Diane Ravitch is an eminent Research Professor of Education at New York University, a prolific author, and one of the strongest voices in the world for the importance of public education. As she’s told David personally, as she’s said in numerous media interviews and speeches, and in her writings, Ravitch fully supports the enormous importance of arts in education, especially music.
Today—Valentine’s Day, 2017—her blog reminds us that, in the midst of stressful and dangerous times, we must find ways to engage our children in joyful and loving experiences. Music can do this! Indeed, thousands of music educators worldwide make this happen, in a wide range of ways, with and for their students.
School lunch and music
Ravitch gives an example. A couple of years ago, the school administrators at a Bucks primary school in the United Kingdom staged a surprise opera “intervention” during the children’s lunch time. Suddenly, the children were being serenaded with the arias of Verdi, Rossini and Puccini!
As a result of this experience, teacher Rozalyn Thomson said: “Mamma Mia! What an experience for the children! They loved the singing, they loved the surprise and they loved the pesto pasta! Next best thing to Covent Garden – they all want to be opera singers now!”
Fifteen years ago today, a great tragedy swept the nation and rippled around the world. We take this occasion to pause and wonder: Can/should music educators, music students, and community musicians put their creativities to work—in small or larger ways—to commemorate this anniversary, inspire hope for a better world, and/or celebrate the valor of those who bravely serve to protect our communities and nations? If so, why? If not, why not? If so, in what ways?
Should students perform and listen to musics that have been created to address and resist political/social tragedies
Should students compose music—e.g., songs, rap verse, performance/art pieces—that support people’s social rights and challenge wrongs?
As you weigh these questions, we leave you with a music video that “performs resistance” and may inspire hope among some listeners and music makers. It affirms that people can make music toward change.
The video is based, in part, on Bob Marley’s “War.” Marley composed the song in 1976. The lyrics are nearly identical to the speech that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie gave in 1963 at the United Nations General Assembly. It was the first time that a head of state spoke in the name of Africa at the U.N. Selassie’s speech called for world peace. Both Marley’s song and this video echo the need for world-wide positive change.
Maybe our music classrooms and musical communities can/should become—at appropriate times—sites of personal and social reflection and what we might call “artivism,” as practiced by amateur and professional artists in every domain.
We’re excited to announce our new publication, Artistic Citizenship: Artistry, Social Responsibility, and Ethical Praxis (edited by David Elliott, Marissa Silverman, and Wayne Bowman). New York: Oxford University Press. Check out the website and blog: www.artistic-citizenship.com
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.
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.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! “Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these. We must use time creatively.” Thank you, Dr. King.
I’m not a tech-savvy person, so I don’t know why a tweet—“10 works or composers you never want to hear again”—from October 7, 2014 showed up on my twitter feed today. But it did. Norman Lebrecht, one of England’s most esteemed (and rightly so) music critics, replied with a list of the 10 works or composers he never wanted to hear again.
At first, I laughed. I scrolled down Lebrecht’s choices, and then I read most of the 150 comments. As I did, my laughter slowly morphed into something more distressing.
I started to feel hurt by some people’s choices. I went back to Lebrecht’s selection. How could he not want to hear Tchaikovsky’s music (except the last 3 symphonies and the violin concerto)? What’s wrong with Messiaen’s music? Bernstein’s Mass? And everything that Puccini created post-Bohème? Really? Is it because this music is overplayed? Badly interpreted? Or, in Lebrecht’s estimation, just poorly composed music?
Then I stepped back and asked myself, Why be bothered by this? I sat and thought about this for a while, and then I realized how and why this “game” turned into a stab in my heart. It wasn’t because I’m overly sensitive. It was because many of these pieces and composers are intimately sewn into the fabric of my personal and musical identities.
There’s a large amount of social and psychological research that examines why and how music and identity are deeply intertwined (see MM2, Chapters 3 and 5).
So part of my hurtful response to this “little game” has to do with my personal attachments and lifelong musical experiences with pieces, styles, and composers that are part of my-and most people’s- emotional, everyday, and autobiographical narratives.
By way of an olive branch, and because I don’t want to seem like a “bad sport,” let’s change the game. I’ll start. Here’s my list of the “10 works or composers I can’t live without”—at least for today. Ask me tomorrow and my list might change.
I’d read the book about 15 years ago. As soon as I saw the big red apple on the cover, I was reminded of the book’s impact on me in 2000, and the many reasons why it was so influential in the 1970s, 1980s, and thereafter.
When I mentioned Subversive Activity to David, he told me he’d read it in 1975, just after he started teaching in the music education department at the University of Toronto. He said:
It made me question all the ways I was teaching my music education students way back then. Some things I remember clearly are how it emphasizes democratic teaching and learning, the reasons why teachers and students need to develop critical thinking, good “crap detectors,” and a healthy skepticism about assumptions. It was especially important because it explains “ecological classrooms,” and “mind-ing.” Am I right? I remember thinking at the time that, even though these ideas go back to Plato, Aristotle, and all the way up to Dewey and others, the way they [Postman and Weingartner] explained these “new” ideas so clearly meant a lot to many teachers, including me and my students, in the ‘70s.
As I revisited Teaching as a Subversive Activity, I arrived at Chapter 5: “What’s Worth Knowing?” Even though I’d asked myself the same question many times in the past—and even though David and I ask this question on page 1 of MM2, and many other times in our book—I knew immediately that I had to redouble my efforts to help my music education majors think carefully about and practice “minding” two questions: “What’s worth knowing?” and “What’s worth knowing musically?” These questions go right to the heart of the nature(s) and values of music education, community music, and lifelong musical participation.
Postman and Weingartner suggest that to decide whether any question should be asked and answered—by ourselves and/or our students—we should begin by asking questions of the question itself, and continue doing this before and after we teach.
For example, teachers in every subject area would be wise to ask themselves:
1. Will my questions increase learners’ passion for learning?
2. Will they increase their capacity to learn?
3. Will they boost their confidence in their ability to learn?
4. Will they motivate them to ask deeper follow-up questions that require alternative modes of inquiry?
5. Will they inspire learners to search for alternative interpretations of the material they’re learning?
6. Are my questions likely to increase students’ feelings of self-worth, persistence, and resilience?
7. Are they likely to produce different answers if/when learners ask them again at different stages of their educational development? Are they likely to develop students’ critical thinking, “crap detection” abilities, and a healthy skepticism about common sense assumptions?
8. Will students’ participation in “minding” empower them to develop thoughtful answers, and become more collaborative and creative?
These questions are extremely important to ask and think about, because to ask them is to take major steps toward achieving a central aim of all forms of education: developing students’ abilities to find meaning in the world:
There is no learning without a learner. And there is no meaning without a meaning maker. In order to survive in a world of rapid change there is nothing more worth knowing, for any of us, than the continuing process of how to make viable meanings. (Postman and Weingartner, 1969)
How can we connect these questions to music teaching and learning? If we tweak these eight questions in relation to some (but certainly not all) issues involved in teaching music in some localities, regions, and/or nations, we might ask:
1. Will this style of music and/or this type of musicing (e.g., singing, playing instruments, composing with new music technologies) increase learners’ joy in and passion for learning?
2. Will this style of music and/or musicing increase their capacity to learn how to make music and listen to music andfind personal and musical meaning in the world now and in the future?
3. Will this form of musicing boost their confidence in their ability to learn how to perform, improvise, compose (etc.) more expressively?
4. Will this kind of musicing motivate them to ask important questions about how to make music more effectively and creatively, which will require alternative modes of thinking and feeling?
5. Will this type of music and musicing inspire learners to develop alternative interpretations of the music they’re performing, improvising, composing, etc?
6. Is it likely that my music teaching strategies will increase learners’ sense of self-worth?
7. Will my ways of teaching music motivate learners to continue making music after their elementary or secondary school years are over?
8. Will my ways of teaching music and musicing enable students to become more thoughtful, sensitive, collaborative, and creative music makers now and in the future?
And there’s one more very important question:
9. Will my ways of teaching music motivate my students to pursue the lifelong goal of full human flourishing, which includes happiness for themselves and others, fellowship, health and well-being, a sense of personal significance, and other “arts of personhood, which include individual and shared capacities and dispositions to act justly toward others” (MM2, p. 52).
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Raymond MacDonald, an eminent music psychologist, asserts a widespread belief: “We are all musical. Every human being has a biological, social, and cultural guarantee of musicianship.” Music “is a universal behavior,” writes ethnomusicologist Alan Merriam. Ethnomusicologist John Blacking agrees: “Every known human society has what trained musicologists would recognize as music.” Is there any evidence that supports these views? If so, is it reasonable to say that music teaching and learning—in the most fundamental, non-formal and informal senses—has existed for an extremely long period of time?
Some archeologists believe that the oldest musical artifacts are stone percussion instruments found in Sweden, southern Africa, Kenya, Vietnam, China, and the Bolivian Andes, all of which are at least 40,000 years old. Others scholars say: “the earliest unambiguously musical artifacts identified to date are bone and mammoth-tusk ivory pipes dated to around 40,000 BP [40,000 calendar years ago, during the interval of the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition] found at Hohle Fels in southern Germany.” But Ian Cross, a distinguished Professor of Music at Cambridge University, draws on more recent research, which indicates that the German ivory pipes predate “almost all known visual art, and in any case a capacity for musicality (most likely vocal) would predate the construction of a sophisticated musical artifact such as a pipe, probably by a considerable period.”
The Divje Babe flute, made from the femur bone of an extinct European bear, was uncovered in a Neanderthal burial site in Slovenia. Although some archeologists question whether the Divje Babe is really a flute, others believe it is and cite evidence that it’s somewhere around 45,000 and 82,000 years old. If it’s authentic, this Neanderthal instrument would be remarkable because it strongly suggests that music making is not only a universal characteristic of Homo sapiens sapiens (the technical term for modern human beings), but “music making may be a characteristic of the entire genus Homo.”
What does this say about the values of music making and listening, and, therefore, the values of music teaching and learning in the most fundamental senses? It seems fair to say that human beings haven’t been making and listening to music for thousands of years to raise math and reading scores.
But also, as we know from contemporary research in music psychology and neuroscience, all kinds of music can arouse and express a wide-range of positive emotions, including joy, contentment, and a sense of personal meaningfulness. If anyone doubts that these experiences were not possible for early humans to feel, then a very recent field of research called bioarcheology provides considerable evidence to the contrary.
One take away message is this: Today, music making in small and large groups, in styles of all kinds, can—if taught and learned effectively and ethically—provide the same essential values that sustained and motivated our ancestors: social bonding, social wellness, positive emotional experiences, and human flourishing of many kinds (see MM2, Chapters 1 and 2).
Why do music teachers need to think carefully about what music is? Can’t we stop “thinking” and just teach music?
Music is conceptually, culturally, emotionally, and politically complex, ambiguous, and ever-changing. This is why philosophers call terms like music “essentially contested concepts.” Contested concepts are culturally situated and value-laden ideas that resist conclusive definitions and consensus. So, if something is ever-changing, we need to keep up with the times and recognize how “it” has morphed, adapted, hybridized, evolved, and so forth. Especially, if we’re going to teach “it.”
And when we think internally or make public statements that speak about a contested concept such as “music,” it will always be open to a wide range of individual and group interpretations.
Complicating matters further, thoughts and actions are intimately and inextricably linked; our assumptions, beliefs, mindsets, and interpretations inform and drive our actions, and our actions feed back to and have an impact on our assumptions and beliefs. Every teaching-learning decision and action we carry out before, during, and after we interact with students is guided by what we assume, believe, or think about why, what, how, where, and when we do what we do, and the people we are doing it with and for.
Here’s one take-away message: If we want to teach as well-prepared, effective, educative, and ethical school or community music educators, we must think about the who, why, what, how, where, whether, and when of music teaching and learning, as well as how to implement these concepts in action.
So, back to the question, what is music? Here is one very popular answer we hear from our music education students: “Music is what I think it is!” This bold declaration substitutes an opinion for a critically reasoned and justified answer. Some people think that music is an extremely personal “thing,” and say, “If it’s music to you, great. If not, that’s your problem.” So, what’s wrong with conceptualizing music this way?
“In my opinion” statements pop up every day: “I don’t care what you think; I have a right to my own opinion!” Is this true? Yes and no. In a democratic society, everyone has a legal right to state his or her opinion(s). But this doesn’t mean everyone has an “epistemic right” to an opinion. An epistemic right is the right to believe (or not) a certain position or set of beliefs. To have this right, we need to earn it by justifying our beliefs with a logical argument and supporting evidence. If we can’t defend our beliefs with solid reasons, we should give them up, or admit that we don’t have a sufficient defense. If we refuse, then we’ve abandoned the realm of logical thinking. As educators and community music facilitators, we have a professional and ethical duty to develop informed beliefs, scrutinize opinions, and challenge people—like a principal who says, “Music education is only for the talented”—who make claims based on nothing more than “I have a right to my opinion.”
This brings us to a difference between opinion-based thinking and critical reflection. An opinion is often nothing more than a “gut feeling.” People who say, “My opinion is just as good as anyone’s opinion” make a serious mistake. They fail to understand that some answers to important questions are more reasonable and logical than others, because statements can be evaluated as logically defensible or not according to the quality of the reasoning and evidence supplied. Opinion-based thinking assumes wrongly that there are no criteria for assessing a debate, dialogue, or argument as reasonable and valid or not. Philosopher John Shand calls opinion-based thinking “intellectual nihilism,” because trusting opinions overlooks our ability to reason our way to good decisions about what it is best to think and do.
As we say in MM2, opinions aren’t too helpful due to their subjective nature and the fact that they don’t establish the solid intellectual and ethical starting points we need to construct a reasonable concept of and curricula for music. When people claim the natures of music are a completely personal or subjective matter, then they’ve left planet Earth for a fairyland where nobody thinks carefully and everything is smoke and mirrors. Good luck with that, especially if you want to be an educative and effective music educator or community music facilitator.
But before moving on, let’s think again about “music is what I think it is,” because to dismiss this as mere opinion may belittle the holder of that view. Philosopher John Corvino points out that making such a statement may be an act of humility. On the other hand, says Corvino, saying this “can have pernicious effects: it leads to a kind of wishy-washiness, wherein one refrains from standing up for one’s convictions.” Conceptualizing music is an ethical process, which is also practical because careful, critical thinking helps us decide what we do and what we don’t do within music teaching-and-learning.
Now, imagine overhearing this dialogue between a student and teacher.
Student: “Adele is my favorite. Can we sing ‘Someone like you’ in choir? Here is the music video. Isn’t it awesome?”
Teacher: “Well, Adele’s singing may be music to you, but in my opinion it’s not. So, we won’t be singing it.”
How might the student react or feel? It’s very possible that the teacher’s own thinking (or value-system, and, therefore, her curricular decisions) might cause her student to feel badly, which is not what thoughtful and caring teachers do. So, aside from the fact that “music is what I think it is” is not a logical and evidence-based—i.e., professional—way to construct a concept of music, it’s not a kind, respectful, or “care-full” thing to teach.
Please do not misunderstand us. We’re not saying that music teachers should necessarily teach Adele or Beyonce anymore than they should be teaching Bach, Mozart, West African drumming, taiko drumming, and so forth. What we’re suggesting is that the consequences of our answers to “what is music?” matter. Answers to this question not only mirror a teacher’s value system, they also impact whether or not teachers teach effectively and comprehensively, and affect their students’ sense of self and joy in learning and doing music.
Why should we care about distinctions between “education” and “training”? Philosopher Peter Rickman gives important reasons: “A father is supposed to have said: ‘If my daughter told me she was getting sex education in school I’d be pleased. If she told me she got sex training I’d go straight to the police.’” Rickman continues by explaining the difference inherent in these concepts: “Training is about practice, about skill, about learning how to do things. Education is about fostering the mind, by encouraging it to think independently and introducing it to knowledge of the physical and cultural world. It’s about theory, understanding, and a sense of values. There is, of course, some overlap. Practice may require some theory and education may require some skills.” Consider all the fields where training is important: medicine, law, library sciences, all fields of research, biochemical engineering, the fine and performing arts, and teaching. Without skill-development, where would the do-ers of these fields be? But, consider the opposite: Can these fields move forward, advance in creative ways, or be ethical endeavors without education?
Rickman gives us a practical example: the study of history should be understood “not just as a listing of dates but of how things happen in time and why things turned out as they did and produced our present. One of the questions underlying a historical approach is whether there is any pattern in history, any meaning to be discerned, or just one damned thing after another, a tale told by an idiot … What is significant; what is causally effective in the passage of events. The answers divide idealists and materialists, religious believers and skeptics. We further need to sharpen our critical tools. What constitutes good evidence and how can it be tested? Can value judgments be avoided and if not how are they to be used?” So, yes, the skills of doing historical analysis are crucial, but critical reflection, thoughtfulness, understanding the past from multiple perspectives or, better stated, having an education in/with/through history, is equally if not more important that the skills needed for historical inquiry.
So, how might we understand the difference between music education and music training?
In MM2, we make the distinction this way. When a music teacher overemphasizes musical skill development at the expense of educational matters, then music “learning” is reduced to training students’ technical, notational, and aural skills, or stuffing learners’ heads with abstract concepts about music. In such cases, music training becomes purely subject-centered, rather than a continuous and harmonious process of integrating learner-and -subject experiences, which is what education includes, and much, much more besides. Training, says Peter Abbs, “invariably involves a narrowing down of consciousness to master certain techniques or skills.” Such skills, according to Abbs, “are known in advance and can be unambiguously imparted by the trainer and assimilated by the learner. What is transmitted is functional and predetermined, a set of skills matching a set of operations.”
Training, says Wayne Bowman, transmits skills related tightly to perpetuating the status quo: “it seeks to shape behaviors to pre-specified ends. Education, on the other hand, involves ‘an opening out of the mind that transcends detail and skill and whose movement cannot be predicted.’” What education should do is take the student “beyond the status quo into what is not fully known, fully comprehended, fully formalized.”
Returning to Rickman, “educational establishments are rightly and necessarily engaged in training, but it is not enough to pour information into receptive minds to meet the ideals of education. Of course we need skills and information but we also need – and this is of paramount importance – human beings who have learned to think, make judgments, appreciate the beautiful and the good. We need not only experts in choosing means, but people educated to decide on their goals. So to replace education by training is to threaten the human future.”
How do we balance the distinction between education and training within music teaching-and-learning? We might begin by developing and advocating a concept of music education that bridges the gap between pure idealism and pure functionalism. Although “music education” has come to mean many things (see MM2), the essence of it suggests that our efforts ought to focus on the full development of people in/with/through musics. Music education seeks to develop students as persons rather than music “producers,” as we explain more fully in our article, “Music, personhood, and eudaimonia: Implications for educative and ethical music education.” As we described in detail in MM2, and as Clive Beck reiterates, education is for life: education ought to be conceived for life as a whole, not just for one aspect of life such as work, or schooling. These thoughts point us toward more realistic perspectives on and the potentially transformative purposes of music education.