“Performing and listening (or composing, or improvising, etc.) are not superior or inferior to one another in virtue of bringing us closer to the absolute or essential condition of music, because music does not have an absolute or essential condition.”
~ Wayne D. Bowman (Bowman, 2005, p. 161)
To come to an understanding of my own personal philosophy of music education I had first to explore the history of education and music’s role within it. What I discovered was three millennia’s worth of dichotomous struggle: the pull of reason (the practical school of thought) against the pull of emotion (the aesthetic school of thought). Nowhere else has this dichotomy become more apparent, nor more important, than in the field of music education, where the aesthetes of Bennett Reimer debate the practitioners of David J. Elliott over the roles of aesthetic appreciation and performance of music.
Since the time of Ancient Greece, philosophers have debated the importance of education and how best to implement it. The education of the whole person, the search for “truth” as the Greeks saw it, came through physical and mental preparation (Mark & Gary, 2007). Over the course of history, Western societies have struggled with balancing these two basic components of education, and the struggle continues today.
Formal education, or “schooling” for lack of a better term (as I consider learning to take place not only at “school” but everywhere there is an opportunity for learning), in the American tradition has struggled with the same issues over the past two centuries. From the earliest public schools in Boston, adhering to the teachings of Johann Pestalozzi, American education has fluctuated between the practical and the moral (Mark & Gary, 2007). Curricular decisions, and the implementation thereof, whether they are progressive, conservative, or innovative, have changed as the needs of American society have moved from those of an agrarian-based colony to that of a technologically advanced world power. But one must remember that these curricular decisions were made by the powerful few while affecting the education of all.
Formal education, in my personal view, is society’s greatest hope for the future, in spite of the political agenda from which it is ultimately derived. A small group of legislators, or bureaucrats from the executive branch, have the power to affect great changes in educational reform and compliance with national standards (i.e. standardized tests), through the continued threat of financial retribution: if states do not meet national standards, the federal government can withhold funding. To that end, whichever political party or philosophy currently holds sway, the educational process will be influenced accordingly.
Education in America today is designed to produce highly qualified workers that can fulfill the needs of a corporation-based society, as exemplified by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (Varshavsky, 2011). The No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on standardized test scores, is giving way to a more holistic, albeit still testable, approach to education in America. The underlying assumption here is that American students, in order to be competitive on a global scale, must not only be knowledgeable in core subject areas, but must also be creative and flexible enough in their thinking to adapt to a constantly shifting paradigm of global expectations. In short, we want our students to out-think and out-create our international competition.
That American society as a whole values corporate-driven ideals of education has yet to be determined, but there is no doubt that the current trend in educational reform has placed an emphasis on educating students in curricula that are designed to meet such needs. Music education, then, must not only align somewhere within the given model, but it must also prove to be an invaluable, indomitable force for educating our students within the given parameters of education today.
Music education has been dominated for the last forty years by the teachings of Bennett Reimer. Reimer’s approach places emphasis on the aesthetical, or emotionally reactive, value of music. “We get the feelings directly from the music – not from ideas about music, information about music, the vocabulary of music, facts about music, the history of music, cultural backgrounds of music, music theory, music philosophy, or any of the other associated learnings in the music education enterprise” [original emphasis] (Reimer, 2003, p. 95). Reimer acknowledges that different cultures, experiences, and other outside influences can, and do, impact our music experiences. However, he believes that those factors are secondary to the true nature of music. “But at root it [music] goes beyond such functions, immersing them [students] as one determining factor in the immediacy of sounds configured to be felt” [original emphasis] (Reimer, 2003, p. 95).
For years, music educators, myself included, have used the aesthetic value of music to justify its curricular importance. From Ancient Greece through the Progressive education movement in America in the early twentieth century, music educators tied music’s intrinsic value to other areas in order to justify its place among core subjects. “Character development, healthy leisure activities, and socialization, democratic values, and citizenship by participating in civic events and playing patriotic music were all consonant with progressive education goals” (Mark and Gary, 2007, p. 300). But the justification of music as a means by which other educational subjects might be learned is a logical fallacy: one does not justify something by making it part of something to which it does not belong. I had long suspected that placing my curricular area’s importance on how it supported the “core” subject areas would eventually result in the de-emphasis of music in education. But I did not have the means, or the experience from which to draw it, to induce a different philosophy – until I read the works of David J. Elliott.
In his seminal work Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education, Elliott sets out a philosophy based on an active participation in music making (Elliott, 1995). Yes, music has a parenthetical relationship with the aesthetical, but according to Elliott, true musicianship only comes through performance, whether in class, individually, or as part of a group performance on stage (Elliott, 1995). Moreover, music must become more than just the regurgitation of theoretical or historical facts. “In short, music education programs must not become just one more situation for the development of knowing-that” (Elliott, 1995, p. 260). In this regard, Reimer and Elliott would seem to agree. But it is Elliott’s praxial (or practical) approach to music that sets his philosophy at odds with that of Reimer.
As an educator, I have struggled with the notion that what I’m teaching in my orchestra classroom does not align with the curricular goals of my school, my district, and my profession as a whole. It wasn’t that I didn’t truly believe in what I was teaching, but I struggled to articulate that it was not only pertinent, but necessary, to a student’s education. I have come to realize that what I am teaching has already been articulated in Elliott’s work: I teach musicianship (Elliott, 1995).
Musicianship, as defined by Elliott, includes listenership, taking into consideration the passive and active roles of the musician and teacher in the creative/educational process (Elliott, 1995):
Musicianship is the key to achieving the values, aims, and goals of music education. Musicianship, which includes listenership, is a rich form of procedural knowledge that draws upon four other kinds of musical knowing in surrounding and supporting ways. Musicianship is context-sensitive, or situated: that is, the precise nature and content of musicianship differs from practice to practice, and musicianship develops through progressive musical problem solving in teaching-learning environments designed as close likenesses of real music cultures. (Elliott, 1995, p. 260)
Music is universal then, speaking to all cultures across the planet regardless of exposure to the Western idea of “classical music.” Children sing and dance without having to be taught. It is in the music classroom, however, that musicianship can be refined and advanced as the student progresses through a series of musical challenges (Elliott, 1995). According to Elliott, musicianship “is not something given by nature to some children and not to others” (Elliott, 1995, p. 260). In other words, music is for everyone. Perhaps Elliott sums it up best when he says “the best music curriculum for the best music students is the best music curriculum for all music students” (Elliott, 1995, p. 260). The study of music, or rather the pursuit of musicianship through a music class, is a means in and of itself, that should not only benefit a selected few students; it should be available to all students.
It is through the study of musicianship, whether it is in band, choir, or orchestra, that we can best prepare our students to be critical and creative thinkers in the next century. Through the application of musical challenges in the classroom, coupled with appropriate guidance, music teachers can guide their students to higher levels of creativity (Elliott, 1995). And this leads directly to appropriate assessments based on musicianship in the classroom. Students become active assessors in the creative process, and when the teacher acknowledges that assessment “is not a matter of two or three special events that occur outside the normal stream of teaching and learning,” (Elliott, 1995, p. 264) then the assessment of musicianship over time becomes the primary focus.
Through my studies of the aesthetic and praxial branches of music education, I developed a personal philosophy of music education:
I believe that all students can learn and thrive in an environment that celebrates individual differences while creating a coherent musical experience. I strive to teach in a manner that allows each student to feel that they are an important part of the learning and teaching process. I believe that variations in the environment in which students learn, the manner in which lessons are taught and by whom, and the intensity at which rehearsals are paced can lead to students’ greater understanding of music, people, and the world around them. I believe in the power of music to change us all for the better.
I was purposeful in delineating my belief in Quantum Learning Theory and the concept of Cognitive Dissonance. However, I now know that I was also proposing the use of musicianship, as defined by Elliott, as a tenet in my teaching, in that there is a performance aspect that creates a coherent musical experience. But I must also acknowledge the influence of Reimer and the aesthetes, in that I do believe in the power of music to change us all for the better.
Perhaps Wane D. Bowman sums it up best in his essay Why Musical Performance:
[Musical performance] is a mode of action – of direct, bodily engagement in production of musical sound that offers a powerful and much-needed alternative to the pervasive consumer-orientation of most educational practice. It is an enactment of self- (or selves-) expression or self-educational practice. Because of its unique phenomenal characteristics, it can be highly motivating and rewarding, and its overt, productive nature makes it amenable to evaluation. (Bowman, 2005, p. 162)
It is not only the performance aspect that leads to the creativity needed for a 21st Century workforce, but performance is a part of a balanced music philosophy that will give my students the skills needed to be successful, not only in music but also in life. Music for the sake of music is difficult to justify in an era of economic downturn and tough curricular decisions; however music for the sake of musicianship and creativity in my students is an argument that is difficult to refute. By striking a balance of aesthetic and practical approaches to music in my classroom, I can better serve the needs of my students, my school, the community in which I teach, and society at large.
Bowman, W. D. (2005). Why music performance? Views praxial to performative. In D. J. Elliott (Ed.), Praxial Music Education: Reflections and dialogues (pp. 142-164). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Elliott, D. J. (1995). Music matters: A new philosophy of music education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Mark, M. L., & Gary, C. L. (2007). A history of American music education. (3rd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Reimer, B. (2003). A philosophy of music education: Advancing the vision. (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Varshavsky, T. (2011). Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Retrieved from http://www.p21.org