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?

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 is bad enough, but in this case I believe the curriculum definition is 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: Values

Now let’s take a look at the next sentence in the definition proposed in the new Australian National Arts Curriculum. Again, here’s the full definition:

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.

At first glance there’s nothing too much one can take exception to in sentence 2. In fact, once one reworks the opening sentence to be a more inclusive statement of what music is (in my previous post I’ve proposed Music is an immersive sonic and social phenomenon that is at once both physical and emotional) this second sentence becomes a specific statement of musical processes that seems self-evident: it’s only through doing that one intentionally communicates meanings, beliefs and values.

Now let’s note that there are still living amongst us those who struggle to accept that music communicates anything, and then let’s move on; most of us have caught onto the fact that if music didn’t communicate anything humans wouldn’t be so into it, it wouldn’t move us to tears, it wouldn’t make us want to dance, it wouldn’t speak profoundly to our sense of identity in the way it does. Music clearly does communicate something. I do think that it might be a stretch to say that music communicates values, on the other hand.

For instance, could you argue that a piece of music communicates the value of thrift? I suspect not, and I’m fascinated by this assertion of musical values-communication in the National Arts Curriculum. Taking a quick look through the bibliography cited I can’t see any text or document related to music’s abilities to communicate values, but maybe I’ve missed a research paper.

Many of the studies in the field of ‘values’ end up positing a sequence of binary oppositions as a means of creating a map of the values of an individual, a community or a nation. So one measure of values looks at the importance of short-term versus long-term thinking. Another looks at self-expression versus survival, and another strong power structures versus weak power structures. Other studies divide values into modes of behaviour (such as courage, honesty, cleanliness, obedience, cheerfulness, broadmindedness, and so forth) and the goals a person seeks to pursue through their life (such as social recognition, self-respect, friendship, family security, a comfortable life and so on).

I’d like to suggest that our values map over our musical expression rather than being communicated through our musical expression.

For example, let’s say a student gives a performance of a movement of a Beethoven sonata. What are the values this act communicates? From one perspective it may communicate values of hard work, mastery, self-control, and discipline. A nice bundle of values (if you are a parent or a teacher). From another perspective it may communicate values of individualism and a desire for recognition (if you are one of the student’s peers). To someone unfamiliar with classical music it will communicate values of conservatism; to someone familiar with Beethoven that same performance might communicate values of innovation or disrespect for tradition. Whatever the student giving the performance is intending to communicate about values will be drowned out by the cultural noise of the values the audience brings into the reception of the work.

Rather than saying that music communicates values it would be far more accurate to state that music is a site where values are contested. By recognising that same performance communicates very different values depending on who is doing the listening we acknowledge that values are independent of the music: an exceptionally important distinction to make in a nation of so many immigrant cultures, where we cannot presume to know, predict or even understand the values that are held by all the members of our communities.

And what of that same student-pianist in that same concert playing an accompaniment for a choir? This performance communicates completely different values, and we don’t even know what the choir is singing. The values being expressed in the performance are communicated by the social organisation that facilitates the music, not the music itself.

But this is where the curriculum definition gets it almost right, and this becomes clear by restructuring that second sentence (without changing a word): Individuals and groups communicate meanings, beliefs and values through the processes of creating musical works, performing with voice and instrument, and responding to our own and others’ music.

And yet it’s still not right: the communication of meanings and beliefs (if not values) is immeasurably stronger when you are creating/performing than when you are simply applauding with the rest of the audience at the end of a performance. It’s simply nonsensical to equate ‘responding’ (here defined in opposition to performance or creation) with the act of deliberate musical praxis as regards the communication of anything, even if that response is a review or an essay (or a facebook page). ‘Responding’ (in the more limited sense that is intended once performing and creating are taken out of the notion of ‘response’)  is, however, the part of the musical experience where values get mapped onto the performance, the composition and the music. What sets ‘responding’ apart in this communicative process is that the values communicated in and through a performance will, as noted above, differ from person to person and have little to do with the intention of the performer or the composer.

Surely this second sentence defining music is framed the way it is because the authors of the document are already anticipating a particular assessment structure in which ‘responding’ is to be on an equal footing with ‘performing’ and ‘creating’.

And then there’s the issue of what it is that the process of performing and creating communicates. Yes, it is the process of performing and creating music that allows the act of communication to take place. And certainly it’s hard to argue that values are perceived anywhere other than in the process of the performing/creating.

But the bulk of the meaning isn’t in the process at all – that’s in the sonic reality of the music itself, a reality created by the performer and composer, but a sonic reality that is distinct from the process of creating and performing that music. It’s the way the guitar riff repeats, the way the melodic line fades away, the way the harmonic structure confounds expectation, the way the sound of the vibraphone hangs in the air – this is where the meanings of music can be found, in our ears and our bodies, and rather far away from the processes that support their existence.

ACARA, you can do better! Define music with less regard for politics and the past (and the desire for a standardised approach to teaching the arts) and with more regard for reality; this is the means to a foundation for exceptional and inspiring music education for all.

Defining Music in the new Arts Curriculum

Here in Australia we are going through a process of creating a national curriculum. For all these years the education system of one state has mandated a completely different curriculum to that of the next state, and children in different parts of the country can have enormous difficulty moving from one system to another should their parents decide to make the move to another part of the country. Teachers also face barriers if they should choose to move and, besides this important logistical consideration, there is a sense that a national curriculum would also have the advantage of bringing together the best of each currently operating curriculum.

That’s the thinking, in any case.

I’m not about to analyse the case for a national curriculum (I happen to think it’s a splendid notion), or to discuss the broad brushstrokes of the process of its development.

What I am about to do (over the next few months) is to engage in some very specific discussion about the role of music education in the new national curriculum, and today I want to explore the proposed definition of music in the new arts curriculum.

Because a definition determines what’s in and what’s out it is terribly important to get it right, or at least not wrong.

Here’s the proposed definition as it stands in the first version of the national curriculum.

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.

Let’s break it down. In today’s post I’m simply going to confine myself to the very first sentence:

Music is the imaginative process of creating, performing, and responding to sound and silence for personal and collective meaning.

This is quite true. But there are other statements we could make about music that are almost certainly more true than this particular statement (and we’ll get to those alternatives in a moment). This statement claims that music is an imaginative process, as compared to any other kind of process. And that music is a process, as compared to any other kind of thing. There’s a lot in this claim, and I like the active energy both these words bring to the definition.

On the other hand, much music (and much that is enjoyable about music) isn’t particularly fueled by imagination, but rather by repetition (from a music analysis point of view) and something the music scientists call entrainment (a social human phenomenon related to experiencing aspects of music, notably rhythmic, in the same way as other people do – i.e. being able to clap along to a beat). In fact, this social aspect of music is so fundamental – being able to clap along with others – as to suggest that imagination is merely a solitary and even secondary aspect in defining music. Repetition is related to this social phenomenom of entrainment, in that music works because people have a sense of what’s coming next, even if, at the most basic level, this knowledge is simply where the beat will be. It is this entrainment aspect of music that makes it so powerful in terms of its mobilisation in any number of different social settings, from warming up a private party (dance music) to firing up a sports crowd (national song) to terrifying a movie audience (thriller/horror movie music).

Which brings us to the noun ‘process’. Music is so much more a phenomenon than it is a process. We experience music primarily in our bodies, sometimes when we sing, but more frequently when we find ourselves surrounded by music as we go about our lives (the examples of party, sports event and movie are excellent, but only the very tip of the social situations we find ourselves in with music). This pervasiveness is mentioned further along in the definition, but the point here is not that music is pervasive, but that the processual aspect of music is an academic abstraction somewhat removed from the primary of physical experience.

Music is physical. We experience it in our eardrums, in our fingertips, in our core. It surrounds us and inhabits us. It is only through the use of physical barriers that we can limit its entry to our bodies, and even the profoundly deaf experience this beyond-sonic aspect of what music is. Music is literally inside us. All of us. Whether we like it or not. Or in curriculum-speak: Music is profoundly immersive, and it is a phenomenon each and every human experiences from the day they are born.

Of course, immediately that our bodies encounter music that physical experience becomes emotional. And again, this element of experiencing music is not optional. Humans communicate emotion astonishingly directly when music is the medium, and this extremely nuanced emotional content of music is almost impossible to relate via language.

The catch? This emotional language is not universal, but cultural (with some profound similarities shared by many cultures of the world). The fact that the emotional expression of music is substantially learned, as compared to the physical experience of music which is simply a reality of humans being embodied, is enormously significant when we are looking at music education (what it is and what it should be). Ignoring or downplaying this utterly foundational experience of music results in a stunted music education. And reducing the role emotion plays in the experience of music to the all-inclusive but bland term ‘meaning’ (at the end of the first sentence of this curriculum definition) suggests the authors of the definition simply don’t believe (or understand) how intrinsic emotion is in what music does.

So at this point I’m rewriting the definition to read: Music is an immersive sonic and social phenomenon that is at once both physical and emotional.

Now, what I’ve missed out is something key that the curriculum writers have embedded in their opening sentence: there’s no talk in my sentence of creating, performing or responding (per se). My sentence is all about the responding. And not reasoned, analytical response, no! It’s a physical, emotional, potentially messy (but always human) response. And schools don’t know quite what to do with responses that are physical and emotional. Schools much prefer responses to be double-spaced and spell-checked, and this preference cannot help but steer the curriculum (writers).

So here’s the thing: performing and creating are in themselves responses to music. I’ll say it again: when you perform a piece of music (either an existing work or something you’ve just made up) you are responding to music. You are responding to what music does in your body and with your emotions. You are responding to the way music does the same (or at least terribly similar) things to the bodies and emotions of your friends, your neighbours, your family, even people you don’t know (yet). And when you compose a piece of music you are doing exactly the same thing: you are responding to music, a way of expressing that which lives in your bones, in your heart and in your memory.

In addition to asserting that performing and creating are responses to music, not an activity separate to response, so I would like to point out that performing without creating is no performance at all. To posit performance and creating as adjacent musical experiences is impressively deep-down muddleheaded. Of course, performance is a kind of physical engagement with music that is of a different nature to the immersive experience of purely hearing it, but this physical engagement with music via an instrument (even if this instrument is the voice or the body) is a creative engagement, and I’m sure that the curriculum writers would not want to argue that it was not.

So why are performing and creating presented as being different? Because the format of this opening sentence pays hommage to the curricula of the past which have established three ways of assessing musical learning: through performance, through composition and through analysis. Choosing to define music this way entrenches existing assessment task-oriented thinking, rather than providing a solid foundation for the best education we can provide Australian children in the 21st century. Deliberately fudging these words at this point creates a structure it will be hard to unbuild, a structure that does not value many of the lessons music can deliver.

I beg ACARA, can we start with a genuine effort to define what music really is and to then build our curriculum on that, rather than defining the ways in which we (the teaching profession) are already comfortable teaching music.