Philosophy and the Teacher of Music

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Philosophizing is a normal human pursuit. It involves a perfectly normal search for what men honestly deem to be real, true, and of value. It cuts across all of man's behaviors and beliefs, from naturalism to supernaturalism, including matters of functional, material, and spiritual concern. A variety of fundamental questions would qualify as acceptable—indeed, highly charged—philosophical probes: Who am I? Am I really here? What purposes do I serve? What values should I support? How shall I know? Possible solutions often stand (sometimes quite drenched) under that protective, liberal umbrella characterized by the Latin dictum: Errare humanum est. . . .

Both questions and modes of solution point up those ordinary and extraordinary desires of man to play with ideas in diverse affairs of life, whether overpopulation or music. Argumentation, preferably well thought out and surely dispassionate, is an important gateway to philosophical inquiry and problem solving, for in the process other questions, often more significant, are raised and the quest for modes of agreement sought anew.

In a recent lecture at U.C.L.A., the ethnomusicologist Norma McLeod raised the rhetorical question, "Who needs music?" Just what kind of consensus of opinion might be offered in response? But there is need to retreat just one step and pose several necessarily related questions: What is music? Is there a finite answer in the mainstream of Western thought? What kinds of complication to the "truth" (knowing) set in when the initial question is opened globally? Is there evidence of a unified Western posture? Is there any possibility of a satisfactory world-wide, universal reference? If so, in what sense?

Clearly this line of inquiry can become razor-sharp, begging for answers which, in the very process of probing, become transformed to grass roots levels before returning. Frustrating to some while enlightening to others, philosophy remains the search for the "good." To philosophize well is to seek out this generic good in both logical and intuitive ways (often eclectic) which culminate in some consistency of belief and practice, i.e., a philosophical position offering cognitive and emotive direction for purposeful living and doing, however in stages of constant refinement. I submit that such a Gradus ad Parnassum is neither simple nor impossible; nor is it directed in any unusual way to any particular level or specialized area in music education. All who would teach, just as all who would learn—given the critically generated setting for both to occur—are caught up in the inextricable web of decision-making and discriminative patterns of thought; in short, philosophizing.

Now the products of philosophizing may be purely ideational (that is, speculative or even utopian); they may also be quite concrete as evidenced by actual application—sociocultural, political, utilitarian, etc. In any case, aspects of morality, ethics, taste, theology, scientific attitude, etc. are apt to become involved.

Plato's speculation with music as imitation ("harmony of the spheres in motion") was morally and ethically bound up with censorship, perniciousness, and consequently with the welfare of the state. Overtones of Platonic Idealism are contained in Soviet Socialist Realism. (Recent reports from meetings of Soviet musicologists show that problems of definition and purpose still remain.) Schopenhauer's logically spunout conception of music as conceivable even if there were no world may be cited as idle exaggeration (to some idle minds), but there are parallels in Schoenberg's Style and Idea, Hindemith's The Composer's World, and Stravinsky's Poetics. A welter of similar thought—of the physical and metaphysical nature of music and man—prevail in many Eastern philosophical systems.

Of course, there is no cause-effect guarantee of "rightness" or "goodness" in matters of philosophical idea or consequent result. On the one hand, we note the highly desirable changes motivated by Martin Luther King's "dream"; on the other remain the disastrous outcomes of Hitler's Mein Kampf—both realized in terms of speculative thought, philosophical commitment, and certainly down-to-earth applications.

Erroneously, one might conclude from this line of discussion that philosophical inquiry maintains itself best (safest?) in its pristine pure state of ideation, removed from everyday concerns. In music, when argumentative levels occur, for example, over interpretation, such tendency becomes attractively common and frequently fallacious. Too often, we either tend to avoid critical discourse ("Don't say it, play it"), or rely on overstatement, e.g., De gustibus non disputandem. When examined carefully, the implication of the latter can be discerned. Tastes, of course, can and should be argued, agreement or lack of agreement notwithstanding.

To teach music requires some commitment to some philosophy of education, that is, a conception of the "musical good" in view of helping others to achieve it. Particulars aside, the good life is assumed to be the general educational goal; the good music, the experimental path.

As such, teaching has been traditionally upheld as the keystone of professions. Unlike the salesman or dentist, our payoff occurs when people function well and remain independent of our services. We simply don't want them to keep coming back.

It is in the interaction of music and man wherein we make our particular educational contribution. If this idea is acceptable, I suspect that the central, unifying thread in our collective philosophies is humanistic, rather than positivistic; personalized, rather than behaviorized. After all, we are not talking about products or educational processes, but people. No two of us are completely alike; nor are we all "turned on" to the same thing. Of prime import is that healthy, alive core present in every human being, however individualized and conditioned within any given sociocultural matrix.

This is not poetic fantasy. What we do in any classroom or studio is largely affected by how we view our purpose for being there. On broader global grounds, the philosopher reminds us of the recurrent problem, that "man doesn't know what he's doing because he doesn't know why he's doing it." (Even Masters and Johnson have stated that until sex is accepted as essential, alive, breathing, we are going to continue to have problems, moral, ethical, biological, etc.) Nor are inconsistencies between one's philosophy and practice easily disguised. Emerson's comment is appropriate: "How can I hear what you say when what you are keeps ringing in my ears." Perhaps we have a covert principle of educational philosophy in these words echoed in the following illustration:

One of my most memorable classroom experiences was watching a college professor bet his brains against the laws of physics. Standing at one side of a cavernous auditorium, he held to his forehead an iron ball attached by a long cable to the ceiling. Then he let it go and stood unmoving as the ball swung across the room and back. It did not, as the laws of motion said it would not, bash his brains out. The students were tremendously impressed, both relieved and faintly disappointed. . . .

American higher education has great need for professors [and lower education for teachers] who have the ability to speak in terms the students can understand, to arouse and hold interest, to exemplify and illustrate and demonstrate. The greatly skilled teacher of this kind may embody the larger example: the professor as a being worthy of emulation [italics mine]. Students need the kind of professor who is willing to bet his skill against the knowledge he possesses, willing too to make the test in public, and to risk that his students may be entertained at the same time they are edified.1

But our discipline is music. Questions of reality, truth, and value are not so satisfactorily illustrative,demonstrative, or proven in the arts. In lieu of "laws" we tend to be guided by principles. Indeed, given the many possible "right" answers to problems of musicality, meaning, function, expression, perception, significance, response, coupled with the fact that there is no solidly unified agreement as to how we learn music—just what is the place of music in formal education at any level?

The question is academic, of course. The uniqueness of music in the life of man needs no defense, but it does need study for the sake of refined, sensitive, and discriminative understandings—in the final analysis, highly desirable, covert, personal modes of experience we have come to call aesthetic. All music teaching is in some way an exercise in aesthetic-philosophic inquiry. Like religion, the ultimate truth lies more in faith than with fact; the value, with the experience more so than with intellectual analysis or physical laws; with realms of imaginative reality and "serious play" rather than with the gratification of concrete ordinary biological needs, viz., food, clothing, and shelter. If we are to accept a commitment to teaching upholding the interaction of music and man as foremost, then pedagogy should reflect philosophy; we should approach music teaching as a search into the interactional phenomenon. However illusive the problems of the nature of music may be (given world views and even, in some cultures, the lack of a considered "definition"), it is the artistic, phenomenological basis which serves to guide our continuous process of probing. Put differently, since art is dynamic and we do not know all the final answers (questions aside), we should not be teaching in a manner presumptive of absolute laws and procedures. Unlike the physics professor, we cannot rely on laws of motion, for we know particularly from ethnomusicological research that globally, musical laws are deceptive when explored for purposes of formulating universal generalizations. This is not to state that principles common to all musics cannot be derived, however fundamental, as a valuable means toward both teaching practices and philosophical speculation.

Of course, there are at least two hidden premises in these remarks: that change in both the philosophy and practice of music teaching is inherent to the nature of the art; that current education can be likened to Pepto-Bismol: "Sometimes, if you don't shake it up enough, it won't work." Detectable also are a few philosophical vibrations hinting at possible confusions between such dualisms as the following. All still stand in need of clarification:

Methods and music
Music and musicality (musicianship, talent, etc.)
Science and art
Teaching and research
Values and evaluation
Education and entertainment
Play and work
Good music and the good society
Musical and the extramusical
Art and morality
Vocational and avocational music education

What remains in the present discussion is a personal statement of educational principles I have come to accept as professional guidelines. They are offered here, in summary, as a Credo, and possibly as a set of useful "household hints." As principles, ideas are borrowed from educational psychology and any overlapping is intentional.


1. To be educational, experience requires reflection, open examination, analysis, criticism, as well as intuitive absorption. To assume that sheer experience is in itself the "best teacher" is fallacious.

2. There is no one teaching/learning process. Rather, variables between students and teachers (and individual differences among various personalities in both these groups) suggest idiosyncratic processes. That approach which might work well for one teacher and student(s) can prove disastrous in another situation.

3. Contrary to popular belief, students can be quite serious and creative about their own education. Where the latter exists, scheduled class time remains but a minimum investment. Implied is the proposition that student involvement and motivation transcend that which is "required" by many additional hours of devoted, productive work.

4. When examined carefully, preferences for teaching approaches and purposes bear heavily on the given subject and the particular students. The teacher's philosophical view, student relationships, professional satisfactions sought (for example, the desire and/or need for tenure) can influence the educational setting. Authoritarian self-images invite teacher-dominated procedures; guidance-oriented roles tend to induce student self-motivation and cooperative, group decision procedures.

5. One's philosophical outlook toward teaching will reflect in practice. The transmission of facts and information as well as the desire for behavioral conformity as educational ends will yield strategies contrasting with those who believe in stimulating reflective thinking and creative ideation. In music, the subject, because of its intrinsic nature, is often conducive to multiple educational approaches. In higher education all this may become influenced further by institutional particulars—class size, performance standards, instructional resources, specialized programs, reward systems—tempered by policies governing research or teaching, professional contributions, etc. (Of course, some of these problems are not unique to higher education.)

6. Discussion, as a primal mode of human communication, still maintains itself as central to teaching and learning. No class is so large or activity so varied as to prevent true discussion, if the teacher and students show sufficient mutual interest.

7. The mere realization of any one plan for an educational objective is not totally sufficient for the "goodness" of that plan. Flexibility to provide for variables (spontaneous rather than fixed learning) is generally most desirable. In brief, there just is no one "method" for all problems in music education.

8. The classroom (or studio) has been considered by some as an unnatural place for an unnatural activity. Its raison d'être is the work actually done there. The "good" learning setting involves the kind of teacher who is enamored with his discipline and who is resourceful enough to seek out convincing ways (often improvised) to make learning worthwhile.

9. An obsession with the devising of systems and evaluative schemes seems to characterize the new teacher, however effective, interesting, relevant, or even necessary these may be. (The point is raised here in view of the current movement, "educational accountability.") In the case of music, more experienced teachers appear to question tests and measurements or to regard them as necessary evils. To the mature teacher true evaluation becomes inevitably a long-range, longitudinal concern.

10. It has been suggested by cogent minds that there is no unconditional, unilateral, or necessary cause-effect between what is taught and what is learned in formal education. Much is learned through informal means (the environment, mass media, chance encounters, etc.), hence "taught." The prevailing notion that "aesthetic response cannot be taught" stands in need of qualification; as such the statement remains fallacious. While the student's capacity, desire, etc., to learn are important factors, school work notwithstanding, the teacher's knowledge, talent, sensitivity, and critical mentality are the principal criteria for successful formal education.

11. In a commendable sense, the classroom has been thought of as analogous to the theatre—a singular setting where special social roles are played in mutual interaction. Moments of truth, flashes of insightful value, physical and metaphysical glimpses of reality are to be noted. As in real theatre there are those satisfactions and disappointments, with the "play," albeit serious, remaining the important thing. Successful role playing—the ability to project oneself into necessary character roles and to charge the dramatic stage for learning—remains a precious talent possessed by the finest teachers.

12. There is another fallacious, yet widely accepted, principle which apparently continues to guide teachers in the arts. Accordingly, "exposure" to the "great" classics of art, per se, is deemed essential. It is argued, however, that this virtue of exposure principle can well be superseded by another: that sheer exposure might well breed immunity, resistance, musical naiveté, or experience-limited learning. Subtleties, complexities, abstractions, all manifested in broad perceptive musical capacities, comparative value judgments, judicious descriptions and understandings are at stake.

13. In no small measure does it follow that the philosophy of today's teacher of music should be imbued with an anthropological-ethnomusicological bent. Desirable sensitivity, it is suggested, becomes evident when the musical individual (teacher or student) develops in respect to an understanding of: (a) his own values; (b) the values of his contemporaries; (c) the basic value orientation of his culture and those values common to most cultures; (d) possible criteria for value discriminations, intra- and inter-cultural; (e) the nature of man and value change viewed historically with a contemporary emphasis; (f) how his own values were acquired, how they motivate his actions, and how man creates new values.

14. The qualities that the arts, particularly music, offer educators in helping others fulfill humanistic alternatives to the tedious mundaneness of ordinary existence—to the burdensome, toilsome, humdrum—are unique. Heightened experience through active musical interaction can and does interrelate with the practical, moral, psychological, physiological, spiritual, etc. in ways which are quite "real," although not fully understood, systematically ordered, or completely describable.

15. We are sometimes prone to think of both nature and the musical arts in static ways. Many music educators (perhaps so conditioned) find comfort in final, absolute ideas. The test resides on rather fundamental grounds, viz., ecological change and the biological adaptability of the human organism. Beyond, I would cite two observations which can, with but little effort, be fashioned into truisms: (a) the dynamic and eclectic nature of the "musical good" in our time; and (b) man's aesthetic sensibility—worldwide—which, having no scientific locus of universal agreement on logical grounds, transcends the limitation of pure reason.


Hence, the search continues in spite of, or perhaps because of, complexities. Incisive inquiry remains the probing means, whether scholarly or not. The philosophical means-ends merge paradoxically: one's musical sensitivity increases (becomes "peaked") in direct proportion to one's self-involvement. To teach music from such a philosophical standpoint is to engage students in intriguing, challenging, and personal involvements extending learning to the heart of the matter—the nature of man and his music.

1Dr. Kenneth E. Eble, Director of the Project to Improve College Teaching, quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Last modified on Monday, 12/11/2018

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