Viewing Music Education in the United States Through Irish Eyes: A Response to Harry White

October 1, 1998

I am pleased to offer some reflections on Henry White's most interesting and straight forward paper on Irish music education vis-a-vis music education in the United States. Having participated in the second of the three national debates on Irish music education as one of the invited U.S. professionals, I feel more than just academically interested in the dilemmas facing Irish music education he so poignantly describes. My feelings include a certain sense of personal responsibility, having found myself deeply immersed in issues of Irish music education on Irish turf (an unlikely but welcome occurrence), but also, I admit, a certain sense of frustration. This stems from the assumption on the part of the organizers of the debate that voices from the U.S. could add something meaningful to it (an assumption willingly bought into by those, like myself, intrigued by the challenge and by what promised to be a lively event in the storied city of Dublin). What White makes so clear is the imperfection of that assumption. Surely the glaring gaps between the two cultures were at least equally a limitation to what we could offer as our seeming similarities enabled us to be of some help.

There is a lesson to be learned here, I believe. All of us can learn from expert others, but we also, finally, have to solve our own problems as only we fully and deeply understand them. My remarks here, therefore, will not focus on Irish music education as such, but on how we in the U.S. can benefit in increased clarity about our own situation from the response White gives to the U.S. involvement in Ireland.

Three interlocking issues will be addressed, directly stemming from White's paper. First, how do our very different cultures influence what music education should be in each country? Second, how do we handle the "pop music versus art music" issue? Finally, what are the appropriate roles of performance and of listening as educational objectives? Each of these, I suggest, is a central question in music education in the U.S. at this point in its history, and each can benefit from being viewed in light of the Irish situation.


1. Why multiculturalism?

White gets directly to the point of this issue. Why should Ireland, as a European nation, and with a particular history of a Gaelic/English division in language, music and literature, concern itself about musical cultures outside its own indigenous one, which basically consists of European art music and Irish traditional music? He pinpoints "the gap between American ideologies of music education and the actual condition of music in Irish life," and he asks "why . . . should Irish music educators take on the cultural crises of the United States as their own?" He decries the stance of an American such as David Elliott, who insists on the correctness of multicultural music education regardless of what the specific culture of Ireland requires. Elliott's interest in multicultural music education seems to emphasize political rather than musical values, as White correctly discerns. For Elliott, "the induction of students into different music cultures may be one of the most powerful ways to achieve a larger educational goal: preparing children to work effectively and tolerantly with others to solve shared community problems."1 Aside from the inflated presumption of this claim, White seems to resent the self-righteous intrusion—the "cultural imperialism"—it represents. Indeed, as he poignantly asks, "why should the Irish European now regard the amorphous multiculturalism of contemporary American music education as a desirable objective?"

What Irish music educators decide to do about multiculturalism is something only they can or should resolve, based on their culture and their history. That is true of American music educators as well. Our country is fundamentally multi—not bi—cultural, and our task is therefore fundamentally different from Ireland's. But it is certainly no less complex, and is, perhaps, as complex as it can possibly be given that we represent the very apogee of what a multicultural society can be. Our historical reliance in school music almost exclusively on European art music and indigenous folk music (parallel, ironically, to what Irish musical culture has traditionally consisted of absent a multicultural setting) has finally broken down, because (1) the supposed "melting pot" never significantly melted cultural differences; (2) more rather than less of the world's cultures have been added to the pot over time; and (3) heightened political consciousness recently has made it impossible to go on ignoring the disparities between the narrow confines of "school music" and the musical diversity actually existing outside schoolhouse walls. We have been dragged in recent years (with a fair amount of kicking and screaming) into facing the dilemmas a truly multimusical culture presents to us. The response of the music education profession, once its consciousness was raised, was entirely characteristic—to leap, with all good intentions and a great deal of energy, into becoming as multicultural as possible. MENC publications now offer an abundance of how-to-teach-it and background materials on a great variety of the world's cultures. The new national standards for music education2 rigorously promote diversity in the music to be encountered at all levels and in all settings (although choice of specific music is scrupulously left unstipulated). Workshops and special courses are available around the country, and music education journals are filled with articles, both theoretical and practical, on how to teach a broad diversity of cultural musics.

Few if any counter arguments to multiculturalism have appeared, but I sense we may well begin to have some reservations expressed before too long because pendulum swings always, sooner or later, reverse directions. Already, the issue "why do it?" has been raised. Can political/social ends drive our efforts convincingly, or do we not need an authentically musical benefit from opening ourselves to diversity as a goal? I have argued that the essential benefit of understanding music that is foreign to us, to whatever extent that is possible, is that it enlarges our experience of those meanings which only music can express.3 We will need to continue to clarify our philosophy of multiculturalism—our understandings about its intrinsic nature and value—if we are to sustain present efforts beyond the short term, and I look forward to a growing debate about this fundamental issue.

Also needing to be addressed are a host of questions relating to basic assumptions about multiculturalism. Can musics foreign to one's own culture be understood authentically rather than only superficially or inappropriately? Does a universalist stance dilute the integrity of diverse musics? On the other hand, do particularist or separatist positions prolong musical isolationism in a world increasingly interrelated through contemporary communication technologies? Can standards of judgment be retained in the face of differing musical beliefs and practices, or need they be abandoned in favor of a free-wheeling relativism of values?

At the practical level are problems equally difficult. Given the extremely uneven distribution of diversity around the U.S., with some places extremely heterogeneous but many quite homogeneous, can we expect all communities to be equally enthusiastic about multicultural studies? Should expectations of what music to include be left entirely to local decision-making? How can music teachers possibly represent authentically a variety of musics they know little if anything about except through secondary sources? How can those teachers be genuinely enthusiastic about including musics with which they have little if any identification and practically no experience? Given the overwhelming dominance at the college and university level of Western classical music in all aspects of teacher preparation—history and theory, performance study, ensembles, ear training and keyboard, conducting—how can aspiring teachers, most of whom come directly out of involvements in and devotion to bands, orchestras, or choruses, which are the epitome of Western musical settings, be expected to have internalized more than a superficial smattering of understandings about musics outside the single tradition in which they have been steeped? Are these people, no matter how well intentioned, to be entrusted with a leadership role in helping their students become more musically broad-minded than they are likely to be themselves?

Given these and many more largely unanswered questions, White cannot be faulted for characterizing American multiculturalism as being "amorphous." We have a long way to go to get our own house in order, let alone being a model for Ireland with its very different cultural identity.


2. The "popular" versus "classical" dilemma

I find it extremely interesting, and somewhat amusing, to read White's virulent denigrations of pop music. Despite his assertion that "Historians of music are not much concerned with implausible theories of musical superiority. Nor should they be; they are a waste of time and intellect. But musical difference is another matter." He sets "art music" against "commercial music" ("the pop and rock forms of the present day") precisely on the basis of the musical superiority of the former and the musical vacuity of the latter. (He does it with such clever, rapier-like wit as to make me laugh out loud at his comparisons!)

A great many American music educators, I believe, would be quite in sympathy with White on this issue, regarding pop music as a vast wasteland of musical mindlessness, only to be dealt with as "a matter of anthropological or sociological interest rather than an inherent object of serious musical study," as White points out is the case when this music surfaces in Irish higher education. "When pop music is studied in serious ways as music," he says, "[t]he logical outcome . . . is that the status of European music (and of art music in particular) is undermined."

But while many in the U.S. might agree, few would be so boldly politically incorrect as to publicly proclaim their position (let alone with White's assertive, pungent style.) For many American music educators the best policy in regard to pop music is benign neglect, with an occasional inclusion of an example or two to demonstrate open-mindedness. Seldom is popular music, in any of its diverse manifestations, represented in school programs with anything like the presence and seriousness of Western classical music, or even of jazz and, now, various cultural musics. Certainly its representation in school is minuscule compared with its dominance in the musical lives of students outside school. And if some concerted effort was made to redress this blatant imbalance, school music educators as a whole would hardly be prepared to comply, not only by attitude but because, for many if not most, the pop music enjoyed by their students is as foreign, if not more so, than any exotic music of a far-off land. Young teachers and those presently in training may well have been involved in some aspects of recent pop music, as consumers certainly and perhaps as performers, but few have had the opportunity to study it in preparation for teaching it.

American popular music pervades practically every nation on earth, not just Ireland. All over the world music educators, like White, have been scratching their heads (or venting their anger) about what to do about it. I wish we could say that they could look to America for thoughtful leadership in this matter. I don't believe they can. We have not yet begun to address all the complex problems lurking beneath the surface of this issue, or at least we have not yet gotten close to resolving them. They are wide-reaching enough to cause some major shifts in the fundamental self-image of music education in the U.S. if and when the matter gets tackled. I look forward to the beginning of serious debate on this issue, which has for far too long been brushed aside much to the detriment of the music education profession and all those it is pledged to serve. White's straight-out disparagement of popular music directly echoes our own deeply ambivalent if not hostile attitudes toward it. Clearly, there are severe and complex musical, social, psychological, and even moral enigmas awaiting our attention if our programs are to be more relevant to the actual musical lives of the majority of our school-age students.


3. Who is music education for?

White puts his finger directly and firmly on what is perhaps the central question now facing music education in the U.S. as well as in Ireland—What balance is appropriate between teaching performance and listening (or, as he puts it, "between music instruction and music education")? In their eagerness to spread music more widely and deeply into their schools, Irish music educators have begun to emphasize performance over their traditional academic approach to general music education, (an approach needing, in my opinion, a serious overhaul to rescue it from the heavy hand of the English music academy). But in trying to make music more relevant to the experience of its young people through performance, it unfortunately risks jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Certainly performance is an essential dimension of an effective general education in music. It also deserves to be available to all who want to pursue it in some concentrated way through special offerings, including (in Western cultures) typical Western ensembles and a great variety of other musical types. In the U.S. we have a long history of offering performance opportunities in schools to all those interested in them beyond the usual general music performance involvements. At present, estimates of the number of students in middle schools and high schools taking advantage of our unmatched generosity in this regard range from 9-15%. I regard that as an achievement of which the profession deserves to be very proud. And the quality achieved by many performance groups approaches the astonishingly good, especially given that most participants have no intention of pursuing performance as a career after high school. So in many ways performance represents the major success story of music education in the United States. Now the profession is beginning to take the dark side of this situation seriously. Fewer than 2% of students after elementary school are involved in any music classes except performance, meaning that, starting in grades 6, 7, or 8, 85 to 91 percent (or so) are completely untouched by music education. Ironically—even tragically—the very small percentage of those students involved in performance who go on to major in music at the college level is much more than sufficient to fill our society's needs for professional performers. Most who graduate in performance from colleges, universities and conservatories cannot find the full-time employment for which they have been prepared. America's problem in regard to the health of its musical culture is certainly not a lack of excellent performers—quite the reverse! Its major problem is its marginal level of audience support for those musics outside the popular genres.

Surely the wholesale neglect by the music education profession of the development of a discerning, enthusiastic audience has made the profession largely irrelevant to the actual musical lives of the vast majority of our population, which has no interest in becoming performers. Yet practically 100% of people are consumers of music, often with a great deal of ardor. The profession's disinterest in—often its disparagement of—the consumer of music remains among its major shortcomings.

White's litany of failures in Irish music education to address the needs of listeners can be read as directly pertinent to music education in the U.S. "The cult of performance," he asserts, "has so overtaken our sense of music . . . that our conception of music has narrowed accordingly . . . The Cinderella-subject of music education—that is, education about music—does not thrive in the current climate of self-expression . . . We have ostracized the listener." While White (of course) focuses narrowly on the classical literature as the sole basis for developing more "informed listenership," his critique of the imbalance in Irish music education in favor of performance instruction over audience education is dead-on accurate to describe music education in the U.S.

Recently, however, a serious attempt has been made here to turn the tide. The national standards, adopted with the overwhelming support of the music education profession, significantly widen our horizons beyond performance (although singing and playing are certainly included) to encompass the teaching of composing, listening, evaluating music, understanding it in the contexts of the other arts and other subjects, and in relation to various cultures and historical periods. This represents a major event in our history, toward finally recognizing that an authentic musical education must be wider than what performance can encompass, and must be made available to the vast majority of people who are not performers. Despite the anomalous insistence recently by David Elliott that performance should be even more dominant in music education than it has always been throughout our history,4 it is likely that White's alarm about the narrow-mindedness of music education, as represented by the overwhelming hegemony of performance, has begun to be recognized also on this side of the Atlantic. With the guidance of the national standards we can now hope for a more balanced, more comprehensive conception of music education to take hold, relevant to the musical needs of all rather than only of a small minority. To the degree we succeed in attaining a musical multiculturalism appropriate to and enriching for our particular society; a more accommodating and positive approach to the incorporation of a wide diversity of popular musics; and a balance of learnings including but surpassing those available from performance, we will have better fulfilled our professional mission, and will serve as a better model from which other countries can gain useful insights.

1David J. Elliott, Music Matters (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1995), 293.

2National Standards for Arts Education: What Every Young American Should Know and Be Able to Do in the Arts (Reston, VA.: Music Educators National Conference, 1994).

3See Bennett Reimer, "Selfness and Otherness in Experiencing Music of Foreign Cultures," The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning, II, No. 3, Fall, 1991; "Music Education in Our Multimusical Culture," Music Educators Journal, March, 1993; "Can We Understand Music of Foreign Cultures?" in Musical Connections: Tradition and Change, International Society for Music Education, 1994.

4Elliott, Music Matters, note 1 above.

2482 Last modified on November 3, 2013