Is the musical medium the message, or not?

The Canadian philosopher and public intellectual Marshall McLuhan famously posed the idea that “the medium is the message.” In brief, McLuhan means that the way in which we choose to communicate something has as much meaning as that which is being communicated. Sometimes this is true; other times, it’s not.

Consider large ensembles, specifically the wind ensemble. Participating in a wind ensemble (concert band, symphonic band) can be, for many, a richly rewarding musical-social activity. In discussing the history of the American wind band, Roger Mantie (2012) writes that “‘Banding,’ as it was (and occasionally is) sometimes called, was a social activity originally aimed, at least in part, at the perceived worthy use of leisure time” (p. 69). Mantie notes that through a careful investigation, we find that the “bands of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were … of the people and for the people” (p. 69). Hence, the American band movement was built on a foundation of democratic ideals, civic engagement, and community transformation. In other words, the concept of a group of people “banding together” seems unabashedly social, personal, communal, and liberating. However, when the band was “appropriated” for use in school music, its original aims were more or less compromised. Thus, many contemporary music education scholars and practitioners believe the large ensemble within school music is inherently and automatically a space of/for undemocratic processes and values.

As someone who never particularly enjoyed her large ensemble experiences throughout elementary and secondary school—likely due to my own issues of introversion, not “fitting in,” combined with being singled out by my teachers as “better than” the others—I find it odd that I don’t agree with many of these critics. Indeed, because I didn’t enjoy my formative large ensemble experiences, I, too, should have an aversion to ensemble participation as a whole. Yet I don’t. (In contrast, David’s band experiences were extremely positive due to the exceptionally musical, educative, and ethical qualities of his band teachers.) Why?

When aligned with aims that serve the needs (e.g., musical, social, emotional) of the students, school, and community, the large ensemble for music education can be just as rich and rewarding as any other configuration (i.e., iPad ensemble, West African drumming, “Barbershop” quartet) that serves those same needs. The opposite is also true. When NOT aligned with aims that serve the needs of the students, school, and community, the large ensemble for music education can be just as ineffective and uneducative as any other configuration that does NOT serve those same needs.

While it’s important to critically reflect on the aims and values of any/all music education classrooms and musical mediums, perhaps we are doing a disservice to our students by assuming that small ensembles = better educational experiences; that music technology automatically provides richer and more rewarding educational experiences; that today’s “Top 40” hits make for more inclusive educational experiences. Perhaps the large ensemble is not the problem. Perhaps we are trying to force blame in the wrong place.

If the outcomes of a specific instance of a musical “education” include the absence of freedom, creativity, critical thinking, social engagement, and edification, then this is due to the teacher’s failure to develop critically reflective aims and to possess an understanding of what education should be (as we propose in Chapter 4).

In MM2, David and I write that the claim that all large school music ensembles are inherently exclusionary, undemocratic, or restricted to the classical repertoire is simply absurd. Thousands of school music students have benefited deeply from the artistic and educative instruction of dedicated, ethical, and compassionate band, chorus, string orchestra, and symphony orchestra teachers/leaders. And depending on the learners and situations involved, performing classical and classically-oriented music can certainly be a valid, meaningful, and highly satisfying form of musicing. But it depends. It depends on the degree to which a classically-oriented school or community music teacher is musically educative and ethical. It also depends on the degree to which such a teacher or leader or conductor is willing to make available to students balanced access to other musics and musicing. Moreover, it depends on the degree to which such teachers provide students with opportunities to participate democratically in contributing suggestions about why and how such pieces can or should be interpreted and performed. Such is necessary to foster musical understanding and musical independence.

Another common misconception is that large ensembles serving school music programs are always and only engaged in matters of robotic-technical skill training. This point deserves a combination of qualified acknowledgment and protest. First, and yes, we all know music “directors” and so-called artist-performers whose “teaching” is dominantly technical, strictly a matter of performance problem reduction, as opposed to musically expressive problem solving. Some technically oriented “directors” just don’t get it; they fail to understand that “fixing” students’ technical difficulties is not music teaching. It’s more akin to plumbing.

Although it’s true that learning how to perform can be reduced to skills-and-drills (just as improvising, composing, conducting, and musicing-dancing can be reductive), it’s unreasonable to misrepresent all large ensembles in school music programs on the false assumption that all instances of such performance-teaching are nothing more than—and incapable of being more than—technical exercises. Many music teachers are musical, educative, and ethical; some are not.

Unfortunately, some critics who are fond of problematizing large ensemble performance programs usually fail to provide a significant amount of valid research to support their claims. And they almost always fail to present balanced perspectives, because they don’t problematize the actual and potential weaknesses of small and informal school music ensembles (e.g., school rock bands).

All ensembles, all forms of old and new technologies, and all forms of teaching have potentials for musical and educational abuses. It’s up to educators to be aware of the potentials and pitfalls of and within musical “mediums,” the context of music education, and to adjust their teaching accordingly.

Here’s the take away message: it depends. It depends on the individual teacher, the quality of her music education philosophy, and her musical, ethical, and educative dispositions. If the medium is the message, perhaps the medium we should be most concerned about is not the large ensemble, but rather the music educator.