We Don’t Stop

In the midst of today’s tragic social, political, racial, gendered, and other conflicts, can amateur and professional music makers and school and community music programs contribute to positive social and community transformations?

Yes. To demonstrate our solidarity with and support for all those who are suffering we’ll post one example of active music making for positive social transformations every day until the American Labor Day Holiday (09/04/2017), at which point we’ll resume our regular schedule of posts on related topics.

The Staples Singers Will Take You There

In the midst of today’s tragic social, political, racial, gendered, and other conflicts, can amateur and professional music makers and school and community music programs contribute to positive social and community transformations?

Yes. To demonstrate our solidarity with and support for all those who are suffering we’ll post one example of active music making for positive social transformations every day until the American Labor Day Holiday (09/04/2017), at which point we’ll resume our regular schedule of posts on related topics.

Freedom…Don’t Give Up

In the midst of today’s tragic social, political, racial, gendered, and other conflicts, can amateur and professional music makers and school and community music programs contribute to positive social and community transformations?

Yes. To demonstrate our solidarity with and support for all those who are suffering we’ll post one example of active music making for positive social transformations every day until the American Labor Day Holiday (09/04/2017), at which point we’ll resume our regular schedule of posts on related topics.

Take Care of Each Other

In the midst of today’s tragic social, political, racial, gendered, and other conflicts, can amateur and professional music makers and school and community music programs contribute to positive social and community transformations?

Yes. To demonstrate our solidarity with and support for all those who are suffering we’ll post one example of active music making for positive social transformations every day until the American Labor Day Holiday (09/04/2017), at which point we’ll resume our regular schedule of posts on related topics.

Challenge Stereotypes

In the midst of today’s tragic social, political, racial, gendered, and other conflicts, can amateur and professional music makers and school and community music programs contribute to positive social and community transformations?

Yes. To demonstrate our solidarity with and support for all those who are suffering we’ll post one example of active music making for positive social transformations every day until the American Labor Day Holiday (09/04/2017), at which point we’ll resume our regular schedule of posts on related topics.

What We Need Is Love

In the midst of today’s tragic social, political, racial, gendered, and other conflicts, can amateur and professional music makers and school and community music programs contribute to positive social and community transformations?

Yes. To demonstrate our solidarity with and support for all those who are suffering we’ll post one example of active music making for positive social transformations every day until the American Labor Day Holiday (09/04/2017), at which point we’ll resume our regular schedule of posts on related topics.

Gimme Some Truth

In the midst of today’s tragic social, political, racial, gendered, and other conflicts, can amateur and professional music makers and school and community music programs contribute to positive social and community transformations?

Yes. To demonstrate our solidarity with and support for all those who are suffering we’ll post one example of active music making for positive social transformations every day until the American Labor Day Holiday (09/04/2017), at which point we’ll resume our regular schedule of posts on related topics.

Love Trumps Hate

In the midst of today’s tragic social, political, racial, gendered, and other conflicts, can amateur and professional music makers and school and community music programs contribute to positive social and community transformations?

Yes. To demonstrate our solidarity with and support for all those who are suffering, we’ll post one example of active music making for positive social transformations every day from today (08/16/2017) until the American Labor Day Holiday (09/04/2017), at which point we’ll resume our regular schedule of posts on related topics.

If social betterment includes exposing all forms of injustice and preparing future music makers to “put their music to work” for positive social transformations—as many classical, pop, rock, and hip-hop performers and composers (and others) are doing and have done for decades—then we begin to see the potential of what we call “artistic citizenship education.”

Artistic citizenship goes beyond academic talking and writing about social justice because it emphasizes actions for transformation. “Intellectualizing”—reading, writing, and discussing—do not by themselves move people to take meaningful actions for change. To motivate people to join a social movement of any kind, small or large, it’s essential that they engage actively.

For example, in addition to learning to make and understand music, students in school and university music programs might—should?—learn to compose, arrange, perform, and record songs that expose and challenge a wide range of injustices. These are concrete, reflective-musical “doings” that have the potential to develop students’ lifelong dispositions to act positively for change.

Engaging in some kind of action is essential because people’s identities “transform as they become socially active, and actions for social justice create new categories of participants, and political groups: identities modify in the course of social interaction” (McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly, 126). As Jean Anyon (2005) says, “One develops a political identity and commitment … from walking, marching, singing, attempting to vote, sitting in, or otherwise demonstrating with others” (142).

Musical actions of all kinds, small and large, often rise to the level of what Stephen Duncombe calls “ethical spectacles.”

An ethical spectacle is a “dream” imagined (“I have a dream,” said Martin Luther King) that’s made concrete when members/supporters of socially just movements—for example, is there an action-group called “Music(k)ing Educators for Freedom and Justice”?—participate democratically in creating the spectacle. Their actions express their resistance. (171).

Duncombe cites the example of the American civil rights movement in which leaders often modeled their interracial “beloved community” in the ways they organized and carried out their protests, which included singing and playing music in local, regional, and national situations. In these cases, music making and listening were not only emotional escapes and sanctuaries; performances were not usually “staged”; instead, music making, listening, and moving were participatory. The music and social meanings of ethical spectacles are embodied and expressed in the actions of transforming the oppressors and the oppressed.

An ethical spectacle “demonstrates” against oppressions. Ethical spectacles help to disrupt cultural hierarchies, support and build safe communities, promote diversity, and engage with reality while asking what new realities might be possible (Duncombe, 126).

Our school students and future music educators can—we believe they should—learn to think critically about and be prepared to create small and large ethical-musical spectacles in/for their schools and communities.

Crucially, if we conceive “music” not as a noun with rigidly encoded power relationships but, instead, as a process of mutual music making, shared musical-ethical responsibilities, and reciprocal musical power sharing toward social projects involving sympathy and empathy, then we might find major pathways to social reconciliations.

5 Examples of Music for Humane Values

Music and music education can yield a wide variety of humane values, including the following:

1. Brass for Africa: Music can engage, empower, and repair.

2. The North Jersey Home School Association Chorale is an award-winning chorus directed by Beth Prins. Prins teaches music as a vehicle for “doing good” in the world. For example, as part of their schedule of events when touring France one summer, they performed at special-needs schools, private boarding schools, juvenile detention centers, homeless shelters, and gave two charity concerts to raise money for the victims of a recent earthquake in Haiti. According to their personal testimonies, the singers make music for “civic goods.” In their minds, their voices embody their personal and collective sense of mutual care, community, and spirituality.

3. Jahmir Wallace and his trumpet provide a moving example of helping a person to make a life of personal and communal significance and meaningfulness.

4.  After graduating from the University of Toronto in the late 1990s, Mary Piercey chose to become a school and community music teacher in a small Inuit community on the western shore of Hudson Bay, in the Region of Canada called Nunavut. When Piercey arrived in Arviat, it was an impoverished, hopeless, drug-infested wasteland.  To make a long story short, and largely because of Piercey’s skillful and imaginative use of musics in the service of social activism and artistic citizenship, the people and the traditional culture of Arviat and the surrounding region began to heal and blossom.

5. Performing, composing, and improvising music—among other musical engagements—can assist people with physical, psychological, neurological, emotional, behavioral, and social challenges. One example of music making for well-being is found at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. In any given music therapy session at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter there is a revolving number of participants. While the unit usually consists of 30 men, the number of participants in any given session varies, depending on the men’s needs and desires. They are not forced to go to music therapy; they go because they want musical-communal interactions. The sessions focus on musical improvisation. Percussion and string instruments are placed in the center of a session room. When the men walk into a session, they are free to choose whatever instrument appeals to them on that given day. They sit down and, as they wait for the session to begin, they play their chosen instruments, reacquainting themselves with musical materials. Research supports the claim that the men experience transformative communal engagement, and a feeling of power and control over their own lives.

While some people may assume that the values experienced in each of these cases are extra-musical—values such as a sense of community, well-being, social healing, and spirituality—they are not. They are all MUSICAL values because they are products of personal and group music making and listening.

Distinguishing between “musical” and “extra-musical” values makes little sense. The eminent UCBerkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin argues that the musical/extra-musical divide yields more harm than good. He states: “music regarded as set off from the world is still in the world, doing worldly work…musical meaning [arises] out of relation between music and its many contexts.” To characterize these meanings (namely, all results from musical experiences) as “extra-musical” is as illogical as it is pretentious.

Relatedly, music education philosopher Wayne Bowman states that to distinguish between musical and extra-musical value misses the mark entirely. All values, states Bowman, are functions of “the differences they make: the ways they enable people to thrive.” And whether or not music does achieve this potential depends on the ways it is experienced. We agree with Bowman when he says that music does not automatically “make people smarter, or more sensitive, or more perceptive, or better citizens.” It all depends. It depends on so many variables, too numerous to mention here.

Musics are a hub of social, emotional, personal, and worldly interactions. Any values we derive from or experience through music occur because we engage in and feel the results/benefits of music making and listening. In other words, “we make it true” that one or more musical values happen in/to us when we participate in musics.

5 reasons to advocate carefully for music education

Peter Greene’s blog post—Stop “Defending” Music Education (6/11/2015)—has been floating in the blogosphere for a long time. Some people “Like it,” others don’t, and some don’t read it carefully.

The gist of Greene’s argument is not that music educators should stop defending music education. He’s arguing that we should stop defending what we do by “touting the test-taking benefits of music education, defending music as a great tool for raising test scores and making students smarter.” In the end, says Greene: Don’t advocate like this!

We agree—which doesn’t mean we agree with everything he says in his blog. Some of his points are right on target, but some need deeper probing.

For now, we’ll spotlight 5 issues and/or mistakes that some music educators overlook when they automatically believe “pop” advocacy claims and/or disagree with Greene’s main point. But before explaining these issues, let’s review some obvious points.

In American schooling, literacy and numeracy, and standardized tests of math and reading, are highly valued, very often at the expense of other aspects of education. The message that some music teachers take from these facts is that if we want our music programs to survive, then we should surrender to educational policymakers, which means telling parents and administrators what they want to hear (“whatever works”) like “music raises math and reading scores,” “music boosts the brain,” or any other non-musical “added-value gains.” So, many music teachers use the “whatever works” strategy to support and save their music programs.

We understand why teachers feel this way, but we don’t support these assumptions and actions. Here’s why:

1. There is NOT a critical mass of excellent research that supports claims that music raises math and reading scores, or that music boosts the brain, etc. Scholars who’ve studied possible links between music and different forms of cognitive achievement for 20, or 30+ years haven’t developed anything approaching a consensus on these issues.

So if you’re a teacher who makes “added-value” claims, be ready for one of two results:

(a) Someday, a parent or administrator will challenge you to produce solid evidence to support your claims. If you haven’t spent a lot of time studying research, good luck defending your claims. If you have, you’ll find out that nobody knows for sure—not even close.

(b) Someday, an administrator might believe you when you say that music raises math and reading test scores. If so, s/he may start evaluating your music students based on their math and reading scores, not on their musical achievements. And s/he will start evaluating you on your students’ scores.

As we mentioned in a previous post, we have many school music-teacher colleagues in New York City and beyond who are being assessed on their students’ test scores in math and reading, and so are their students. If you decide to defend your music program with empty claims about the non-musical benefits of music, this could easily “kill the music” in your music program.

So let’s be very careful what we claim and wish for, which is Peter Greene’s point, too. Claiming that music “makes students smarter,” or better at math or literacy, could produce negative outcomes for music teachers.

2. A big issue many teachers fail to think about is this: What do advocates mean when they say “music” raises math and reading scores, or “music” boosts your brain? Do they mean Jay Z’s hip-hop music boosts your brain? Or do they mean West African drumming, Philip Glass’s minimalist’s pieces, or Shakuhachi flute playing increase cognitive functioning? Maybe they mean that kids who play Holst’s First Suite in Eb for Military Band—or Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, or sing “O Music, Sweet Music,” or play “Twinkle, Twinkle”—will get better math scores. Or maybe they mean kids will develop better language skills if they listen to Taylor Swift’s songs, or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. “Music” is hugely varied, which is another reason why researchers don’t know whether or not “music” has specific non-musical benefits.

For example, is there any solid research that demonstrates there is a one-to-one causal relationship between playing or listening to “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” and (a) a significant increase in (say) all 8-year-old boys’ math scores in Los Angeles (or any place), or (b) marginal improvements in all adolescents’ listening abilities in Harlem, or anywhere else? No. There is absolutely no valid and reliable research that indicates or “proves” any such claims. If you don’t believe us, read these researchers, who’ve spent their lives studying such things: Glenn Schellenberg, Ellen Winner, and Eugenia Costa-Giomi.

3. The eminent British music scholar Susan Hallam also questions the relationship between music and mathematical abilities. She asks: What math? All math? Specific mathematical principles? Geometry? Calculus?

4. One variable that people tend to omit when they talk about “music and the brain,” or “music raises academic scores,” is that TEACHERS play a huge role in whether or not music students succeed musically, or whether music motivates them to achieve more in school and life. A great—an effective, educative, and ethical—teacher, who is also musical, may improve students’ lives. But s/he can’t claim that there’s a causal relationship between her music teaching and better academic achievement because there’s far too many variables involved in students’ lives.

5. Do you = your brain? No. Do scientists know everything there is to know about the human brain? No.

Neuroscientists aren’t even close to understanding everything about the brain. Scientists’ current knowledge of the brain is extremely incomplete. Imagine that the brain = Mt. Everest. From this perspective, the majority of scientists argue that our present understanding of the brain is only in the foothills of Everest. Scholars aren’t even close to the summit.

As neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran explains, the brain “is the most complexly organized structure in the universe.” The brain contains 100 billion nerve cells or “neurons” that engage in “something like 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons” all the time, which means the brain is entirely capable of making and maintaining about 100 trillion synaptical connections. Stated another way, “the number of possible permutations and combinations of brain activity … exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe.”

If each person is unique, and if it’s true that the current population of our planet is about 7 billion people, is it likely that today’s scientists know enough about the brain to be sure that every American adolescent hears, feels, interprets, and values Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst, or “If I Had Hammer,” in the same way? No.

Takeaway message: The next time you read an advocacy blog that says music boots the brain, or that music is good because it stimulates the right brain, or music increases math or literacy skills, it’s nonsense. Music is processed throughout the brain, the body, and the mind. Our experiences of music making and listening result from our unique conscious (and nonconscious) interactions with the world. Such interactions are extremely complex.

Summing up, scientists simply don’t know exactly how the brain functions. Accordingly, it’s dangerous to advocate for music education using music-and-math, and music-and-brain claims. However, we do know why music is valuable for its own sake—for the “goods” of actively engaging in music making and listening, as we explain in MM2 and elsewhere.