A Reexamination of the Mission of Schools of Music

Although most music faculty would agree that curricula must continually evolve in order to address changing circumstances, doing so is often no easier than reducing the federal deficit. Few mind adding new courses, whether they be in jazz, world musics, popular music, or improvisation, but when existing credit hours must be freed up in order to accommodate these new ideas, turf battles inevitably develop. The following focuses on the challenges of converting to a multicultural curriculum.

The root cause of the debate, which can become emotionally charged, involves fundamental notions of what a School of Music's mission is. The divergent views that emerge can be seen as points on a continuum, falling between two extremes or paradigms:

(A) The school's role is to assure the survival and ultimate triumph of Western classical music; other kinds of music are viewed not only as inferior and unworthy of study but as potential predators.

(B) The school's role is to understand music in its broadest contexts, including those of elite, folk, and popular cultures, worldwide, while making one unique tradition -- Western classical music -- the focus of study.

In my experience, most faculty fall somewhere between these extremes, but clearly a few fall close to one end or another. Those holding views close to A usually take strong exception to colleagues seeking movement toward B, especially when it means replacing existing courses dedicated to Western classical music with world music courses. In this view, the addition or substitution of such courses takes away from the School's central role of teaching (one almost hears "indoctrinating") Western classical music. since anything that reduces the preeminence of classical music threatens the sacred mission, such additions or substitutions must be resisted.

In a sense, these faculty have a point. It has long been implicit that we teach not only classical music but a value system in which the "great works" are clearly at the top. Students are taught to distinguish among great, less great, and run-of-the-mill works and composers. In our hierarchy, Mozart and Bach are seen as superior to Boccherini and Spohr. Other faculty, especially ethnomusicologists, who seek to stand outside this valuative system and observe music both as a human behavior and as a functional activity, are often viewed as heretics. Conservative faculty are suspicious of the ideas that musics have contextual meaning, that they express the societies that produce them, and that values are assigned by specific constituencies and not in a universalist sense. In short, faculty who teach that no single tradition is inherently more valuable than another are virtual subversives.

Most music faculty spend their entire careers specializing in and advocating classical music. In this respect they behave like all other traditional musicians in the world, and, frankly, that's how a tradition survives. Others, for example, music education faculty, deal with students who, in their future roles as teachers, must confront the fact that most Americans couldn't care less about classical music. The public school teachers' function is not very close to Mission A. They must understand the musics their constituents listen to, but few curricula encourage this. Their four years of schooling often fail to recognize the existence of other musics, let alone allow for their having value. Few faculty tend to be neutral on the high value normally assigned to classical music, but they find themselves in Schools of Music among colleagues who assume that classical music must hold hegemony.

Many who teach music appreciation courses express the view that this course's function is to assure the dominance and preservation of classical music over all other (inferior) musics by influencing the great, unwashed masses in the direction of high culture. What IS and what is NOT taught both constitute statements of value. As with Karl Haas's radio program "Adventures in Good Music," what he does not play is obviously "bad" music. Thus, courses called generically "music appreciation" in reality advocate, in a political sense, one musical tradition over all others. Such courses are not about music, but about classical music, which is assumed to be inherently superior. Is this the proper mission of a School of Music?

Thus, a School exploring curricular change can easily become at odds with itself. Part of the faculty understand music in a broad sense and feel that one ought to understand (ideally) all musics, while other faculty mean only Western classical music when they say "music." Those nearer paradigm B naturally cringe at the suggestion of teaching "great works" courses. Ethnomusicologists, in particular, see music as a human expression, a behavior, a part of culture, not as a series of admired monuments created by mythological hero-composers.

The tension between these two viewpoints may only simmer near the surface for years until curricular changes are proposed. If Schools of Music are to remain responsive to society's needs and survive into the 21st century, they need to resolve the tension in the direction of model B. Schools certainly cannot remain close to or move towards model A and remain relevant. But minds do not change easily, if at all. An awareness must be created that the narrow goals of the most conservative faculty -- those nearest model A -- do not serve well the needs of the 1990s, where multiculturalism and diversity have become watchwords, where multiethnic America is becoming less WASP, and where the elitism of a white European male past is giving way to the reality of our own time and place. America never was about aristocracy, and classical music was first and foremost the expression of the European aristocracy, a realization in sound of a power structure. Consequently, in my opinion, classical music is largely a hothouse plant in America, surviving only under a life-support system. Any pretense that this music is the only important music denies the reality of American life and its cultural values. To use President Bill Clinton's phrase, we need curricula that "look like America" and prepare students to confront today's musical scene.

This is not to say that Western classical music is neither valuable nor relevant to those closer to paradigm B, but they see it as one of many expressions in American society. Similarly, this does imply majority rule, for otherwise popular traditions must dominate the curriculum. But an understanding of the role of popular and other traditions in our society is imperative. Otherwise, we are not training knowledgeable musicians who can deal with all the musical options available but simply cloning biased (even bigoted) missionaries devoted to saving the unwashed masses from "schlock" music through conversion to the "true religion [music]."

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Last modified on Friday, 03/05/2013

Terry E. Miller

Terry E. Miller, a native of Dover, Ohio, majored in organ at the College of Wooster (1967) before turning to musicology and, as a result of military service in Vietnam, to ethnomusicology.  He received his MA and Ph.D degrees from Indiana University in 1971 and 1977 respectively.  Although known primarily as a specialist in the musics of Mainland Southeast Asia, especially Thailand and Laos, he has also worked extensively in the United States, the West Indies, the UK, Vietnam, and China.  In addition to numerous articles, recordings, and other contributions, he has published a number of books focusing on Thailand and the United States.  His most widely known works are as co-editor and writer of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: Southeast Asia and as co-writer of a survey textbook, World Music: A Global Journey, now in its third edition.  In addition he has published dozens of articles, encyclopedia entries, compact discs, reviews, and has present papers throughout the world.  Dr. Miller retired from Kent State University in 2005 where, in addition to teaching, he founded and directed both the KSU Thai and Chinese Ensembles.

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