music education in search of a future

stephen whittington delineates the challenges

“…NOW WE REALISE THAT ALL EDUCATION IS MAGNETIZED BY SOMETHING THAT IS TACIT AND IMPLIED, WHILE INSTRUCTION THAT IS MERELY EXPLICIT SOUNDS SHRILL AND HORRID, LIKE A PASSAGE OF RACINE DECLAIMED IN THE PENITENTIARY ON THE WARDEN’S BIRTHDAY…”
Roberto Calasso, The Ruin of Kasch, Harvard University Press, 1994

There are changes sweeping through Australian tertiary music education, but the mood of staff across the country is far from optimistic. Many music schools are struggling with budget deficits and politically driven demands for more accountability that are constant distractions from the real business at hand. Most staff cannot remember a time when it was otherwise. They have begun to doubt whether such a time ever existed. And some are apprehensive about the direction in which change is taking us. Yet the real reason for their gloom is not the lack of time or money, but the nagging fear that these problems are merely symptoms of an underlying problem: that the educational ideal they still believe in is not shared by the community or by the system in which they work.

We are partly to blame. We have acquiesced—passively or otherwise—in the creation of the world we now live in. We have not been effective advocates for what we do. And we have been slow to respond to changes in the art of music as it is practised outside the academies.

a special case

The situation may be similar in other art practices, but music is a special case. In no other area of the arts (aside from classical ballet) is professional education predicated on the assumption that a significant proportion of students have been engaged in the disciplined study and practice of the art since childhood. The nearest point of comparison is not with the other arts but with sport, which enjoys strong government and community support. The situation of tertiary music schools cannot be considered in isolation from the music education system as a whole. Without the foundation of strong music programs at primary and secondary levels and high quality private teaching, the tertiary music enterprise is doomed to failure.

School music programs are under threat across Australia. This is partly because they are expensive, while the benefits are not easily measured in economic terms. It is also because classical music in particular is tarred with the brush of elitism. Yet surely no one has a problem with the concept that individuals with exceptional talent exist and should be nurtured. This is accepted in the sporting arena where elite athletes are the objects of community adulation and national pride.

other talent, other ways

Musical talent is not confined to the comfortable middle class. While a boy from a remote Aboriginal community might become an AFL star, demographic evidence of tertiary music enrolments indicates that (far less remote) outer suburbs of our major cities produce few classical musicians. This has been the great failure of musical education at all levels in this country. One answer to this is to encourage the development in schools of programs focussing on popular music, giving culturally disadvantaged students access to music education through music that they can relate to. Paradoxically, in the name of access such programs deny them entry to the deeper levels of culture. The much-reported Venezuelan approach, ‘el sistema’—which has thousands of children from slums playing in classical youth orchestras—shows that there are other ways.

one to one to…

Much music education remains grounded on an ancient and precious tradition: the close relationship between student and teacher. This goes beyond mere instruction; the teacher is a guide and an example, a person whose selfless dedication to the art of music provides the model that the student is implicitly called upon to emulate. This is the principle that ‘magnetizes’ music education, and the tacit understanding of it underpins what we do. As an ethical principle it eludes all attempts by educational bureaucracies to contain or control it, and make it subservient to the principles on which the current system is founded. The periodic assaults launched by administrators are couched in economic terms, on the grounds that individual instruction is too expensive. The suspicion remains that behind the economic arguments lies a deep mistrust of a mode of education whose core values stand in stark contrast to the prevailing ideology.

While the model of the teacher remains precariously in place, classical instrumental instruction seems slowly to be undergoing overdue changes. The traditional pattern was the training of the soloist; no matter that few students were suited to such a career. A realisation has dawned that we must better equip students for what they will actually be doing professionally, with courses in pedagogy and more emphasis on ensemble playing becoming common. But it is still rare for courses to provide classical instrumentalists with training in improvisation or the use of technology, or meaningful experiences of musical traditions (whether playing jazz or raga) other than their own.

opening out composition

Composition courses have gradually embraced music for film and theatre, but the proclivity to insist that students write orchestral works that will never be performed still lingers. As the primary creative force in music, composition sits uneasily in the academic world. The free play of the imagination is not easily reconciled with the constraints of a system that wants everything explicable and quantifiable. The academies have therefore taken certain forms of composition to their bosoms, and studiously ignored others. Any composition student even modestly acquainted with music history will be aware of the scorn poured on academic composition by the greatest composers (Debussy: “[Music] must never be shut in and become an academic art”; Stravinsky: “Never trust a willing academic.”) Unsurprisingly, such remarks are rarely discussed in composition classes.

Similar misgivings have been felt about the acceptance of jazz into the academic world, not (anymore) stemming from the belief that jazz is unworthy of inclusion, but from the fear that the creative impulse in jazz will be stifled. Such doubts have been assuaged to some extent by the success of tertiary jazz programs and the fine artists they have produced. Jazz education has been ahead of classical in its emphasis on ensemble experience, but students rarely gain practical experience of alternative improvisatory traditions or the integration of technology in performance. As with any form of music education, the extent to which jazz is reduced to formulaic repetition of conventions is a measure of its failure. Its potential success rests on its ability to constantly renew tradition through imagination. The same can be said of classical training; in fact, jazz as taught in music schools has all the hallmarks of a classical art form. We must wait to see whether a similar future awaits rock music, which is yet to find a place in most institutions.

inescapable technology

The newcomer on the block is the burgeoning field of music technology. Music schools have long accepted technology as an adjunct to composition (though often awarding electronic composition inferior status to instrumental composition) but are now being obliged to confront technology’s presence in nearly every sphere of musical endeavour. A deep-seated mistrust persists, which is not entirely misplaced. Technological novelty too often masquerades as originality, scientism dominates aesthetics, and hard-won skills are replaced by software. At the same time technology is an inescapable fact of the musical future. Music schools are confronting a dual challenge: how to deal with a new group of students whose musical experience has been entirely shaped by technology (and who often lack conventional musical training), and how to prepare instrumentalists and composers for a technologically mediated future.

eroding division

The nature of the forgoing discussion illustrates the enduring hold of an educational outlook that segregates specialisations such as composition, technology and performance, and genres such as classical, jazz and world music. Rigid divisions of any kind defy the musical reality of the present time, and while some progress has been made towards eroding them, there is still a long way to go. Institutions need to prepare students for an increasing diversity of career possibilities that cannot be served by a restrictive and narrowly defined curriculum.

The arts have a love-hate relationship with institutionalised academe. They have accepted the shelter it offers but resent the demands and constraints it imposes. The essence of what the arts teach is implicit and unquantifiable, but we have to articulate it and quantify it to justify our existence. The challenges are perpetual: how to respect tradition without being stifled by it, how to honour the past while embracing the present, and how teach an art that is defined by freedom and imagination within an institutional framework that is encumbered by rigidity and inertia. The future of music education depends on how we meet these challenges.

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. 22

© Stephen Whittington; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2007