Monday, 30 October 2006

21: On the Value of "School Music"

21: On the Value of "School Music"

Tom Regelski

Distinguished Professor Emeritus, SUNY Fredonia NY

Docent, University of Helsinki, Finland

Music educators often feel the-need to advocate the value of music and to promote its inclusion in schooling. This need may be felt because, given the importance of schools to society, talk of various kinds extolling the value and status of schooling is common, especially where the pragmatic value contributed by particular 'subjects' of study is not obvious. To the degree the value of music education is not obvious, it shares this same need and for many of the same reasons.

One of the frustrations of teaching most subjects is that students rarely have the same interest in the subject as led the teacher to study and teach it. A prime reason for this is that the structure-of-the-discipline curricular paradigm characterizing much of schooling teaches subjects as self-contained disciplines rather than for their direct relevance to life. The goal of curricular scholasticism, then, is to develop a 'disciplined mind'. If anything, students' lack of interest in the information studied is prerequisite to developing the intended mental discipline. The disinterestedness of such study is underscored, in any case, because contemplation of the subject matter for its own sake is said to be the main value of learning it.

Not surprisingly, resistance and 'discipline problems' result and these typically lead teachers to teach their subjects defensively. Sometimes this takes the form of defending the discipline from the students! In such cases, grades and other so-called 'standards' are used to selectively discourage or weed out the many who are insufficiently appreciative or adept. The explicit curriculum, as a result, prevents or disinclines most students from going beyond the initial introduction-to-the-discipline that constitutes 'basic' schooling in it. On the other hand, the "hidden curriculum" effectively teaches most that they are 'no good' at the subject. Once required 'basics' are over, then, most students quickly forget whatever they learned only for classroom purposes.

The disinterestedness upon which study is predicated entails that students learn to value the subject for its own sake. This leads to the kind of defensive teaching that tries to motivate interest in the 'subject matter' despite its disconnection from life. Success in developing some 'appreciation' on the part of an adept minority often compensates in the minds of many teachers for the parallel failure to interest the remaining (and unpromising) majority whose efforts are instead motivated by grades and curricular requirements—and most notably by the desire to have the required course behind them. After graduation their attitude towards such studies is at best neutral. However, more often there are negative implications—for example, parents who excuse their own children's problems with a certain subject because "I wasn't good at it when I was in school, either." And, of course, this also means that their own lives as adults are, for most practical purposes, untouched by such instruction.

Curriculum theorists commonly recognize these problems of traditional schooling. They are, however, commonplace in music education, as well. Thus, a "music appreciation" approach to comprehensive or general education typically fails to develop either the connoisseurship and 'taste' for 'good music' favored by classroom instruction or functional musical skills useful outside of school and throughout life. And, similarly, the adept minority in school ensembles typically fails to develop either the commitment or the independent musicianship needed to continue performing beyond graduation. As a result, the benefits to individuals and society of such music studies are as unclear as for many other subjects studied in school.

The situation with studying music in school might be thought to be different because, clearly, music is first and foremost a valued and therefore common social praxis. Unlike many school subjects, music and its relevance are facts of life. Disciplines have developed that study different aspects and types of musical praxis, of course. But the disciplines of music, as such, are not the reason or value for which any musical praxis exists in the first place! And while every musical praxis necessarily involves some kind and degree of 'discipline' (that is, "practice in the praxis"), the musical 'doing' in question embraces a wide range of personal and participatory interests and abilities — from vernacular, naïve, folk and amateur to expert, aficionado and professional. In all cases, however, the vernacular, naïve, folk and amateur kinds of musicking, and other widely varied personal and social uses of music—what sociologist Tia DeNora calls "music in everyday life"—are more at the core of any society than the more rarefied and technically demanding manifestations, though these also make a unique contribution.

Herein, then, lies the problem: Social and cultural theorists from a variety of disciplines acknowledge that music in everyday life is in fact very healthy, robust and active. In traditional and modern societies alike, music serves countless and important personal and social goods. Because it both 'carries' and shapes cultural life and individual consciousness and meets a wide variety of social purposes it is ever-present in any society.

The issue, then, is not the value of music but uncertainty concerning the value of music education. To the degree instruction is concerned with 'disinterested appreciation' or concerns itself with only the adept or self-selected few, music in school becomes disconnected from its important roles and functions in everyday life on the part of ordinary people. It suffers from the arid, neutralizing "scholastic point of view" sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has described that is devoid of all practical intentions or tangible relevance. School music, as a result, becomes a praxis of its own, the value of which applies mainly to students only while they are in music class, formally taking lessons, or in connection with school-based performance. As a consequence, too many music teachers have little evidence and thus little assurance that their efforts have made a lasting difference. They prefer to believe and contend that simply including music in the curriculum somehow has intangible benefits that are realized (and thus expressed) only in vague, almost spiritual terms.

It has been said, correctly I think, that music is too important to be left to musicians; and the same might be said for its academic study in traditional schooling—that music is too important to be reduced to a subject or a discipline or a vaguely described realm of abstract, metaphysical values. Instead, music is a personal, social and cultural praxis that is more basic to the good life than many of the academic 'basics' featured in schools. As a socially created reality, music simultaneously participates in and contributes to the commonly shared sociality serving all human actions, institutions and needs. As such it is one of the greatest, on-going achievements of human kind; a major contribution of human intelligence, sociality and creativity. As a social praxis of immense currency in every society, music continues on a daily basis to influence and enhance consciousness in ways far more important than the hallowed status it is often accorded when treated as a 'museum' rather than a 'living' art.

Many noble-sounding and august claims are made in behalf of this rarefied mode of musical "high" culture. In fact, sociologists and cultural theorists widely acknowledge that formal schooling ideologically favors this vague, cerebral and culturally 'elevated' conception of 'classy' music. Yet it is with music—of all kinds, types and 'levels'—as used in the living of daily life that we create and appreciate its value. When cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that "meaning is use, or more carefully, arises from use," he reminds us that the value of an art such as music is determined by "how it is used, who owns it, when it is performed, who performs or makes it, what role it plays in this or that activity, what it may be exchanged for, what it is called, how it began, and so forth and so on"; in other words, its value is not preordained but arises only as constituted by particular musical practices and customs. Such value, in his words, depends on at the same time it contributes to a social "sensibility" for art and music that is "as wide as social existence and as deep"—a sensibility that goes well-beyond what philosopher Nelson Goodman described as "the absurd and awkward myth of the insularity of aesthetic experience."

Much of the advocacy for school music takes for granted this paradigm of the "insularity of aesthetic experience." Treating music as aesthetically self-contained leads, first, to studying 'about' music as though it's meaning can be found already formed in autonomous 'works' or performances by the intellectual discrimination and connoisseurship developed only by schooling or as a privilege of social class. Thus, and secondly, it leads to the sequestering of music in what musicologist Lydia Goehr called "the imaginary museum of musical works"—in the concert hall—rather than contributing to the living of daily life through 'doing' music in some form. Music, then, is often mistakenly considered and therefore taught as a pre-finished 'product' for appreciative consumption rather than as a vital 'process' by which both individual and social reality and consciousness are in part constituted.

Where music is taught as a social praxis, students become personally productive in one or more musical praxis. Considered as praxis, music is thus understood as processual: It is taught as an act of musicking that is realized within the diverse musicianship traditions of numerous genres, styles and uses, and that is decisively shaped by the particularizing requirements of the uniquely situated  occasion—that is, by the personal and social needs occasioning a present instance of musicking. This approach to instruction focuses attention on performing (of all kinds and proficiencies) and composing (understood broadly as creating, improvising, etc.)—that is, it focuses on doing rather than on vague or high-minded ideas about "music appreciation."

Listening, regarded processually, becomes directly energized by the sociality of the particular occasion (i.e., the social practice occasioning the music), stimulates varied 'interpretations' afforded by the music (e.g., from affective to intellectual, spontaneous to studied), and even responds to the semiotics of the space in which the music is heard (e.g., hearing a chorale in a church service versus in a secular concert hall)—to mention only a few of the most important aspects of sociality that work against the possibility of insular or immanent meaning. Schooling of music as and for social praxis, then, forges direct connections for students between education and their present and future musical choices and musical lives. The role of music as personal and social agency thus produces tangible consequences the value of which is perfectly obvious.

Unlike most other school studies, music is already widely and conspicuously used and thus valued in daily life. In both traditional and modern societies its ubiquitous presence develops and reflects the social consciousness and shared values—in broad terms, the "common sense"—that constitutes a society, culture or 'sub-culture'. And the key role of music in creating and 'expressing' the stage between childhood and adulthood that modern societies reserve for "adolescence" is a relatively recent and consequential socio-cultural development in its social relevance and implications. Regarding music as a social praxis appropriately reinforces the intimate relation of music to both the personal and social self rather than treating it as self-contained and autonomous in its meanings and values.

An education that strengthens and extends the connection of music to daily life—to self and society—is a value added to a value. The social fact of musics already in existence is evidence of the first level of value. The 'value added' level, then, is the contribution of schooling. It amounts to what students can do newly, at all, or better with regard to the musics and musical knowledge and skills they bring to school with them each day; in other words, to what of music, as a result, they are enabled to choose to 'practice' throughout life as part of the good life.

With such teaching, which is by no means rare, teachers do not experience the problem of student apathy or disinterest. Rather, the challenge becomes one of formally harnessing, focusing and guiding students' already abundant musical energies in ways and directions that enable, enrich and extend their choices and capabilities for musicking throughout life. Where this kind of teaching takes place—whether in the private lesson, the comprehensive school, independent music schools, or in the mentoring and models of adept peers and elders—there is no need to offer fine and noble sounding words legitimating the value of music or its study. Its value is already a personal and social fact for students—who, as the next generation of parents, social leaders, politicians, etc., are thus favorably disposed to music education. The value of such teaching is tangible; it is easily seen in the active musical lives students are enabled to create for themselves and for society and culture. As a result, there is no doubt concerning the relevance of music or education, or a need for the advocacy or defense of either.

Wittgenstein famously said, "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," reminding us that meaning arises only with use, only in or from action. Given its personal and social importance in every society, the meaning and value of music is abundantly clear; and the meaning or value of music education is something that cannot be said, only seen—in action, as praxis.

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