Music education: an industrial evolution

Richard Vella & Andy Arthurs

Two composers and music educators describe the forces changing the nature of tertiary music education.

AA When I first arrived in Australia at the end of May 1991 it took only a week to realise that I was in a culture that had certainly not shaken off the shackles of its colonial past. It was the Queen’s birthday—a public holiday. In the UK no-one knew when the Queen’s birthday was, let alone celebrated it in any way.

I realised there was a similar situation in music education. Except for some innovative exceptions such as La Trobe University Music department (sadly, now closed) and Southern Cross University, the model was by and large the traditional English one. Unfortunately classical art music in the UK is a pretty poor example. No English-born composer from the 18th and 19th centuries was considered internationally significant.

In the 1960s, by a series of lucky accidents, England at last discovered its musical creativity with rock music and the Beatles. This music found fertile soil at home and was easily exportable to other English speaking nations (most notably the USA) in a way the English classical composers had never experienced.

Until then music had been highbrow or lowbrow, then middlebrow. The 60s was the start of what John Seabrook called nobrow, “a world where anything goes provided it sells” (Nobrow, Methuen, London, 2000). This gave England the swinging 60s and a newfound confidence.

Not so here. Australia was too far from the epicentre of the music business. In an area where an idea can be 2 weeks too late, the physical time and distance was too great. Of course there were some successes, but nothing like the tidal wave that swept the UK.

Unfortunately the academy largely ignored this change, concentrating more on maintaining so called ‘standards.’ These standards did not respect and therefore did not respond to a public change of preference. Understanding this was left to the cultural theorists. Important influences were technology’s increasing connectivity, the mass media determining and being determined by audience taste, cultural change and the relationship between technology and lifestyle. All of these bring us to the double edged sword of globalisation.

RV One can see these global influences on tertiary music here. Many changes were triggered by the Dawkins Report (Parliamentary Paper: 20/2/1988), which required smaller tertiary institutions with student numbers less than 2,000 to amalgamate with a parent university or combine with other small institutions to form a new university. For the smaller institutions, amalgamation directly affected budgetary control as this was either lost or restricted. Student numbers became the basis for income generation, forcing departments to rethink their course offerings. The university system transformed into a market economy. Departments became competitive and vulnerable to decisions beyond their direct control. External influences needed to be taken into consideration such as industry trends, the mass media and globalisation.

AA The potentially good news for Australian music in the global economy is that we move towards a world where the centre is wherever the centre is. And any part of the surface of a sphere is equidistant from its centre. Most important is connectivity, speed and ideas. This is not, however, a world where classical music is doomed, nor popular music blessed. As Manuel Castells has argued: “Globalisation is highly selective. It proceeds by linking all that, according to dominant interests, has value anywhere in the planet, and discarding anything which has no value or becomes devalued” (“Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network Society”, British Journal of Sociology, vol no 5, no 1, London School of Economics, Jan/Mar 2000). In a globalised environment, cults can flourish, provided one is networked to seek out similarly minded individuals from around the world. In a networked world, however, you cannot assume to be the spokesperson of a dominant culture.

RV With so much music being made today and a student population well connected to various networks, the pressure on music departments to be ‘relevant’ and at the same time developing musical skills and thinking is enormous. Something must give as there are not enough resources to teach everything, nor staff fluent in all the forms of music-making activity. Consequently, the 90s have seen new approaches to content and modes of delivery.

For some institutions content delivery has been reprioritised. Traditionally, most music courses were based on performance and notation skills and an assumption that western art music repertoire was fundamental. The student population in Australia now consists of people from rock, folk, jazz, techno, rap, classical etc backgrounds. Who is to say that the values of western European repertoire are more important than those of Middle Eastern music?

Larger classes have required changes to the modes of delivery. The rule is: if a department wants an increased budget allocation, then student numbers must increase. In this paradigm, small classes such as one to one teaching are financially unviable. Today, a performance student receives only 26 lessons per year. This affects continuity and qualitative learning issues, and staff become overworked. However, solutions can be found in collaborative, modular and flexible learning, technology-aided teaching, web site access, teaching software exploring interactivity and project based learning. It would not be too difficult to implement and include alternative teaching deliveries to free up staff time and not diminish standards.

AA The focus on skill development is a result of course content being more career relevant. However, does this mean a downskilling of musicians? If viewed through the traditional lens of melody, rhythm and harmony, then the answer is yes. If viewed as a series of specific skills for a particular job then opportunities abound. It takes a particular skill and aesthetic to write and perform for the living room or the concert hall or the church or for film or TV or interactive media.

So we need a broader definition of musicianship and music literacy. We have to acknowledge there are many ways to be a musician and there is no hierarchy of goodness in this. It is significant that the UK’s richest person in 2001 is Paul McCartney, a man whose inability to read music would bar him from most music institutions in this country. The jobbing musicians whose only skill is to faithfully play the notes may be admirable, but their status is diminishing.

Music institutions and departments need to remain indispensable if they want to survive in a quickly changing music industry. There are no safe havens. Every musician has to work towards connecting with performers and audiences in various modes and media by using ideas that have cultural relevance, be that with a home-grown product, or by value adding to a product from elsewhere. It is becoming a truly borderless world. Whether the music is Australian or not is of little practical consideration. All that matters is that we create, not just copy. Our education structure has not been very supportive of creativity. However, encouragingly, the Australian Research Council recently has included Creative Arts in its research funding. If we as teachers can shift our emphasis away from repertoire to creation, we are truly assisting the education of future musicians to be professionals in the field, instead of McDonald’s workers.

RV A slow shift is occurring from copying to creating: a shift from repertoire based teaching (ie studying and emulating the great canon of set works) to generic teaching using cross disciplinary works. The generic approach enables musical understanding via analogy: the student transfers patterns heard in one structure to another, such as identifying various pulse and melodic relationships in an excerpt from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a samba from Latin America and an Aboriginal song. In both approaches creativity is used to facilitate an understanding of musical structure, style and form. However, in the former, creative thinking is confined to one of emulation, such as writing in the style of Palestrina or Charlie Parker, whereas through the converging of different traditions in the latter, creative thinking enables the creation of individual style, new repertoire, new contexts.

AA So, is creativity a free for all? I think not. It demands a set of skills, a knowledge of the buzz of the time, some nous and some luck. Be too similar to something else and you’re dead. Be too different and you are ignored. We are dealing in a market of symbols in what Justin O’Connor says is a “very volatile and fast moving symbolic circuit” (The Definition of Cultural Industries, Manchester Institute for Popular Culture, 1999). Not the classic environment of your average tertiary institution.

RV In order to survive this fast moving circuit, music departments must be adaptable, understand the benchmarks of creative thinking skills in music and identify the relationships existing between these skills, industry and personal vocation.

AA Just as enterprises in general have become information technology-intensive, they now are becoming more ‘creativity-intensive.’ Professor Stuart Cunningham, writing about Queensland University of Technology’s labelling as a Creative Industries university, says “the creative industries concept is a recognition that the future of the new economy lies in the move from IT to content‚ from infrastructure to creative applications” ( Higher Education Supplement, The Australian, June 27).

There is risk in this. Anything that relies on technology is constantly moving towards obsolescence. The recording industry is nothing like the industry of 10 years ago. And the next generation of musicians will need to be able to cope with these fast moving changes. They need to be creative within the market. They need to be connected and flexible. And therefore so do the staff of our music institutions.

RV Flexibility is the answer. In an environment in which industry relevance has become the benchmark, it is now important that staff actively engage with many industry stakeholders. This enables opportunities, peer interaction, the maintaining of relevant technical standards, potential increases in revenue from new sources, and provides dynamic role models for students. The tertiary music education sector engages with the music industry sector and vice versa. However, in conjunction there needs to be some development of a critical practice combining systematic enquiry and analysis into one’s own discipline area with creative thinking, as well as music literacy which embraces and positions new forms and contexts with the more traditional approaches to music making.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 10

© Andy Arthurs & Richard Vella; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001
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