step will be in removing it from its revered status as Art. Whether it is possible to wrest music teaching from conformism is harder to know – given the constraints of teaching to exam success, increasing managerialism and the relentless pressures of accountability – non-conformity can come at a high price, for the teacher and student. In my next blog I want to consider in a bit more detail some examples of popular music being “decentered movements which work toward the transformation of everyday life.”






The Importance of the Aesthetic

The Importance of the Aesthetic


The misuse of notional objectivity is so obvious as to be banal to describe.“

Andrew Bowie Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy

Part 1

There is a lack of healthy suspicion in the process of myth busting on the part of many prominent educators to warrant too much faith that they do not replicate the failures they wish to correct; a surprising lack of recognition of the tensions in modern philosophy on the limits of truth and cognitive thought.

In this blog I consider how Adorno sheds lights on the limits of rationality and why the aesthetic is an important idea in illuminating the limits purely cognitive approaches hold for explaining our existence. To do this I am drawing on the work of Andrew Bowie in Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy. In some sense this is a comment on the recent discussion around traditional and progressive approaches to teaching – though I don’t try to define either.

It turns out (for those who don’t want to read the whole blog) that reason learns from music. Music and the aesthetic are central to a fuller understanding of cognition and reason. Music is far from marginal or something that lurks in the shadow of reason – indeed we come to a fuller understanding of reason through understanding  why the experience of the aesthetic is important.

It is unfortunate that those in education who defend the rational, logical and the unfolding of truth do so in a way that exercises power over the Other. Reason is used again as a way to reinforce a narrow conception of truth; seeking to correct the delusions of the teaching masses and rescue them from their own naïve understandings. Again and again the Western canon is “defended” – sometimes with a knowledgeable and kind Gatekeeper or sometimes because it is just too good to be left out. The neo-traditional teacher reveres knowledge – however it needs to be the right kind of knowledge, from the right kind of people.


The fetishizing of a particular kind of knowledge has lead to a lack of respect for the people who need powerful knowledge. The exclusionary forces of the past and present are downplayed, or ignored, in favour of a more liberal vision of our common human condition. The way power has worked to withhold many voices from the canon is held in secondary concern –indeed, if at all:

The classics from the past have been around for centuries, and have influenced countless authors who came later. If give our pupils a familiarity with these, they will have a richer understanding of any contemporary literature they choose to read. But when we are making the choice, we should be focusing on the older stuff. It’s just more important. “ Anthony Radice

There is a lack of respect for the symbolic resources of everyday common cultures. It is as if the canon of Great European Art allows access to a depth of feeling and wisdom unavailable from common culture. It is argued that we have restricted access to the canon for too long – however instead of consolidating the canon (a task which – as we shall see in part 2 – is really a redundant futility) we should work harder to promote discussion and understanding of the previously neglected powerful knowledge that comes from diverse groups of people and their experiences.

In everyday life we live with contradictory and often unresolved feelings and ideas about a wide range of issues and beliefs. We need an approach to understanding our experiences and judgments that is able to hold onto contradictions without necessarily resolving them – this is something the aesthetic is able to offer.

In believing the purpose of education should be to make us cleverer we restrict what counts as knowledge and ways of knowing. We need a view of language and knowledge that takes us from privileging the syntactic and discursive to acknowledging the importance of expression and feeling as part of the way we make sense of education and ourselves.

It is difficult to see how music makes you cleverer.   In this view of knowledge music makes no contribution to the purpose of education and would seem to be a distraction at best. This only follows if the conceptions of knowledge you have is one that is able to discount the importance of feelings, emotions and ignore an understanding of how life is enriched by the Arts. However, we all know those moments when listening to music we are somehow struck with a sense of beauty, sadness and joy that we cannot explain. The beauty, fragility and complexity of life are held in sharp relief in our aesthetic experiences.

In “Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy” Andrew Bowie argues that one of Adorno’s strengths (he has many idiosyncrasies) was in recognizing the arts fulfill a function that can’t be explained by conceptual reason. If we could explain the whole truth about art – through say philosophy or close criticism – we no longer need it. Indeed instead of marginalizing the arts because it does not improve our cognitive abilities we need to reclaim what Art tells us about the nature of cognition.

That art matters – despite the efforts to marginalize its importance – is without doubt.   It matters as it sheds light on who we are – it gives meaning in ways that no other way of being is able to. We do not spend a day without proclaiming how great this film was or how terrible that TV program was or how amazing these pieces of music are.

We cannot exhaustively describe Arts importance. The problem of Art highlights that any perspective that reduces things to the purely cognitive is not really a perspective that is going to shed much explanatory light on who we are and how we know. Andrew Bowie argues the constant desire to fix meaning and the nature of reality   – the desire to create an epistemological theory that gets to grips with reality – is really a symptom of the lack of use purely cognitive approaches hold for explaining our existence.

Art gives voice to what is not known, to the other, to the neglected and marginal – to things that might be. This is its power – it offers hope because it goes beyond “what is” and is able to articulate a sense of what might be. A profound aesthetic experience provides knowledge of a world beyond what we know. Art can shed light on experiences that have been previously neglected by the official and accepted discourses. Andrew Bowie argues that Adorno suggests the need to give suffering a voice is a condition of all truth. The aesthetic because it articulates a sense of the unknown is vital to a concept of reason – there are some things that lie outside of reasons grasp. The aesthetic is essential in holding reason to account. The lack of inherent objectivity means it can be a source of fresh insight – it is reminder that reason may not be able to fully aware of all aspects of experience. We need to focus on our blindness not our rightness.


Bowie shows that what we share is this sense that negotiating differences are rooted in our most fundamental responses to the world – this is the importance of the aesthetic.


The limits of objective rationality in schools are obvious. The audit culture is a well-known issue leading to many SLT devising lengthy and intricate quality assurance procedures valuing the quantitative over the qualitative. Learning is somehow separated out into separate components and then this learning is counted and measured. At the same time what cannot be counted is relegated to the realm of the subjective. For example these three blogs are really useful in exploring the limitations of books looks and highlighting the issues of quality assurrance:

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The bureaucratic standardization of practices in institutions can destroy patterns of trust and good-will developed in a particular context over time. These patterns are what enable people to make complex judgments involving factors which often can only be analytically separated at the expense of what constitutes their real substance.”   (Andrew Bowie)


However we see in the aesthetic a different kind of understanding. Adorno is at pains to point out that the aesthetic whilst involving the subjective – this subjectivity is grounded in a kind of objectivity due to its being a part of the wider ways in which we make sense of the world – a part of our shared cultural understanding.


In our music lessons we come across people every day who recognize the importance of the aesthetic – they are negotiating the differences and complexities of the world and trying to make sense of it. Young people have a great deal of investment in popular music – music that engages with the complexities and contradictions of modern life. Young people understand that knowledge of the world is not limited to what can be understood cognitively and recognize the importance of expression and feeling in music.

Our challenge as music teachers is to work with young people who are coming to grips with the aesthetic and allow them to work with models and songs that are beginning to speak to them. The challenge is to find ways to allow students: “to give suffering a voice.”

To recognize that in music we offer the chance for alternative stories and alternative visions of beauty. This can’t come from the canon – but as I argue in part two – popular music and our common cultural symbolic materials offer young people a chance to think through the contractions of life in ways that are more useful than attempts to revitalize and rejuvenate the classical canon.


As teachers we need to resist the claims that the purpose of education is to make you cleverer – if that means there is no place for contradiction, emotion, feelings and difference. Our understanding of the world is severely diminished without the aesthetic.