Being Musical… Being a Music Teacher…

March was a month of conferences for me, the most recent of which was a conference where I had been asked to speak about (amongst some number of other things) the benefits to music education of utilising the opportunities social media affords.

This did not go well.

I began by talking about the ways in which high school students use music rather expertly without the assistance of teachers, for:

  • identity formation;
  • communication (especially in regard to emotion);
  • making sense of, or organising emotional experience;
  • organising executive function;

and I went on to assert that these four uses of music are more fundamental to human musical experience than are the ‘performance’ / ‘composition’ / ‘analysis’ modes of musical experience dictated by the curriculum; that it is a kind of concert hall-think that permits us to structure music education in the 21st century primarily in regard to such a narrow set of musical experiences (performing, composing, analysing) and to blithely ignore the rest.

In retrospect I think this, long before a mention of facebook (which was poorly received, needless to say), was where I lost most of my audience.

Once upon a time school music education was assessed by theory exams, harmony exercises and essays about music history; it was a triumph of some considerable magnitude when music educators succeeded in prioritising the performance of music in school music marking systems, a triumph that many still feel great pride in having helped to achieve.

So it was completely naive for me to waltz in and start talking about the function of music in the formation of identity or in the organisation of executive function and to fail to attempt to connect the dots from what is still perceived in classroom music education as a recent breakthrough of transformational proportions, let alone to acknowledge the history that was/is within the professional lifetimes of half the members of my audience.

I very much suspect that this first section of my presentation was apprehended as a babbling prologue to the real business of my presentation (talking about social media). This was a terrible pity, because the value social media might have for you and your students will change, vastly, depending on what you think your job as a music educator might be.

Surely we all believe that we are training musicians? And if we all think we are training musicians then surely the main game is teaching students to play musical instruments, no?

Well, no.

Before the instrument comes musical thinking. And musical thinking is exactly what is going on when kids choose one style of music to listen to, and to share with their friends, rather than another style; any act of selecting music to accompany life is an act of musical thinking. In fact, in the 21st century musical thinking is what we use to make it through the day: from choosing a ringtone to understanding the plot cues a soundtrack signals in a film or a piece of TV pseudo-journalism or advertising.

Everyone is musical these days in ways we could not have imagined in the 80s when teachers were fighting for instrumental performance to be included in the curriculum.

And if you, as a music educator, don’t acknowledge how musical the world has become, how underscored our lived experience is, how imbued with musical fragment, rhythmic motif, decontextualised timbres and insistent tone colours our days now are, you have no idea what you are doing.

You know what you were doing, back in the day. Back when intervals were learned with reference to song openings and modes were taught via medieval folk tunes. Back when a backbeat was still quietly considered to lead to promiscuity and chromaticism was widely believed to be to blame for political upheaval.

But in the age of YouTube, GarageBand, SoundCloud, Spotify, facebook shares and twitter retweets, you haven’t got a clue. Not if you think that being musical can be measured by how well someone plays an orchestral instrument. Or how well they write an 8-bar tune.

So…. if everyone is already engaging in musical thinking, what is the music teacher for?, I imagine you’re asking (possibly with a disapproving facial gesture and a bit of an eyeroll).

The music teacher is there to structure experiences that lead to more nuanced musical thinking, more informed musical thinking, more conscious musical thinking, more creative musical thinking. (Feel free to keep adding to this list – it is by no means intended to be comprehensive!). The music teacher is there to help students develop critical thinking skills in relation to their musical experiences; to build a vocabulary for the many experiences that students have no words to describe; to build a fluency in musical reasoning and an understanding of the musical narratives that have built the range of musical experiences the 21st century has to offer.

But we can’t even begin to be that kind of music teacher if we think that music education is about delivering performances, compositions and analyses. These are just not appropriate means of assessing what it is to have a good musical education anymore.

And I wish I’d spent the whole session exploring that. The first mention of facebook brought outbursts and outrage (it’s the end of PRIVACY, don’t you know?!), and there’s no purpose to exploring the opportunities social media brings as long as educators believe that their job is about cultivating and assessing 19th century ways of being musical (performance, composition, analysis).

To be continued…

A small rant about diagrammatic illiteracy in the Arts Curriculum draft document

This has been my longest ever break in blogging since I began nearly three years ago. Family matters have been very pressing, and I ended up shutting down all my projects until things were on a more even keel.

During this time, however, I’ve either tried or wanted to blog about any number of things: the Steve Reich retrospective held at the Sydney Opera House at the end of April, the value of learning the melodic minor scale, background information on my piece Vendetta which is currently on the Trinity Guildhall Grade 5 piano syllabus, a post on how I’ve let a student down by not teaching her to read chord charts before now, a review of the Nico Muhly/Sufjan Stevens/Bryce Dressner collaboration “Planetarium” as performed here in Sydney at the end of May, a Top 5 Things Parents Need to Know Once Their Child Starts Taking Piano Lessons list, as well as a discussion of the value and challenge of playing on the black keys in the very first lessons, a discussion of the new-look and hopelessly fuddy-duddy Limelight magazine, and looking at piano lessons through the lens of gifted education.

But I have a new topic to add to the blog-post-wish-list: the latest Arts Curriculum draft document from ACARA. About 18 months ago I blogged (relentlessly) about the buried misconceptions about music education in the previous draft document, and I’ve taken a quick look at this new draft and felt my spirits sink as I see a whole new batch of blind spots, insufficiencies and outmoded assumptions.

For now, however, let me simply draw your attention to Figure 1 on page 5. This is a diagram of such woeful conception that it calls into question the general literacy of the authors of the draft. I know it’s a tad old-fashioned of me, but I do expect that educators understand basic concepts as what a Venn diagram is for and when not to use one. The most generous interpretation I can put on the inclusion of this poorly conceived figure is that the writers of the curriculum have just discovered the possibilities of SmartArt in their Word program. Which begs many questions about their capacity to author the Media Arts section of the curriculum document.

But, you know, if it’s good enough for a US presidential candidate, right?

Is the Study of Piano Declining in the United States of America?

This topic in the Tuesday afternoon line-up of MTNA Conference presentations seemed almost arcane on the page of the conference booklet, especially by way of comparison to other topics with immediate practical application in the 30 minute piano lesson. And the question seemed one of those asked-and-answered types: is the study of piano in decline? Hell, yeah. Who doesn’t know that, right?

But I’m an arcane-topic kind of chick, so I bounded with enthusiasm into this panel presentation-discussion. It was already impressive just checking out who was in the panel: Peter Jutras, who is the editor of the wonderful Clavier Companion; E.L. Lancaster, who is both Vice President and Keyboard-Editor-in-Chief of Alfred Publishing; Brian Chung, Vice President of the Kawai Corporation; Gary Ingle, CEO of MTNA; Mike Bates, Senior Member of the Institutional Solutions Group, Keyboard Division, Yamaha Corporation of America; and Sharon Girard, NCTM, a private piano teacher since 1976 in Connecticut.

To begin: college-level study (and beyond). The raw number of students taking piano as their major for the undergraduate degrees in the United States has increased significantly over the past twenty years (roughly a 25% increase), numbers for masters have increased slightly (currently around the 1000 mark)  and numbers of students enrolled in doctoral programs with a piano major have increased astronomically (currently around 1000, up from only about 400 less than ten years ago). But these raw figures don’t tell the complete story. More and more piano majors (all levels) are international students (so these figures don’t reflect piano learning activity in the US in any case); there are more options for students to choose from when selecting their music major (so students who might previously have taken piano are now specialising in some other aspect of music); there are more students studying music (so the proportion of students piano majors  in comparison to the entire student population cannot be inferred from the raw data).

What are piano teachers in the suburbs, cities and small towns noticing? An increase in adult students and in very young beginners (4 and 5 year olds) and a sharp decline in beginners aged 9 and 10. The GFC seems to have had a pronounced (negative) impact on enrollments, but further to this there seems to be a decline in the value parents in 2012 ascribe to piano lessons in the broad education of their children. From my Australian perspective I was also fascinated to learn that school teachers are drivers of enrollments in piano lessons! In Australia school teachers have absolutely no impact on the propensity of a child to begin lessons – and if anything, their neutral impact skews slightly negative. But in the US many children learn band instruments through the school, and so children can still have an instrumental education without taking private piano lessons. Apparently it’s the band teachers who promote piano to some large degree, and when those teachers don’t encourage piano lesson enrollment a sharp decline can be seen.

Next: sales of educational and classical print music. These sales have declined since 2006, but only slightly (4%), and it’s hard to see that as anything other than a ripple-on effect of the GFC. The breakdown of print music sales in the US works out at something like 19% Classical Music, 19% Christian Music and 13% piano methods, with the bulk of the remainder being taken up by pop titles. This proportion appears to have held steady. In any case, print music sales are a poor indicator of piano study, because younger siblings often use the print music older siblings used before them, and it’s entirely possible that in a climate of financial restraint parents are more likely to seek these kinds of economies.

We move on to sales of instruments: grand pianos, uprights, digital pianos and keyboards. There has been a massive decline in sales of grand pianos since 2005 – down from 35,000 then to around 12,000 now. Seeing as most new grand pianos are purchased by institutions and very rich people it’s possible to infer that the rich people are being careful and the institutions have had their budgets slashed – neither of which reflects on the current number of piano students in the US. It’s when we get to the other categories that we see some interesting trends. Upright acoustic piano sales are also consistently down, as are sales of digital pianos. The category that is doing just fine (although not increasing, particularly) is the under $200 keyboard. These instruments are purchased by parents who want to invest the bare minimum to afford their children access to music education, with the intention to trade up if their child demonstrates prolonged interest and/or aptitude. In the US roughly 1,000,000 units of this kind of keyboard has been sold every year for the past decade. Do the instruments live in the back of cupboards? Who knows! This statistic is as enigmatic as the numbers on grand piano sales in terms of establishing a trend of piano study decline in the United States (although it potentially reflects an opportunity).

Meantime, the percentage of MTNA members who teach the piano has been increasing. Again, this fact doesn’t really tell us anything: are memberships of MTNA in decline or are they increasing? Has there been a recent trend of the teachers of particular instrument families to not sign up to the Music Teachers Associations? Has the MTNA been catering very well for piano teachers of late, and dropping the ball as regards the other instruments?

One comment was made by a panelist that I found very interesting: “we live in a culture of deflection and distraction”, a comment intended to speak to a broad trend away from educational practice that engaged students in critical thinking and practical skill acquisition. I tend to take the view that gaming cultures are educationally preferable (in so very many ways) to traditional classroom practices, and I further take the view that learning the piano is much more like a game than it is like a traditional school classroom learning experience. But I suspect this comment reflects some things that are particularly true not of Western culture but of American culture.

Comments were opened to the audience, and one emerging theme (reflecting comments also made by panellists) was the tension between sport and piano in the broad culture of childhood in the US – this idea that you either play soccer or you learn the piano, the idea that promising students find themselves pressured into team sport participation that then compromises their musical education, and so forth. Implicit in this theme was the notion that parents these days just don’t get what piano lessons are for (as touched on above), that soccer and team sports are widely seen to provide benefits for children while piano lessons do not.

Another theme (again, reflecting comments already made by panelists) was that piano teachers are not very marketing savvy, and that they are not very technology savvy. Sometimes these two lacks merge into one big piano teacher fail, with piano teachers not taking advantage of the internet to reinforce community awareness of their services and not taking advantage of social media to communicate with current and prospective students. There was an implicit sense that piano teachers do not look at their teaching as being a business (much in this theme was not unpacked, but, I think, broadly understood by the audience).

A third theme was that piano teachers are often quite rigid in their idea about what they do; instead of looking at their available skill set and thinking about a range of services they can provide to the community, teachers imagine that their real job is to provide the same kind of piano lessons as those they received, last century. Some comments from the floor detailed the wide ranging activities some exception-to-the-rule teachers engage in in order to have a solid business model.

In short, I felt as if this session were the first two pages of an introduction to a 350 page book on the topic; we just began to frame the conversation when it came to an end. And as fascinating as what was said was what was not. What about socio-economics? Are there some parts of the United States where piano study is thriving? Some cities that are doing significantly better than others? [I can't imagine piano lessons are as common as they used to be in Detroit, for example.] Are language issues an impediment to piano study? [The paucity of Spanish-language piano methods, for instance, as compared to Spanish-speaking population in the US surely indicates a swathe of the population disengaged from piano study.] How about the decline of the use of the acoustic piano in churches and other worship settings? [Once upon a time many not-wealthy churches would have a good, mid-range grand piano in addition to an organ.]

The panel mentioned the rise of online, do-it-yourself-by-watching-videos-and-buying-the-book piano study, and this touches on another aspect of this topic. It could be that piano/keyboard study by volume has seen no significant decline, but there’s every chance that the national pianistic skill set is in decline.

It’s a fascinating time in the United States, a time of substantial cultural reframing and contention. The study of the piano could well be a case study for this rethinking of what it means to be an American with an education (even if you never did make it to college)….

Teaching v Learning in the Piano Lesson [Part I]

One of the biggest privileges of being a piano teacher is the opportunity to become a consistent part of a student’s life. Each school week for maybe even a decade or longer the piano teacher and the piano student have time one-on-one (more or less) to explore musical puzzles, pianistic tricks, and challenges both physical and imaginative.

This is not a relationship in the knowledge-transmission model (where the teacher pours knowledge into student until student is all full up) but rather a relationship that is built on the teacher tweaking the learning experience to match the interests and accomplishments of the student. This teacher-student relationship is usually nurturing and supportive, in the sense of helping the student achieve their musical/pianistic goals and ambitions and substantially beyond. Piano teachers get to notice things about their students that can be missed in the hurly-burly of classroom activity, and piano teachers participate in building a sense of achievement in students who might otherwise never feel as if they shine….

So piano teachers are in a tremendous position to work with students who fall outside the bell curve; teaching can be modified to fit the precise needs of the student and without a class of other students to manage the teacher can organise the learning process to be perfectly timed for the individual student.

That’s the theory.

In real life, as always, it’s more complicated. And the number one thing that gets in the way of this perfectly customised learning experience is the idea (held by both parents and teachers) that the job of the teacher is to teach.

The job of the teacher is in fact not to teach but to help the student learn. And there is a massive difference between the role of ‘teaching’ and the role of ‘facilitating learning’.

When you think your job is to teach you begin with a list of all the things you want to ‘teach’ to your student, a catalogue of the things they should know or be able to do by the time you are done with them. Piano teachers who work in exam cultures (half the planet, at least) even have this big list of all the things you want to teach broken down into examinable chunks (“Last year you learned D Major? OK, this year we’ll work on E flat…”, etc.). Things that aren’t on that list are deemed either of secondary or of no importance (particularly once students start taking annual exams).

But when you begin with the idea of facilitating learning you begin with a desire to discover what makes your student tick, what intrigues them, what doesn’t, what they yearn to master, what they hanker to understand. You also, over time, begin to understand how the student sees themselves in relation to their family, their school and classmates, in relation to their future (and their past), and in relation to their culture (and this might be simple through to extremely complicated). These understandings then feed into your understanding of what drives their learning, and you can better facilitate learning.

You still have a checklist in relation to skills, vocabulary, literacy, experience, recognition, and so forth, but this list is always at the service of maximising learning, rather than the learning experience of the student serving you as you, the teacher, work your way through that checklist.

Let’s make up some examples: a very intelligent but not very socially mature 8 year old who has been learning for about a year suddenly decides to figure out how to play every single major and harmonic minor scale – all 24 of them. If you are tied to your piano teacher checklists you’ll be thinking to yourself ‘You don’t need all these scales for years yet!! Why don’t we just keep learning the pieces in your method book and we’ll come back to these scales when you’re ready?!’.

You can see the problem here plain as day: the student is ready to learn how to play all these scales – in fact, they’ve basically mastered them all just for fun while you weren’t watching! It’s not that they are not ready to learn – it’s that you are not ready to teach. Yep, this is the moment where you can choose to make the piano lesson all about you, or all about your student. Your call.

Another example: you have a 12-year-old student with a sunny disposition, learning for 4 years already, they’ve done a Preliminary exam at the end of the previous year, just started high school (Australia), they have no particular academic gifts, but they love playing the piano, and they’ve just returned after the school holidays with nine piano pieces they’ve composed since the last lesson 8 weeks ago. They begin to show you their (not-so-well notated) compositions as the minutes of the lesson begin to click over. You know how hard it was to get through that Preliminary exam at the end of last year, and you don’t want to waste a term working on ‘composing’ (which truth be told you don’t feel that comfortable dealing with) because you’d like them to do well in their Grade One exam at the end of the school year.

This is the moment where you can make the lesson all about your checklist (getting the student ready for Grade One) or you can make the lesson all about the student’s musical experiences (and learning) over the holidays. Is it going to be about them? Or about you?

Of course, there’s always that 5-15% of students who appear to have no interest in learning whatsoever, the kind who ask “Do we have to do this?”. The challenge here for teachers is how to tempt students into having a more robust appetite for learning without falling into the trap of creating new kinds of checklists (what kinds of learning the student should want to engage in). I really do regard these children (adults just don’t have this problem, in my experience) as being ‘learning anorexic’ – for some reason they feel it’s a Good Thing to restrict their learning experiences and opportunities, and it’s really, really hard to convince them otherwise.

I’ve been becoming more and more hardline on this issue the more experienced I’ve become in my teaching: once upon a time I really would have insisted on students struggling through a piece for some number of weeks rather than ‘give in’ to the student and just move on to a new piece of repertoire; once upon a time I would have politely listened to a student enthuse about this great new piece they’d discovered that they’d been trying to learn to play, and then after no more than 10 minutes (probably 4) I’d have steered the lesson back to the repertoire I had assigned; once upon a time I’d have left activities generally deemed to be ‘creative’ til the end of the lesson because we had to get the ‘real’ work done first. But all these once-upon-a-times represent woeful educational practice, and I’m ashamed of every single example of this in my teaching history.

Then we have the rare 1-4% who love to learn things in the order we plan to teach things, who practice regularly and consistently for their entire learning lives, who explore new kinds of learning in their own time, but prepare for lessons so well that we can fit nearly everything into 45 minute lessons each week, and whose parents are keen for them to have extra lessons as their learning requires. And I think (deep down in  a little part of our hearts) we piano teachers think that in an ideal world the other 96-99% of our students would just morph into this kind of  a student.

But we only think that because we (deep down in our hearts) believe our focus should be on our teaching, not on the student’s learning.

As soon as we shift into a learning-centric focus the fun of the piano lesson becomes all about connecting with our students, with their unique gifts, challenges, contexts and needs.

And all those lists of requirements, prerequisites and checklists begin to gather a little more dust each week as we work to meet the evolving and unfolding learning needs of our students.

Music and Mathematics Part 1

The past year or so seems to have hosted a steady trickle of articles, blog posts and public debates about the connection (or, more usually, the lack thereof) between music and maths.

Discussions involving mathematics bring on a sense of alienation/torpor to many in the general public, but I’m one of those who find mathematical thinking exciting, exacting, exhilarating. And as music is (really quite literally) on my mind all the time, I am deeply interested in the assertions of others regarding the links (or lack thereof) between these two (musical and mathematical) aspects of organisational thought and expression.

It turns out that many of those who spend time disputing the existence of links between music and mathematics go on to reveal that they were never that good at maths. In fact, they confess that they’ve failed key mathematical assessments throughout their schooling. What they don’t acknowledge is that they have a vested interest in denying connections between mathematical and musical thinking, and no one seems to think it worth mentioning that someone who is no good at maths probably won’t have a very nuanced idea as to what mathematics actually is [and therefore is probably not best equipped to detail how unconnected music and maths might be].

Along these lines, if you think that mathematics is just a fancy word for “counting” the argument will go something like this: maths and music are linked because in music you do counting (of beats and intervals). That’s it. As soon as we notice that music is more than counting (either beats or intervals) it’s no great stretch to be convinced the hoopla about maths and music having all that much in common must be based on a trite understanding of what music is.

The problem is that the trite understanding isn’t of music so much as it is of mathematics. Mathematical thinking does involve quantity (which concept does involve, amongst many other things, “counting”), but it also necessarily involves spatial thinking/awareness as well as pattern recognition, two substantial non-counting aspects of how to think in and about the world.

But even within the confines of “quantity” we find ourselves in a world of relationship: “this is bigger than that” might not sound particularly profound, but a lot about our experience of music can be described within this single concept of quantity. No matter which way we hear it, louder, longer, faster, further, more (and their corresponding softer, shorter, slower, closer, less) describe nearly everything that can happen in music.

Stephen Hough makes a quite convincing case that it is the ambiguities of music that make it wildly different to mathematics, that mathematics is about stasis and containment while music is about flow and escape. But this argument only convincing as long as you buy into its proposed divide before you debate the possible connections; if you see pattern as being the apparatus through which emotion/heart is experienced (and expressed) in music, then a head/heart divide doesn’t make much sense, for example. And where Stephen Hough’s sees the experience of rhythmic ‘irregularity’ as taking music away from any connection or analogy with mathematics, I suspect a mathematician might immediately think of prime numbers, and other ‘irregular’ or singular mathematical entities.  And the notion of ‘unexpected’ reflects pattern-spotting competencies and experientially or culturally based perceptual expectations rather than anything intrinsically structural. Saying that music is nothing like maths because it includes unexpected developments is like saying a list of numbers is not mathematical simply because you can’t figure out (or predict) the next number in the sequence.

Say we were to ask ourselves what links between music and mathematics we could find, rather than the ways in which we could refute possible links, I think we would quickly establish that playing a musical instrument involves an exceptional degree of mathematical thinking. From spatial thinking (up, down, high, low, near, far, close, beside, under, above, and all manner of prepositional variations of ways we map and describe spatial relationships) through to fractional thinking (subdividing) through to symbolic representation of relationship, shape and direction and garden-variety counting: even when a musician is completely focussed on an emotional journey or an artistic truth, the expression of that journey and truth can take place without the aid of mathematical thinking.

So how do a significant number of musicians manage to persuade themselves that their music has no relationship to mathematics (if we accept that the two are deeply linked)? My first instinct and considered judgment is to blame it on poor mathematics education in primary and early secondary schools; if you don’t understand what maths is then you are unlikely to credit it as being much use or relevance to the things that define your identity.

I’ve been fascinated to learn this week that the mathematical knowledge that a preschooler brings to their first year of primary schooling is by far the strongest “predictor of a host of social-emotional skills” (see Early Childhood Mathematics Education Research: learning trajectories for young children, p.6).

I mean, wow.

I’ve not explored the research or analysis of that finding (what is it about early acquisition of mathematical skills and concepts that facilitates enhanced social and emotional skills?, is this a causal or a casual link?, etc.), but the idea that mathematical skillfulness has emotional and social benefits surely challenges every cliché that exists in the western educational model about maths and the limits of its purpose in education.

So far I am deeply persuaded that music and mathematics have complex connections, overlaps, correspondences and links, and the fact that we debate the existence of those links is mostly a sign of how little western culture understands what mathematics is.

To be continued….

Issues emerging from Richard Gill’s TEDxSYDNEY talk

A summary of the issues, as compared to the exploration of the talk itself.

1. The need for a definition of ‘properly taught music’ if this is to be put forward as a “right of every child in every circumstance”.

Richard Gill gave anecdotal examples of music education experiences he has facilitated, but his talk did not outline what he believed ‘properly taught music’ would look like in the classrooms of the future. Does it involve individualised instrumental tuition for every student? Does it involve every child in Australia learning to read music notation? Does it involve students developing a social understanding of music, studying it as another ‘text’ that is presented to them in 21st century life? And Richard Gill was keen on singing – how does that fit in? Is group performance important for every child too? And what about composing music and writing songs?

2. An urgent need to recognise that asserting the intrinsic meaningless of music is not a winning strategy for music education advocacy. 

I can’t really figure out why it was popular to assert that music didn’t mean anything, but really, people, we know music communicates emotional meaning and identity meaning as well as changing our perception of time. And that’s why it’s good to learn and to learn about!

3. The need for music educators to understand how music works as a meaning-making process.

If music teachers have no awareness of music as an act of communication then it is unlikely that they will be providing particularly insightful music education. This really is a litmus test for all music teachers – if you don’t understand that music is for communication then get out of the profession.

4. The need for music educators to recognise the depth and breadth of musical experience that students bring into the classroom prior to formal music classes.

This, rather than thinking that “the child’s first aural experience” takes place in the classroom. The classroom is the extension of the child’s experience, not the other way around.

5. The need for music educators to mobilise and facilitate the transformative power of music in the lives of every student.

Music classes that don’t have as their foundation this transformative power of music are merely babysitting sessions, not music education. Music education should always be creating opportunities for students to understand themselves, their communities and their world a little better.

Are there other issues that struck you while watching Richard Gill’s TEDxSYDNEY talk?

Richard Gill at TEDxSYDNEY 2011

Warning: this post is a detailed analysis that goes for nearly 5000 words. Excerpts from this analysis – covering specific issues in advocating for music education and in talking about how music works – will be posted in the blog separately over the next few days, but this analysis is included here in full for those who might be interested in reading it in its entirety.

TEDxSYDNEY is had its second outing this last weekend, and I was rather late to the party. The Sydney Morning Herald guide to TEDxSYDNEY the day or two before was my first notice that it was on. Glancing through the lineup of speakers I was thrilled to see that Richard Gill was featured in the second session of the day.

Richard Gill is a champion of music education in Australia, and he is a voice of reason in many a public debate about the arts. Richard Gill’s contributions to musical life in Australia range from leading the Victorian Opera as well as conducting and commissioning new works all the way through to working in classrooms with young children. He is much respected and, I think it is no exaggeration to say, beloved! His inclusion as a speaker at TEDxSYDNEY 2011 was both a no-brainer and a great surprise.

And this was his presentation:

The crowd loved it, and the response on twitter was fanatical! Richard Gill’s talk was universally acclaimed as one of the stand-out moments of the TEDxSYDNEY 2011 day.

So I felt a mixture of disloyalty and dismay to respond quite differently. My first reaction was one of immense disappointment; I felt that this amazing opportunity to instigate a change in the way people perceive the value of music education had been wasted, that the argument was not persuasively put.

Yet, since Twitter was thick with rave reviews, and the YouTube feed had a steady and exuberant stream of Richard Gill fan mail, ‘wasted opportunity’ seemed to be a substantial misreading of the situation. And people were saying to each other “music education is important”. Even if they couldn’t articulate why, for this week anyway everyone who saw this presentation has/had been persuaded.

The thing is I’m certain that after a week or so this idea worth spreading (that music education is important) will have stopped spreading. And that’s because Richard Gill’s talk was really a series of motherhood statements about music (and about children) juxtaposed with a selection of amusing anecdotes from the classroom. More than this, it was a description of how music education has been delivered in the past rather than a vision for what music education could become in the future.

It’s not fair to transcribe a live presentation and deconstruct it as if it were an essay – a great live presentation will be responsive to the audience, and a degree of non sequitur is discursively tolerable (even welcome) so long as the speaker does not deviate from his/her subject too far (or for too long).

But this proviso (that spoken presentations engage an audience in ways that are hard to communicate through a transcription) does not put a talk or lecture beyond analysis or critique. And with the greatest respect to both the audience who loved his presentation and to Richard Gill himself, who is an ongoing inspiration in engaging audiences with music, I want to analyse exactly what it was that Richard Gill put to us at TEDxSYDNEY this last weekend and to explore the implications of these statements and then the underlying view of the world and of music that buttresses these statements.

The main ‘idea worth spreading’ in Richard Gill’s talk was presented early: “Every child, I believe, should have access to properly taught music in the hands of a properly taught teacher.” And that “all of that creativity you saw on the stage today is the right of every child no matter where and no matter what the circumstance.”

My first quibble is whether this is actually an idea at all, because to me it sounds more like an assertion that could be as easily applied to any other subject as it is to music education (“Every child, I believe, should have access to properly taught woodwork/biology/algebra/Mandarin/cake-making in the hands of a properly taught teacher.”). And I’m not sure that the guy who believes that every child should have access to properly taught woodwork is going to get a look-in at next year’s TEDxSYDNEY.

So Richard Gill’s task at this point was to persuade us that access to properly taught music is of particular value, an especial case that makes this idea worthy first of examination and then of a commitment to its realisation. Other angles on his assertion really didn’t need exploring; no one is going to be so undemocratic as to argue that only well-off children should have access to properly taught subjects, even if in the case of music that is currently the status quo as a rule (and with some exceptions); no one is going to argue that children ought to be improperly taught any subject at all, and everyone hopes/assumes that all teaching is been done by properly taught teachers.

As it turns out these ‘unarguable’ aspects of Richard Gill’s idea worth spreading are actually the most challenging to current educational practice, where music is extremely poorly taught in most schools and done so by teachers who will be the first to tell you they have had inadequate to nil training in teaching music.

In a way Richard Gill’s idea worth spreading was that in Australia we should no longer accept generalist teaching for all subjects in primary schools, for that is absolutely the content of his message; but this core component of his idea was left undeveloped in his short talk.

So, on to Richard Gill’s task of persuading us that music, properly taught by properly trained teachers, ought to be part of every child’s education. He began by stating that “when the musical imagination is ignited in a group circumstance we have the most extraordinary power to change lives with music and to involve people with music” but then did not go on to provide examples of how lives have been changed with music. He also did not bother to explain why an individual circumstance might not lead to powerful change once the musical imagination is ignited without the presence of others, even though his statement seemed to exclude individual imaginative engagement with music as part of the transformative benefits music can provide.

His next statement, again without evidence or direct anecdote, was that “it should start with very, very, very young children – not teenagers”. This statement borders on a motherhood statement (what monster or moron would deny music to very, very, very young children?), but regardless of its apparent self-evidence this statement needs back-up if monumental change in the delivery of education in Australia is going to be achieved. Why should it not start with teenagers? Don’t we know that music education can be transformative for adolescents who find themselves at odds with their families and their communities? Don Spencer’s Australian Children’s Music Foundation (for example) will provide example after example of teenagers who have found their way through music; amazing, real, contemporary stories of kids in detention centres and in Australia’s least resourced communities whose lives take on a sense of purpose once they have the chance to make their own music and whose ability to communicate with their peers and their families is transformed once making music is part of their everyday life.

Richard Gill really made no case for why we shouldn’t leave it til adolescence to introduce music making to children. Instead he began to explain to us how music education (presumably in the hands of a properly trained teacher) actually works. “With children we begin with imitation – the most powerful way of teaching.” And he went on to ask the audience to sing back a phrase that he had just sung. “When you do that with children you’re engaging them in their first aural experience – they need to listen and as a result of the listening they repeat. And it requires focus…. And with children the idea that repetition and putting them into the circumstance of offering ideas is vital.”

Well, for starters, if being asked to sing back a melodic fragment in a classroom is a child’s first aural experience then the health system is letting down the kids of Australia rather badly. Because it beggars belief to think that a mother who never sings to her child also has no access to a radio, television, mp3 player, CD player, cassette tape player, the internet, the movies, DVDs, never takes her child into shopping centres or other public venues where music (OK, muzak) is played and never has spent any time in any one else’s home where recorded music of any kind has been present. The only possible reason that a classroom singing exercise would be a child’s first aural experience is if they just had a cochlear implant and decided that this was the moment to switch it on.

Much more accurately, when a teacher asks students to sing back a phrase they might be engaging the child in their first ever formal music learning experience, but the child is bringing into this classroom/learning environment four or five years of intense listening and an immense repertoire of songs and musical listening experiences.

If we look at the constituent parts of this aural experience that Richard Gill describes (the children need to listen + they repeat) it’s clear that any child who has learned to talk has been having aural experiences for some years prior to this classroom activity. “It requires focus” is true of everything a child does for the first three years of their lives, whether it’s feeding, crawling, learning to bring their fingers to their mouths or pulling up a zip. Focus is not so much what is needed in early childhood as it is its modus operandi.

Possibly the major challenge of the education system is to bring that focus to the subjects it wishes children to focus on, and I think that what Richard Gill was getting at (ever so obliquely) here is that children naturally do focus – they do engage that attentiveness that is so vital for learning anything – when musical activity is involved. This (that music delivers focus and engagement) is a massive reason why music should be integrated into all early learning experiences – and this goes far beyond Richard Gill’s quite modest idea of every child having access to properly taught music by properly trained teachers.

The last sentence I quoted above (“And with children the idea that repetition and putting them into the circumstance of offering ideas is vital”) was made with no supporting evidence or anecdote as to why it might be vital to put students into the circumstance of offering ideas or to engage them in repetition. Is it vital for the student? Is it vital for the future of their education? Is it vital for classroom management? What?

Richard Gill’s next point did come with some support, however, in the form of three pieces of music that referenced the idea of ‘night’. That point was that “Music is important for the following reasons: It is abstract. It doesn’t mean anything outside itself. So when we play a sound you can interpret that sound as you wish.”

Having said this Richard played a teensy excerpt from Clair de Lune, A Little Night Music and the Moonlight Sonata. These were evidence that the music had nothing to do with the night, and therefore proved his point. Only his point wasn’t that music was abstract, but rather that music’s not meaning anything outside itself was why it was important.

These musical excerpts did nothing to bolster that particular claim, and I would also argue they didn’t even prove that music is abstract.

Hell, let’s lose the subjunctive – I will now argue that these musical excerpts do not prove that music is abstract. Firstly, it was a false premise to say they are ‘about’ night. Two of the works are not about night at all, they are about the light of the moon, and that’s a far more specific thing to be about than simply the part of the day when you can’t see the sun, and then we should note that Beethoven’s sonata didn’t get called “The Moonlight Sonata” til 31 years after it was composed, and then not by the composer (who had already been deceased for five years). So we have a work by Mozart designed to be played as music at an evening social function, a sonata by Beethoven designed to communicate the longing of unrequited love, and a piece by Debussy designed to depict the light of the moon in music in an analogous manner to the impressionist (non-realist) painters who were his contemporaries.

If you want to say that these three works all are ‘about’ night and then play three different sounding works to prove that they are not about night at all (when none of them actually are about night) then that’s fine so long as you are presenting to an audience with limited musical knowledge/powers of logic. What the Moonlight Sonata is about is longing, longing that will never be fulfilled. What A Little Night Music is about is small talk, flirting and having a pleasant night out. What Clair de Lune is about is the elusive and recurrent nature of moonlight. But we can’t ‘hear’ these examples as evidence of abstraction because each one of them has been used in so many other contexts that we hear them not as signifiers but as symbols – maybe as symbols for a motor vehicle the music has advertised, maybe as symbols of a particular approach to love, but none-the-less they come so loaded with meaning that we cannot possibly hear this particular music as meaning nothing.

Richard Gill’s real point – that music’s abstraction renders it important in a child’s education – did get another look in when he said “in each person that sort of music, any music, will evoke a different response” and “music opens up the mind of a child in an extraordinary way”. These are both comments alluding to the openness of musical texts to meaning: music that reminds you of happy times might bring tears to the eyes of someone else; music that makes you think of elephants might make someone else think of economics.

But this is a somewhat dated way of thinking about meaning, and it’s not over-controversial these days to look at any text as possessing considerable openness, and this is a change from the days when authorial intent was not just a small part but rather the main focus of the study of works of aesthetic consideration. Roland Barthes’s acknowledgement that the author is pretty much the least of our worries (that is, that the author is dead) was the moment the argument that musical texts hold a privileged space due to their semiotic malleability lost its currency.

Even if these new ideas about how meaning is made and how meaning comes to be made were not part and parcel of contemporary thinking, Richard Gill’s point still fails: whether you can second-guess the composer’s idea of what the music is about is not the proof of the value of music in the education system, and it’s also not the proof that music is abstract. In The Carnival of the Animals Saint-Saens is superficially writing about a swan and elephants and so forth, but in each case his real subject is the qualities of these creatures in our imaginations – so The Swan is about gliding and about grace and about the appearance of effortlessness, while the elephants in the carnival are about heaviness and about humour, and the music for both these well-known works references cultural loadings Europe has given to the meaning of these creatures.

So maybe in arguing this I am supporting the idea that music is abstract, in the sense that qualities and words that have –ness as their suffix are not concrete. But I am certainly not supporting the idea, Richard Gill’s assertion, that music doesn’t mean anything outside itself. If music truly did not mean anything outside itself then it would have absolutely no value in the curriculum; arguing that something utterly self-referential is the right of every child in every circumstance seems completely daft if you don’t know that you’re talking about music. And that’s because we all know how deeply meaningful music is, and we might accept as a philosophical conceit that music doesn’t mean anything other than itself, but none of us take it seriously for a moment.

I suspect that Richard Gill is mistaking one part of the semiotic process for the other, and I’m going to refer to de Saussure’s ideas about how a word works by way of explanation.

De Saussure revolutionised thinking about language when he broke words down into different functions: he described a word as a sign made up of a signifier and signified. The signifier might be the sound “tree”, but what that sound signifies will alter depending on which language you are speaking. In other words, the sounds don’t mean anything outside themselves – the speaker and the listener bring their own arbitrary (but, if they speak the same language, shared) meanings to the sound “tree”. So just because a German speaker doesn’t think of branches and leaves and a trunk when they hear the sound “tree” doesn’t imply that the sound “tree” is without meaning beyond itself. Context (language being spoken, position in a sentence, accent of the speaker, etc.) will modify the possible meanings the listener attributes to the sound “tree”, but that doesn’t mean that the sound lacks meaning beyond its own expression.

Richard Gill demonstrated individual pitches on a keyboard to support his assertion that music was abstract. He played a sequence of single notes not belonging to the same scale pattern and without any rhythmic or dynamic shaping. This is the equivalent to proving that language has no meaning beyond itself by pronouncing phonemes like “ffff” “ga” “sss” “ch” and then saying “see?”, and to me it was a proof that he had not thought through how it is that music creates meaning, how it is combination that creates the opportunity for meaning to be communicated in language as in music as in art as in anything, how context renders everything comprehensible, and without considering the fundamental meaningfulness of timbre (amongst a host of musical meaning-making dimensions).

A big reason why music education is vital for children is because music is the most direct means of emotional, qualitative, connecting communication humans have ever developed. Music can make a room full of people burst out laughing and it can bring a room full of people to tears, music changes our perception of time – and there’s no magic in it at all if you know how music creates and communicates those meanings. And that’s because it isn’t magic – it’s music! It feels like magic, but so does literacy to a tribe without it (and let’s be honest, so does a microwave to the tribes of us with them). Stuff we don’t understand feels like magic. Finding out how stuff works is a major part of the miracle of education, whether it’s learning the rules of a team sport, how to divide multiple digit numbers, or what photosynthesis is. And if we are going to argue for music education then we need to argue that it’s important to find out how music works, how it accomplishes its acts of communication and involvement.

Richard Gill made the interesting observation that the title is ‘the way in’ rather than having anything to do with the music. Now, I disagree with this, in that I do think the title is very much to do with the music, but I also agree that the title is ‘the way in’. The title is a part of the communicative enterprise that is musical writing. Composers aren’t always very good at this part of the communicative enterprise, and that’s why so many compositions end up getting nicknames assigned by other people (critics, performers, impresarios, teachers) years after the composer has died. And these nicknames stick because the words allude to the truths in the music, the words capture something of the essence of what the music means. That is to say, the title is a fleeting conjunction between the parallel worlds of music and language, where two monumental human meaning-making processes touch fingertips for the merest moment.

Richard Gill twice said in his TEDxSYDNEY talk that music evokes, and I don’t disagree with that – music is not a transcription of linguistically communicable meaning; music can only evoke what language can say. But it works the other way, too: language can only (and only rarely) evoke what music can say. Language can only ever allude to the deep and direct meanings that music communicates. A failure to be able to be translated is not the same thing as a failure to mean. Richard Gill’s flawed insistence that music means nothing beyond itself is built on the premise that the proof of meaningfulness is the capacity to be translated, a premise that is not sustainable.

But Richard Gill’s notion that music allows children to enter into a really special way of thinking is spot on. And it’s spot on exactly because music is about things other than itself – it’s about the things that language struggles to communicate.

So when we withhold music education from children we deny them access to fluency in this second and almost certainly more primal meaning system: music, where entrainment means that we experience togetherness and community when we make music together, where identity formation is most potently realised and expressed, and through which emotional reality is most directly communicated.

When we withhold music education from children we deny them a whole layer of what it is to communicate as a human being. And we deny them the one human activity that mobilises pretty much every part of the human brain, and denying holistic neurological activity seems like a fairly ridiculous choice for an education system to make.

Music does “open up the mind of a child in an extraordinary way”, but it’s not because music is abstract – it’s because music connects emotional and sensory experience, and because it is a vehicle for expressing clearly things that children (and adults, for that matter) struggle to articulate in any other way.

Richard Gill mentioned that “the neurological evidence for music is in in a big way”, but he didn’t dwell on it. The neurological evidence for music (and music education, as a result) is really one of the most substantial ideas to emerge in relation to music in countless centuries. What was anecdotal about musical activity is now scientific; what we suspected we now know; what used to be written off as feely-touchy, namby-pamby can now be measured and quantified and analysed within the realm of science. And it turns out that our suspicions and anecdotes were just scratching the surface. Musical meaning is made throughout our whole brain, not primarily in one hemisphere or the other, not just where language gets processed – but everywhere. This is an idea of indescribable proportions, and this idea should be changing the way we approach education full-stop, not just how we mandate an hour a week, if we’re lucky, to teaching music.

Richard Gill’s point, reiterated throughout his talk, that children must make music, that they must make their own music, is well supported by this avalanche of neurological evidence. Richard Gill didn’t bother to articulate why children should (or must) make their own music – apparently this was a self-evident truth, or a position to be accepted on faith – but if one does look for support or evidence, there is plenty. It’s in the making of music that children become fluent in it as a meaning system, and the making of music (even someone else’s, as it turns out) changes children’s brains and increases their IQ. There, I said it. Making music makes you smarter. And it absolutely does, as long as you keep on making music. Stop playing your instrument and your IQ goes right back to where nature intended it be….

Richard Gill did say that children make music best through singing, although he provides no support for this assertion. It might depend what you mean by ‘making music best’ as to whether you’ll agree that happens via singing; but any musician will tell you that vocalising musical ideas is an integral aspect of developing the ability to audiate (hear music in your imagination), and audiating is key to musical creativity. So it doesn’t really matter which way you approach it, singing is foundational to musical education (whether or not you think it is the best way for children to make music). Further, singing is accessible to every child without needing to spend a cent – every single child is born with this particular musical instrument as part of their physical apparatus.

A story was shared in the talk about how singing is used in music education with young children, and I don’t know that it really communicated Richard Gill’s point: that singing is an embodied (and therefore all-engaging) means of experiencing music and of developing a range of musical literacies and understandings. But that’s what the anecdote about the child knowing about crotchets and quavers was supposed to express (even if the story ended up illustrating the challenges of managing a mixed-knowledge class of young children).

Then Richard Gill went out on a limb: “music, in my view, is at the top of the food chain” after noting that “there was a movement which said all the arts work the same way…. That is simply not true, the arts function in different ways.” For those not in the education sector you really have no idea how much this would have pissed off the visual arts teachers.

There are all kinds of reasons why visual literacies are vital/essential, and maybe one day the neurological evidence will be in for the visual arts the way it is already in for music, but in 2011 I’m happy to agree with Richard Gill’s bold assertion that the world is not flat. Music does stuff the other arts only do in part, it works bits of the brain -  including emotional zones and areas of self-control – that the other arts don’t trigger, and it is a sphere of meaning that invites the other arts in – music is endlessly collaborative and ceaselessly cross-disciplinary. But maybe it’s not at the top of the food chain – it’s at the bottom: it feeds absolutely every other art form, and without it they cannot flourish. Just putting that thought out there – I’ve got nothing to back myself on this one, other than the vibe of the thing.

I’m going to quote the ending of Richard Gill’s talk verbatim:

“But what I want to say is that the power of the creative thought transferred from music to all other areas of learning is hugely potent. The evidence – the neurological evidence for music is in in a spectacular way. That’s a bonus. Music is worth teaching for its own sake. It’s worth teaching because it is good. It is worth teaching because it is unique. It is worth teaching because it empowers children spectacularly.”

I’ve already explained why and how I disagree that music is worth teaching for its own sake, and I can’t understand why anyone would try to argue this point. It’s worth teaching because it makes life so freaking wonderful; your brain works better, you have a better understanding of yourself and your emotions, you create community when you play or sing with others, it gives you an alternative to words for when you have something to say, and it’s a way of connecting with others not just across cultures but across time as well. This list is impressive and important.

“It’s worth teaching because it’s good”, as already noted above (only Richard Gill didn’t explain what it is that makes it good or in any way persuade that music is, in fact, good – beyond the questionable goodness of its abstraction). “It is worth teaching because it is unique”, an argument that falls apart the moment you think about the unique things you wouldn’t like to see in the curriculum.

But then the crux of the matter: “It is worth teaching because it empowers children spectacularly”.

That it does.

And this one reason is why Richard Gill’s idea is really worth spreading.

A Teenage Cautionary Tale

In her marvellous memoir Piano Lessons, Anna Goldsworthy recounts a turning point in her relationship with her piano teacher. Anna had won an extraordinary string of awards, academic and musical, in her final year at high school, and she was being interviewed for a story in the paper. Anna describes the whole experience as being quite surreal, finding the questions put to her by the reporter as being weirdly disconnected from anything she might have wanted to say.

When the story appeared in the paper then next day Anna was bemused to herself quoted as saying that she owed her success to her kindergarten teacher, and that she planned to move to Sydney to further her career. It’s not that she was misquoted exactly, but that the whole story skewed very far from Anna’s reality.

Next thing Anna received a phone call from her piano teacher, very cold, asking her about her plans to relocate to Sydney. Long story short, Anna had failed to credit her piano teacher with any influence at all in her extraordinary piano performance success. The memoir goes on to detail how Anna and her teacher worked through this: the senses of betrayal and teenage confusion that mingled to create this interpersonal flashpoint.

I read this part of the memoir with looming dread as the story unfolded, and with deep empathy for the teenage Anna. Goodness knows the number of times I got things wrong with my music teachers through no deliberate fault of my own; I just wish someone had been able to steer me clear of false steps in my adolescent musical career. I knew exactly how ashamed Anna felt when she realised the impact the newspaper story must have had on her teacher, and how helpless and foolish she felt when it was all too late.

The worst of my musical crimes was perpetrated at the end of my high schooling, when I was asked to perform at the school’s Prize Giving Night. I had only one piece suitable for public performance at the time: a Bartok Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos VI. It’s a flashy work, short, rhythmic, loud; but it’s Bartok, and the consensus from the staff was that they’d much prefer me to play some Beethoven (maybe they even asked for Chopin, but that was never going to be on the cards).

If I could time travel back to 1983 and whisper in my just-turned-16-year-old ear I would yell “It’s the Bartok, or it’s nothing!”. Then I’d advise the high school staff to contact my piano teacher to talk about alternatives, rather than hassling a teenager to do something against her better judgment. I’d explain to myself that performing a work that is not ready to be performed does absolutely no one any favours: not the audience, not the school and certainly not yourself.

But since I didn’t time travel back to 1983 I found myself trying to keep my school teachers happy by agreeing to perform the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. I needed to master it in any case for a piano exam I was sitting in 7 weeks time, so I didn’t sense the degree to which I was letting everyone down when I allowed the staff to influence my performance choices.

The night arrived. My piano teacher wasn’t going to be there, but that hadn’t even been on my mind at all. It hadn’t even occurred to me to let her know about this issue at the school regarding my Prize Giving Performance. I sat down to play, and as those first ponderous bars of the Pathetique began to resound about the school hall so a cicada began its summery task of chirping through the dusk. Once I reached the Allegro the cicada upped the ante, chirping at double speed; I couldn’t reciprocate – Andante was the best I could do.

It took over 10 minutes to play the movement, and I was accompanied throughout by an insect. When I finally played the concluding chords the audience broke into rapturous applause (thank God that’s over, was what I imagined they were thinking), and once the clapping had died away we all realised the cicada had stopped too. And then every human being in that school hall laughed.

The next day a teacher stopped me in the schoolyard to praise my performance. I had this little moment where I considered explaining how truly awful my performance had been, but I could see he was genuine, completely meaning every word he said, and I didn’t have the heart to let him down twice, so I just said “Thank you”.

But at about the same time on this same next day the musicology professor from the university was on the phone to his good friend, my piano teacher, asking her if she had had any idea what I had been up to the previous night. It’s at this point that I realise that deep in my heart I did know I was doing the wrong thing – if I had thought for an instant that any of the university staff were going to be at my school’s Prize Giving I know I would have insisted on playing the Bartok.

But I didn’t (know the musicology professor was attending), and I didn’t (insist on playing Bartok), and my piano teacher didn’t (know about my woeful performance).

The next piano lesson was just one long blush.

I felt terrible about it, and I do to this day. Anyone who was there will remember that cicada.

But more than feeling terrible about giving a terrible performance, I feel terrible about the social betrayals in this story: my high school teachers let me down, encouraging me to give a performance so far from my best; I let my piano teacher down by implying this was also her idea of a good performance; I also let my piano teacher down by not even telling her that I was going to be performing. I really thought I was doing the right thing….

Teenage piano students: your lot is not an easy one. You spend hours each week on your own perfecting your performance skills, and then the world wonders when you’re not up to speed on interpersonal protocol.

Here’s the deal:
1. Never perform in a formal public setting without both the knowledge and the approval of your piano teacher. This saves you making a fool of yourself.
2. Never perform a piece that deep in your heart you know is not ready. This saves you making a fool of the music.
3. Never allow your high school teachers (who may be absolutely brilliant teachers and people) to dissuade you from following rules 1 and 2. This saves you making a fool of them.

And should you happen to be interviewed for a newspaper about your performances and prizes, be sure to give your kindergarten teacher just a little less credit than that you give to your piano teacher!

Defining Music in the National Arts Curriculum: To Conclude

I’ve been analysing the proposed definition of music in the proposed new National Arts Curriculum, one or two sentences at a time, covering with What Music Is, Values, Musical Engagement and ‘Need’, and finally  A Mobile Digital Age.

The proposed definition looks to have been constructed from a preferred teaching and assessing format rather than from a genuine effort to define what music is. This is no small thing: defining music by one’s teaching preferences ossifies and endorses current teaching praxis without leaving open the possibility of innovation and improvement let alone the recognition of educational failures in the status quo. Blind spots remain invisible, and the opportunity to remap the teaching landscape goes to waste.

As bad as it might be to define a subject by one’s preferred classroom activities and assessment rubrics, in this case I believe the curriculum definition is simply being determined by the way teachers have become accustomed to teaching music. Complacency is no friend of excellence; defining our subject should be taken more seriously than this.

Here is a summary of the problems both explicit and implicit in the current proposed definition of music:

Firstly, the definition prescribes that music (and therefore the study of music) divides into a creating or performing or responding experience. This is an insidious discourse, because once a teacher signs up for this tripartite approach to what music is then that teacher is committed to avoiding learning that takes place between or across these divides. Is conducting performance or response or creation? Is improvising on a theme a performance, creation or response? Is programming an iPod a response, creation or a kind of performance? And under which rubric would music literacy (learning to read and write music notations) fit in?

The second issue is the reduction of the role of ‘meaning’ to being something that is ‘communicated’. Sometimes meaning is ‘found’, sometimes meaning is ‘imposed’, sometimes meaning is ‘shared’, along with any other number of experiences of meaning. The use of the word ‘communicate’ implies a transmission model of meaning, where a fixed and uncontestable ‘meaning’ is (usually intentionally) conveyed by someone to someone else. Our use of language in a definition of music needs to recognise that in real life (real families, real communities) meanings are negotiated and contested as well as being celebrated and shared. This is not a trifling concern, but one that goes to the heart of musical expression.

A third problem is the assertion that music is a solution to (or a source of help with) a wide range of needs. This is a nonsensical component of the definition. A more specific wording is required if the goal here is to state that music is an essential part of being human. And there’s no need to pretend that music is a physical need. That’s just silly.

Finally, that furphy that the pervasiveness of music in our lives is a function of contemporary times, and recent mobile technological developments. Music has always accompanied human existence: work songs, lullabies, celebratory songs, songs for mourning, songs of love, and songs to inspire. To suggest that the mp3 format has allowed music to permeate human experience is to be ignorant of the development of human civilisation.

As I’ve gone through each of the aspects of this proposed definition I have suggested an alternative wording of each sentence (with the exception of the second post where I examined Values). Here I bring them together with a suggested alternative to the original National Arts Curriculum definition of Music:

Music is an immersive sonic and social phenomenon that is at once both physical and emotional. Communication takes place through the processes of musical creation, performance and response (processes which are by no means discrete from each other), and music carries multiple meanings, communal and individual, intentional and unpredictable. People turn to music every day throughout their lives to create a sense of identity, to connect with others and to express, reflect and change their emotions. Music is a pervasive feature of life. Music engagement both underpins and accompanies many of our day-to-day activities from our earliest years as well as marking the significant moments of individual and collective life.

Note that this is not my definition of what music is, this is my reworking of the concepts addressed in the original proposed definition.

But I think I like it.

And I think I would enjoy very much enjoy teaching a curriculum emerging from this definition of music, although it might be rather different to any curriculum I’ve ever worked from before.

Music teachers of Australia (and anywhere else in the world, for that matter) – what do you think?

Defining Music in the National Arts Curriculum: A Mobile Digital Age

And now to conclude this four-part series examining the proposed definition of music in the still-under-review National Arts Curriculum: the final two sentences. Here’s the full definition again:

2.3.4 Defining Music
16. Music is the imaginative process of creating, performing, and responding to sound and silence for personal and collective meaning. Through the processes of creating musical works, performing with voice and instrument, and responding to our own and others’ music, individuals and groups communicate meanings, beliefs and values. Music engagement shapes our thought and activity, and is evident from the earliest stages of life. People turn to music at times of emotional, physical, and intellectual need. Music is a pervasive feature of contemporary life. In a mobile digital age, music engagement both underpins and accompanies many of our day-to-day activities, and, marks the significant moments of individual and collective life.

So we come to this assertion: ‘Music is a pervasive feature of contemporary life.’

My response is, “So?”

Pollution, political spin, high interest rates on credit cards, junk food advertising, the Wiggles and internet porn are pervasive features of contemporary life. I’m just not sure what the quality of pervasiveness is bringing to the educational table here.

Or maybe I’m supposed to be paying attention to the contemporary life angle of the statement. Maybe this sentence is staking a claim of contemporary relevance for an art form associated with Mozart, or, if I may indulge in mild cynicism here, creating an endorsed space for classes of kids jamming on the Smoke on the Water riff.

I’m quite certain that the best possible angle of this sentence is not what was intended by the writers: creating space in the educational program for music to be studied as a social phenomenon, not just as a performance art. How fabulous it would be if high school students engaged in learning activities that developed their awareness of how music works to manipulate their consumer behaviours, how music works as therapy, how music enhances and possibly facilitates memory (think how much easier it is to learn the alphabet when you sing it), how the phenomenon of entrainment creates group-think at music festivals and concerts, and so on.

But I have no faith that this is the kind of learning about music that this definition seeks to enable. As much as anything because I see little evidence, in New South Wales in any case, that either primary or high school music teachers have had any substantive exposure to the idea that music can and should be studied in this way. And with the start of the definition of music set up to create a one-third performing, one-third composing, one-third analysis kind of educational program it’s hard to see how studying music as a social phenomenon fits in: there needs to be an ‘observing’ category in which the personal response of the student is not part of the program.

Now to the final sentence: ‘In a mobile digital age, music engagement both underpins and accompanies many of our day-to-day activities, and, marks the significant moments of individual and collective life.’

Firstly, if music is so pervasive then let’s not hedge our bets by restricting it to only ‘many of our day-to-day activities’: pervasive means everywhere, not just quite a few places.

Secondly, you think humans had to wait for a mobile digital age before many of their day-to-day activities could be underpinned and accompanied by music? Before we could mark significant moments of individual and collective life with song?

If anything, the emergence of a mobile digital age marks the arrival of a new kind of musical engagement, a different kind of pervasive, a new and highly mediated means to an ancient end.

Once the music that permeated our everyday activities and marked our significant moments of individual and collective life was music emanating from our own bodies: we sang, we stamped, we beat drums, we blew through pipes, we struck, plucked or scraped pieces of animal gut, wood and metal. The music resonated from inside us because our bodies were where the music cam from.

In a mobile digital age what is significant is not that music engagement underpins and accompanies many of our everyday activities but that our music engagement has become passive, and just as many urban children have no idea that carrots grow underground or that eggs emerge from the rear end of a chook, so our experience of music is separated by many degrees from its physical origins.

This, this gulf between the music-making and the music-reception is the first notable aspect about music engagement in a mobile digital age.

But there is so much more about music-making and music-listening in a mobile digital age that this definition does not touch upon. Most notable is the ability of the individual to create complex sound documents (mp3 files, for example) without touching a musical instrument. Additionally novel is the ability of the individual to access freely musical performance which is outside the experience of that individual’s physical community/neighbourhood.

A mobile digital age allows for music-use to be utterly beyond the prescription of the composer or the community: if an individual wants to use music from a requiem as their ringtone there is nothing to stop them.

And in a mobile digital age knowledge becomes divorced from physical skill, and the mastery of an instrument and music notation are no longer sufficient for practical contemporary musical expertise.

Strictly speaking, and even not-so-strictly speaking,none of these observations about the consumption of music in a mobile digital age belong in a definition of what music is. We could just as easily rework the sentence to begin “In an age of consumerism….” or “In an age of social media…..”.

But these final sentences of the definition would be best reworked thus: Music is a pervasive feature of life. Music engagement both underpins and accompanies many of our day-to-day activities, and, marks the significant moments of individual and collective life.

Now, doesn’t that read true? And doesn’t that definition still leave educators endless scope for engaging with music, including ways our 2010 mobile digital age hasn’t yet dreamed of? Possibly a good idea for a curriculum document you won’t want to revise every time Steve Jobs has a press conference.