Of Irish Myth: A Response to Harry White
Ireland is musically vibrant: Witness the rich heritage of Irish "trad" musics; the burgeoning of Irish jazz, rock and pop; the many renown "classical" artists and ensembles in this small country, as well as the exported successes of "Celtic World Music" crossovers and hybrids of all kinds.
What of music education in Ireland? Despite the richness of Irish musical life, a basic musical education still eludes many.1 This issue is hotly debated nationally. Who is entitled? What music should be taught? How should music be taught and learned?
Our independent and joint studies of Irish music education trace back many years. Kari Veblen's work includes a decade-long study (1991, 1995) of traditional Irish music teaching and learning. In 1995 we accepted invitations to make independent presentations at the second Irish National Debate on music education in Dublin. Following this, we accepted a one-year post from Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Chair of Music at the University of Limerick, to develop the curriculum for a new postgraduate College of Performing Arts. While in Ireland, we consulted, studied and worked with Irish musicians, scholars and educators at all levels, formally and informally.2 We mention these points to establish the context of our response to Professor Harry White's piece.
Prejudices often rest on ignorance. Professor White's paper is a case in point.
White's declared "prejudices" are mainly two: (i) Rock and pop music styles have no place in Ireland's system of university music education; Irish universities (secondary schools and elementary schools) should focus primarily on Western European art music. He claims (ii) "the pursuit of art music in the wasteland of rock and pop" goes against the grain of "contemporary music education theory," especially the North American theories presented by guest speakers at three Dublin conferences (1995-96).
Indeed, the central purpose of White's Irish lament is "to play the Devil's advocate in response to prevailing ideologies of music education" which he believes are not appropriate for the Irish context.
Specifically, White claims that the praxial philosophy of music education I advocate (Elliott 1994, 1995) is invalid because (a) "the fundamental tenet of Elliott's philosophy is that all music is a human activity rather than a product of that activity." White goes on to say (b) that because I make "activity" my "foundation for comparative studies of music," and because I fail to consider the origins, purposes and sociocultural contexts of different kinds of music, the praxial philosophy is inappropriate for the "bicultural" nature of Ireland. He continues: "Why should the Irish European now regard the amorphous multiculturalism of contemporary music education as a desirable objective?"
Along the way, White also claims that European art music is on the decline in America due to the failure of music education. He attributes this failure to music teachers' lack of concern for developing "informed listenership" and historical understandings of European art music:
the performance of music—any kind of music and at virtually any standard of competence—automatically takes precedence over its understanding and reception. To judge by music education literature in Britain and the United States, this precedence is so far gone as to be irreversible. . . . A program of second-level music education which neglects the vital relationship between music, history and listenership is doomed to mediocrity.
This paper challenges White's prejudices and claims.
The Facts of the Praxial Philosophy
Harry White asserts that: "the fundamental tenet of Elliott's philosophy is that all music is a human activity rather than a product of that activity."
White's statement is completely false. I state emphatically that musical products are (of course) central to the nature and significance of music and music education: "each musical practice produces music in the sense of specific kinds of musical products, musical works, or listenables" (Elliott, 1995, p. 43). The orienting blueprint I use to investigate the nature of music begins by linking musical actions (musicing of all sorts, and listening) to musical participants, products, processes and contexts. Here is what I state at the beginning of my effort:
MUSIC is a diverse human practice consisting in many different musical practices or Musics. Each and every musical practice (or Music) involves the two corresponding and mutually reinforcing activities of music making and music listening. The word music refers to the products, works, or listenables that eventuate from the efforts of musical practitioners who make music in the context of particular practices (Elliott, 1995, pp. 44-45).
In addition, I devote one chapter of Music Matters and large portions of five additional chapters to an explanation of the multidimensional nature and significance of musical works. I argue that "listening intelligently for musical works involves the knowledgeable, covert construction of at least four, and often as many as six interrelated dimensions of musical meaning, or information" (Elliott, 1995, p. 199). A central aim of the praxial philosophy is to offer students and teachers a comprehensive model of musical products that can be employed as an open and flexible guide for music listening, musical interpretation and musical evaluation.
On the way to building this model, I argue that music educators require an alternative to music education's traditional "aesthetic" philosophy of works. Why? Among other weaknesses, the aesthetic philosophy diminishes the nature and value of music, including works of European "classical" music, because it directs people to listen (and, therefore, to perform, compose, and improvise) narrowly: in relation to structural elements or "aesthetic qualities" alone. As Reimer (1989) states, it is "nonmusical" to listen contextually for relationships between musical sounds and "practical, religious, therapeutic, moral, political, commercial, (etc.)" meanings (p. 120).
In short, while musical products are central to musical practices everywhere, the aesthetic concept of works is not. Sarrazin (1996) restates my aims in a broader context:
No one involved in music education can question the need for a more comprehensive philosophy, one that encompasses and reflects current thought in philosophy (critical inquiry), psychology, and ethnomusicology in particular. Beginning with Aristotle, working through Howard Gardner, and picking up pieces from Nettl, Titon, Chernoff, McClary, and Lamb, Music Matters attempts just such an inclusive philosophy, placing music education in the company of most recent ideas in the social sciences (p. 517).
Other commentators report what White omits to credit: "He [Elliott] takes dead aim at the distinctly Western notion of art objects having value in and of themselves, apart from their cultural contexts" (Humphreys, 1996, p. 157). Stubley (1996) adds these details:
Central to Elliott's approach is a multidimensional conception of the musical work. Past approaches, Elliott argues, have, in their isolation of the work as object, failed to recognize the sense in which meaning in any musical practice pivots on shared thought processes and public standards of evaluation that arise in and work through the music making itself (p. 63).
In fact, then, the fundamental tenet of the praxial philosophy of music education is that the nature of music involves far more than pieces or "works" of music, and musical works involve far more than structural elements alone. Music, in the product-sense of the word, results from the actions of human agents (composers, arrangers, improvisers, performers, and/or conductors) who make music in relation to (and/or in resistance to) particular contexts and communities of music making and music listening, which I call musical practices, music cultures, or musical ways of life. The resulting "products" are dominantly auditory-artistic events: they are performances and/or improvisations which may, in turn, include dance movements, rituals, visual details and so on (cf. Elliott, 1995, pp. 128-9). Musical works are multidimensional constructions that embody the musical values, standards, and traditions of their "home" music cultures (Elliott, 1995, pp. 198-201).
Thinking of musical works as embedded in and as an outgrowth of artistic-social practices is common and widespread today. For example, in Worlds of Music a team of distinguished ethnomusicologists (Titon, et al., 1992) frame their discussion of music in terms of "music-cultures" which, like the philosophy I propose, combines several senses of music: music as conscious human intent, as artistic-social process/event, as artistic-social product, and music as a matter of social-cultural communities of action, achievement and evaluation (cf. Elliott, 1995, pp. 39-45). Similarly, Campbell (1992) conceives music as a world of "music traditions." In Subcultural Sounds, Slobin (1993) talks of the interplay of "music cultures" and "micromusics." Berliner (1994) conceives jazz as one kind of musical "community"; and Nettl (1992) speaks for ethnomusicologists generally when he argues for a "view of the world as a group of musics" (p. 4).
Moreover, because musical practices are maintained and elaborated by human beings, they are seldom static. In fact, a major source of musical creativity today is the crossing-over of musical style features from two or more practices to produce new hybrid practices and works. However, the flexibility of music in these regards does not negate the fact that musical works and the musicianship required to interpret, listen to and make musical works originates in the contexts of identifiable music cultures. In this view, MUSIC (writ large) is multicultural in essence. I propose, therefore, that music education ought to be centrally concerned with inducting students into a reasonable diversity of music cultures during students' educational careers.
I suggest, then, that Professor White is uninformed about the fundamentals of the praxial philosophy. He is especially wrong in claiming that the praxial view fails to consider the origins, purposes and sociocultural contexts of different kinds of music. Matters of musical context occupy the center of the praxial philosophy.
Musical Diversity and Music Education
White writes arrogantly about the "privileged condition" of "art music" and the inferiority of other types of music, especially "the wasteland" of rock and pop. In the process, he expresses contempt for the juxtaposition of Baroque choral singing, Balinese Kebyar, Bebop and Korean kayagum sanjo in my discussion of musical diversity. But how does White know that Baroque choral singing is "privileged" or superior to other musical practices? What thinking processes and criteria does White use to arrive at his belief?
Perhaps Professor White has overlooked important considerations? That people everywhere in the world speak, write and listen to languages substantiates (a) that our basic powers of human consciousness are shared universally and (b) that these powers operate locally according to each person's cultural-linguistic context. And what can we say about comparisons of value across human linguistic practices? Can we say that Japanese is a better language than Spanish, German, or English? Can we say that, compared to Swedish, Chinese is an "excellent" language? No. There are no criteria for deciding such questions among languages, or between apples and oranges.
Music is not a language, but music is "talk-like", and the same pattern holds. Humans are born with generic human capacities for music listening and music making. These are activated by and manifested in different kinds of musical practices and products according to artistic-cultural contexts (e.g., Sardinian choral singing, Nigerian highlife, Bulgarian folk singing, bebop jazz, urban blues singing). What can we say about comparisons of worth across human musical practices? To decide which is the best musical practice among and between (say) bebop jazz, Nigerian highlife, and Bulgarian folk singing we would have to base our judgments on: (a) the values and standards of one of these three practices, or on (b) the standards of a completely unrelated musical practice, or on (c) the standards of no musical practice whatever. But the first option is ethnocentric and illogical; the second is nonsensical; the third option is unmusical by definition (cf. Elliott, 1995, 207ff). White's argument is a clear example of the first category of errors: he evaluates all musical practices according to the characteristics of European "art music".
In contrast, as Bruno Nettl (1992) says: "ethnomusicologists have, as their credo, the belief that fundamentally all musics are good, and that we should compare them not in terms of how we like them, but by what message they bring from their society" (p. 4). Slobin and Titon (1992) put it this way:
Each music-culture is a particular adaptation to particular circumstances. Ideas about music, social organization, repertoires, and music's material culture vary from one music-culture to the next, but it would be foolish to say that any one music-culture was "better" than another. Why? Because such a judgment is based on criteria from inside a single music-culture. To call another music-culture's music "primitive" imposes one's own standards on a group that does not recognize them. Such ethnocentrism has no place in the study of world music (pp. 13-14).
We agree. However, I argue also (Elliott, 1995, pp. 210-211) that while no Music is innately superior to any other, some musical practices may be educationally more appropriate than others. (White omits to mention this aspect of my argument). Music education does not occur in a vacuum. Instead, teachers and students work in relation to a variety of constraints—practical, curricular, moral, social, cultural, ideological, political. So, difficult choices must be made. Let me review a few of the guidelines I propose for making such choices (cf. Elliott, 1995, pp. 210-212).
First, the musical practices we select for music teaching and learning at the outset of a child's musical education ought to make the most of the tacit dimensions of musicianship—procedural, informal, impressionistic, and supervisory musical knowings—that children are most likely to develop themselves through early listening in their own cultural contexts (cf. Elliott, 1995, pp. 53-68). It is essential for musical self-growth and enjoyment that novices achieve a match between their nascent levels of musicianship and the first musical challenges they meet in music education curricula. Put another way, in deciding which practices to teach first, teachers ought to take account of a student's immediate musical contexts.
Second, I suggest that musical diversity should not be sought at the expense of musical depth. Achieving the values and aims of music education depends on the continuous deepening of musicianship in balanced relation to increasingly demanding musical challenges (cf. Elliott, 1995, pp. 119-124). As philosopher Francis Sparshott (1987) reminds us, people for whom the music of their own culture is all the music there is "can live into that music as people of broader culture cannot; their musical world is a cultural entity that belongs to them and to which they belong" (p. 86). Belonging to and living deeply in a particular way of musical life is something to be cherished.
Here is a central paradox of everyday music teaching and learning. While the breadth of our curricula (in terms of musical diversity and musical involvements) is crucial, so is depth. What to do? When curricular time and resources are limited, the praxial philosophy supports an emphasis on musical depth over breadth. Teachers' central responsibility is to deepen students' musicianship; music curricula ought to build on a foundation of closely related musical practices that spiral upward in the demands they make on students' growing musicianship. Thus, and in addition to the obvious criteria of students' interests, the availability of authentic repertoire, and a teacher's knowledge and/or disposition to learn new Musics over time, it makes perfect sense to emphasize the musical practices of one's local culture as a basis for music teaching and learning.
Contrary to White, then, the praxial philosophy supports the comprehensive study of peoples' most familiar and treasured musical traditions. At the same time, however, there are four basic reasons why the long-term scope of music curricula ought to include a wider diversity of music cultures: (a) MUSIC is a diverse human practice; (b) induction into unfamiliar Musics links the values of music education with the values of humanistic education (Elliott, 1995, p. 209); (c) the self-identity of individuals in a music class may benefit from affirming individual music-culture identities (Elliott, 1995, pp. 211-212); and (d) the development of musical creativity can advance significantly when students realize how music is made and valued in other cultures.
Clearly, the praxial philosophy does not advocate musical diversity at the expense of teaching a people's indigenous musics. Also, in my presentation of these views in Dublin I emphasized that I was not interested in imposing any views on my Irish colleagues. To do so would be contrary to the themes of curriculum making I advocate, including the praxial emphasis on local decision making by reflective music teachers. Whereas conventional approaches to music curricula (e.g., aesthetic education) oblige music teachers to implement a standard set of inflexible, step-by-step procedures, I propose that teachers look to themselves and their own teaching circumstances to decide issues of repertoire, teaching strategies and so on. The reason is plain. As Joseph Schwab suggests, decisions in matters of curriculum, like decisions in matters of job choice and spouse choice, involve a variety of factors related to particular people, places and things (cf. Elliott, 1995, pp. 253-255). These decisions call for back-and-forth reflection and deliberation, not linear theories of curriculum determination. These decisions call for reflective music educators teaching in critically reflective ways.
So, when White asks, "Why should the Irish European now regard the amorphous multiculturalism of contemporary music education as a desirable objective?", he has several possible answers to consider. Not the least of these is the fact that the young people of Ireland have access to global influences of all kinds, including musics of all kinds.
Musicing, Listening and Music Education
A basic theme that follows from the praxial nature of music is that music education should activate students' musicianship and musical creativity in all forms of music making. Music education should enable all music students to achieve the values of music by developing their musicianship and listenership in direct relation to: performing-and-listening, improvising-and-listening, composing-and-listening, arranging-and-listening and conducting-and-listening. I propose that "all music students (including so-called general music students) ought to be taught in essentially the same way: as reflective musical practitioners engaged in music making generally and musical performing particularly. Artistic music listening ought to be taught and learned in conjunction with artistic music making" (Elliott, 1995, p. 175).
Of course, recordings and record-listening have an important place in the praxial philosophy. Recorded music is used in conjunction with the systematic development of critical, reflective, artistic listening-for, which is the fullest kind of music listening—the kind of listening that develops in and through the codependent actions of performing-and-listening, improvising-and-listening, composing-and-listening, and so on.
Recordings and listening charts of various kinds deserve an important place in the education of all students, providing that they serve to supplement students' active, goal-directed music making and guide students toward the multidimensional nature of musical works (Elliott, 1995, p. 176).
I emphasize, also, that listening guides linked to artistic listening and record-listening are important and necessary: "Verbal and graphic descriptions of musical works have an important place in the teaching and assessment of listening" (Elliott, 1995, p. 105). Students are urged to develop listening logs by: listening to recordings of music they are learning to perform, compose (and so on) in the class practicum; and/or listening to recordings of related works; and, then, listening more widely inside and outside the musical practices they are learning in class (p. 285).
Comprehensive listening—knowing how to listen for all dimensions of a musical work keenly and simultaneously—is codependent with all forms of music making done well. That is, to perform musically, one must learn how to listen musically; to improvise, arrange, compose, or conduct musically, one must learn to listen musically. This is clearly stated in Music Matters:
Music students can achieve competent, proficient and expert levels of music-listening. But to teach and learn this kind of thinking effectively requires that its development be embedded in efforts to develop musicianship through performing, improvising, composing, arranging and conducting (p. 106).
Another basic tenet of the praxial philosophy is that listening should be deliberately and systematically taught in the context of authentic music making because four of the five kinds of cognition involved in music listening are situated forms of knowing (cf. Elliott, 1995, p. 96-101). Authentic music making provides the optimum conditions—artistic problem finding and problem solving—for developing these situated forms of thinking. (General music programs centered on record-listening do not provide these conditions). This is why I suggest that:
the best preparation for listening to musical performances [live or recorded] in the future is full participation in music making in the present. Moving beyond a beginning level of listenership requires that students develop their musicianship by entering into the multidimensional nature of MUSIC as a reflective, artistic endeavor (p. 104).
In reality, then, my concern for music listening as praxis—the nature, values, teaching and learning of music listening—outweighs the attention I give to any other topic.
LeBlanc (1996) confirms that "Elliott sees music education as an action-oriented endeavor, in which creating and performing music are just as important (and probably more so) as developing passive listeners" (p. 61). Humphreys (1996) concludes that the praxial philosophy is a comprehensive approach to music education through all forms of music making and listening:
the philosophy set forth and described in admirable detail in this book is far more comprehensive and, yes, probably superior to MEAE as a general guiding philosophy for the music education profession (Humphreys, p. 153).
The praxial philosophy is a recent formulation. For most of this century, the tenets of "aesthetic education" (MEAE) have dominated North American theory and practice, especially in the area of general music. However, several writers have exposed the weaknesses and failures of "music education as aesthetic education" (e.g., Bowman, Elliott, Regelski). Suffice it to say that White's concerns about music education's lack of attention to the contexts of musical practice, the requirements of truly expressive performing (as opposed to mere sound-producing) and the development of "informed listenership" can be traced in large part to the theoretical and practical weaknesses of the aesthetic philosophy in which listening to recorded music for structural elements takes precedence in general music and performing is reduced to an activity of mere sound-producing.
So, when White criticizes the "music education literature in Britain and the United States" for supporting the domination of poor "performance programs", he is clearly unaware of many facts, including what the praxial philosophy maintains and how it is implemented everyday by excellent music educators and their mentors (e.g., Craig Kirkhhoff, Eugene Corporon, Mallory Thompson, Doreen Rao, Ann Small, and many, many more). Whether the context is choral, instrumental, or general music education, teachers like these put the development of fully-informed musicianship (which always includes "listenership") at the centre of music teaching and learning.
Finally, when White declares that "in Canada, and certainly in Ontario," he can find no evidence of anything other than band and choral programs and that "this is why the first year of university programs becomes a remedial exercise," he is wrong. I base this statement on twenty-five years of teaching in Ontario where I can point to hundreds of excellent music educators leading comprehensive programs that send well-educated young musicians to study the diversity of musics we teach at the University of Toronto, York University and similarly diverse and innovative institutions in the United States (e.g., Florida State University, The Eastman School of Music, University of Washington-Seattle).
If White had taken the basic steps that competent scholars routinely take—to read and research the proposals they wish to discuss—then we might have been spared White's empty polemic.
We are living in a time of transformation. Our institutions and ways of life are changing. Our contexts are moving from modernistic emphases on control to the fragmentation, variety and pluralism of the coming era. Will educational opportunities once only available to the privileged few become accessible to increasing numbers of people? How accurately will university music programs reflect the diverse realities of postmodern communities? These questions will determine the viability of university music programs in the coming decades.
Living in a time of change is exciting, but human beings tend to be threatened by too much change, too quickly. Indeed, it is neither necessary nor right to discard cherished musical practices as we broaden our experiences and conceptions of music.
What is the best music you know? Perhaps it is the music of what happens.3 As Seamus Heaney writes:
There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
Berliner, P. F. (1994). Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bowman, W. (1991). An Essay Review of Bennett Reimer's "A Philosophy of Music Education." The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning, 2(3), 76-87.
Campbell, P. S. (1992). "The World of Music through American Eyes: A Case for Multiethnic Consciousness in Teaching the World's Music Traditions." In H. Lees (Ed.), Music Education: Sharing Music of the World. Proceedings of the 20th World Conference of the International Society for Music Education (pp. 32-42). International Society for Music Education.
Elliott, D. J. (1995). "Rethinking Music: First Steps to a New Philosophy of Music Education." International Journal of Music Education, 24, 9-20.
Elliott, D. J. (1995). Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education. New York: Oxford University Press.
Heaney, S. (1987). New Selected Poems 1966-1987. London: Faber and Faber, "Song" p. 127.
Humphreys, J. T. (1996). Book Review: "Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education." Bulletin of Historical Research in Music Education, 17 (January), 153-159.
LeBlanc, A. (1996). Book Review: "Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education." Music Educators Journal, 1 (January), 61-62.
Nettl, B. (1992). "Ethnomusicology and the Teaching of World Music." In H. Lees (Ed.), Music Education: Sharing Music of the World. Proceedings of the 20th World Conference of the International Society for Music Education (pp. 3-8). International Society for Music Education.
Regelski, T. A. (1996). "Taking the 'Art' of Music for Granted: A Critical Sociology of the Aesthetic Philosophy of Music." In L. R. Bartel and D. J. Elliott (Eds.), Critical Reflections on Music Education: Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on the Philosophy of Music Education, pp. 23-58. Toronto: Canadian Music Education Research Center.
Reimer, B. (1970, 1989). A Philosophy of Music Education. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Sarrazin, N. (1996). Book Review: "Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education." Ethnomusicology, 40(3) (Fall), 517-519.
Slobin, M. (1993). Subcultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
Sparshott, F. E. (1987). "Aesthetics of Music: Limits and Grounds." In P. Alperson (Ed.), What is Music? An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music, pp. 33-98. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press (1987/1994).
Stubley, E. V. (1996). Book Review: "Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education." Philosophy of Music Education Review, 4(1), 63-67.
Titon, J. T., et al. (1992). Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World's Peoples. New York: Schirmer Books.
Veblen, K. K. (1991). Perceptions of Change and Stability in the Transmission of Irish Traditional Music: A Study of the Music Teacher's Role. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Veblen, K. K. (1995). "The Teacher's Role in Transmission of Irish Traditional Music." International Journal of Music Education 24, 21-30.
1Some students benefit, others do not. It is difficult to examine exactly what is happening in Irish schools because there are two distinct educational systems in place (reflecting the two countries of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland).
2In addition to our involvement with the emerging program at the University of Limerick, we worked with the Irish Chamber Orchestra in designing and implementing outreach, with the Department of Education in reviewing new music curricula being developed. We also organized a series of seminars to investigate community music activities in Ireland. These three seminars explored music making and teaching within and outside of formal settings such as schools. We collaborated with Phil Mullen and Keavey O'Shea of the UK-based Sound Sense, Georgette Mulheir and others at the Irish World Music Center and a number of cooperatives and networks throughout Ireland. Seminars were held in Limerick, Dublin and Belfast in the spring of 1997.
3There is an Irish legend wherein the hero Fionn asks his warriors what they think is the finest music. The men reply variouslya cuckoo's call, the ringing of a sword, the bellowing of a stag across the water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of the lark, a girl's laughter. When they ask their Chief what he thinks is the best music, Fionn replies: "The music of what happens."
David J. Elliott is Professor of Music and Music Education at New York University. Prior to joining NYU in 2002, he was Professor of Music Education at the University of Toronto for twenty-eight years. He has also held visiting professorships at Northwestern University, the University of North Texas, Indiana University, the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, and the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance (University of Limerick). He is the author of Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education, editor of Praxial Music Education, co-editor of Community Music Today, and author of numerous journal articles and invited book chapters, including recent chapters in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy in Music Education, The Oxford Handbook of Music Education, Music Education, and Music, Health, and Wellbeing. He has given more than 300 keynote papers and university lectures in 40 countries and 239 cities. He is the editor of Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, and an award-winning composer/arranger with several works published by Boosey & Hawkes/Hal Leonard.