Music Education: A Future I Would Welcome

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40374398

O. M. Hartsell's excellent piece seems as relevant today as when it first appeared in 1972. His admonition to include more diverse (world/ethnic/indigenously cultural) music into the curriculum seems even more important than it was three decades ago. Indeed, this was a recurring theme from almost every writer in the recent Vision 2020: The Housewright Symposium on the Future of Music Education.1 While predicting the future is perilous, I suggest that it is much easier to do in relationship to people and curricula than to technology. While a great literary work is timeless and continually speaks to the human condition in the most poignant terms, even last year's piece of technological development may seem rather quaint or even grossly anachronistic.

Even though information and technology are in constant change, the undergraduate curricula of most of our universities have not changed appreciably for some time. As Hartsell's article suggests "it is much easier to move a cemetery than it is to change the music curriculum." Yet, encouraging changes are taking place. Many institutions are including (often even requiring) courses in world music. My own institution has been requiring such a course for over 20 years, and this seems to be a good beginning. One course, however well taught, only begins to address what is needed to structure a more comprehensive program in music. It seems a tad simplistic to assume that requiring any given course will solve a much larger problem, regardless of the course or the problem.

I will attempt to put this into a larger context. Standard undergraduate curricula in music education ought to represent the best of the students' cultural heritage. Yet any thinking music teacher must pause to consider which of society's many values, multi-cultural experiences and even specific music experiences are to be imposed and if they should be imposed regardless of students' wishes i.e., ought to be required in the curriculum. What new areas of music study, specific music skills and/or understanding of different world music do students need to become life-long learners, life-long participating musicians or perhaps even to live a long life? Obviously there are many, many things that future students and especially future teachers need to know.

We all know that society is in constant transition and while it is our responsibility to acculturate the youth into the mainstream of their society, the question must be asked: What does this diverse society want taught? Since most P-12 curricular issues are locally determined the question must be asked, What do the parents within each county or state want taught? Do parents want the schools to really change their children? Do parents want their children to come home with "foreign tunes" literally or figuratively? Parents (and legislators) probably will not care if we increase curricular time in subjects such as writing, advanced math, computer skills, or so-called "higher-order reasoning." But what if we teach our students to criticize? To criticize values? Perhaps even to criticize their parents' values? Speaking as a cultural conservative and political liberal, I find it somewhat difficult to accept the politically conservative and culturally liberal sentiments from my own children.

We know that most parents do not want their children to go to school and change basic views, especially about anything that really matters such as religion, sexual activity, or changing their criteria for selecting an appropriate mate. From these somewhat global and controversial issues we can begin to gradually progress to those issues that parents seemingly do not care that much about. Might parents be concerned about what constitutes appropriate music experience(s)? The controversy concerning what is appropriate music for curricular selection should not be taken lightly. And the idea that we should proceed with substantive experiences concerning "someone else's music" via an authentic music/cultural exchange, albeit briefly, is not without some risk. Even the idea that parents want their children to study the indigenous music of the parent's own culture is filled with controversy. I assume that most parents want their children to be just like themselves, if not a little smarter and certainly having the credentials for meaningful employment. Yet, changing any culture too quickly can create many problems; this includes music study as well. A very wise person once said "Woe to him who teaches men faster than they can learn." Where does an expanded world music curriculum fit within this context? How do we encourage our colleagues to embrace that which does not fit within a more narrow Western art tradition?

In addition, changes and forces from outside our institutions are continuously making attacks against the major purposes of public education. Many of these attempts would move the entire school systems into more segregated "tracking" or exclusively toward a preparatory experience for entrance into college with little regard for any music study. I suggest that only a few outside of our schools, and perhaps, only a few from within, really understand the major purposes of a complete education. The constant political and legislative constraints make curricular decisions even more difficult because of the "trade off" between selection and censorship. We must "pick and choose" because time is always limited. While some might disagree, I contend that selection and censorship are inextricably related—not having experienced certain music leaves students without that experience. This issue concerns the limited time that we have for music education, regardless of what that instruction or those experiences contain. There is always too much to cover within time constraints—and finding enough time has been an important aspect for music study at every level. Constantly changing P-12 structures make this a most important issue for music teachers in the schools. Hartsell states the axiom the "Teachers cannot teach what they do not know." This is also true for students. Students cannot learn what is not taught—at least they cannot learn it within the school curriculum where it does not exist. Those non-selected music experiences that are missed are never "made up" or compensated for by the other music experiences that are included. Just as an education without music remains an education without music, the areas of music that are not taught leaves the student with a deficit that cannot be "made-up."

Notwithstanding these constraints, we should engage all of our students in rigorous music study. All music experiences should be designed to cover the most basic timeless musical events of the human condition including studying the best music of other cultures. The most important choice that a teacher makes is the selection of music(s), especially when choosing the music curriculum. Not every musical utterance or activity is of equal merit. We should teach our students to discriminate between that which is truly substantive and that which is not, both within and between various cultures. And, if one asks who should make that decision, I contend that knowledgeable music professionals should make it. This is precisely the charge of being a music education professional. Otherwise one could select randomly from all possible music(s) and music experiences and make that random selection our musical canon. We certainly do not need musical experts to accomplish that task.

We need to develop a core of experiences that represents the best of that which we are capable. The learning from this core should be aimed at establishing in each student the ability to develop his/her basic musicianship as well as to develop a true global music understanding. This core should include a defined knowledge base as well as the ability to analyze, criticize, and choose alternatives based on a compelling personal musical value system. Every student should be able to demonstrate his/her own value system in all aspects of music participation, selection, and in writing based on the guidelines of the National Standards.2

I am especially concerned that many students leave our high schools never having had the opportunity to study music in a substantive manner outside of the few who participate in our excellent traditional performance groups. Hartsell addresses this issue lamenting "What are we doing for the other 85-90 percent." Why are these students not substantively engaged? Some would have us abolish traditional music organizations and replace them with other non-performing activities. However, it seems to me that there is a special benefit and unique learning that comes from actually making something or doing something that cannot be replaced with study "about" that same subject. I believe that this is true across almost all subjects but especially in music. There are many excellent activities and very sophisticated music experiences that take place in our general music classes that usually include much more world music experience when compared to their traditional counterparts. There are also burgeoning music activities outside our formal institutional settings that are extremely sophisticated and include music that is being enjoyed across our vast nation. Some of the very best of these come from our divergent cultural traditions. Obviously there ought to be more for our non music-track majors such that they can have the experience of immersing themselves in a musical event and actually creating or recreating a solid artistic experience with or without a "traditional" performance. And we must remember that most of our young folks are not going to be music majors. As has been said many times, it seems unwise to assume that all curricula lead to Mozart.

I would also like to stress some additional values of ethnic/world music study. I might add that I believe these values are in direct proportion to the student's involvement in world music and/or different cultural experiences. Financial constraints notwithstanding, I would prefer that all students have access to these different cultural opportunities. However, financial constraints are real; they are very real for some of our most gifted students. Indeed, in everything we do in public education we should be mindful of the tremendous and growing differences between our rich and our poor students and make every effort to provide the means whereby all students can benefit from the advantages provided in a wider arena. We should encourage all of our students to pursue music study especially those students of modest financial means. There are obvious advantages when students are able to travel abroad to participate in music events. Even when this is not financially possible this is an area where music instruction has a distinct advantage. World music instruction, especially when combined with the latest technological developments has a tremendous advantage. While it may be financially prohibitive for a student to travel to a foreign country, that same student can have music experiences that will provide a rich opportunity for the student to get outside of his/her own provincial background by listening, performing and studying the music of other cultures.

I also wish to address the constantly changing mission of P-12 public education. Current leaders are continuously stressing a need for change; "We must reform, reform, reform." There has never been a time in education that someone has not addressed a need for change. It also seems that many politicians are more concerned with initiating change than are most parents who (notwithstanding the concerns expressed above) seem rather pleased with their own local schools. Usually, "political" concerns revolve around "raising standards" "more rigorous curricula" or "punishing institutions that do not measure up" and not the inclusion of experiences that would lead to a greater understanding of the world's people. And from my experimental research background I would prefer that we have at least some indication of exactly what is, before we scrap it to establish something else, and then abolish that to establish something else, ad infinitum.

Most certainly there will be change; change coming so fast in some respects as to necessitate a complete re-structuring of some of our programs. Although this type of change will most often ensue from constant technological development not from additional requirements necessitated by an increased subject matter base. We should be ready to seize these opportunities for technological change, especially when they "fit" the music education objectives already in place and insure that all of our music programs are maintained at the highest level of quality. As we accommodate change we should also be concerned with maintaining the very best music and educational practices from the past including music from around the world. Otherwise we will constantly be changing based on some whim, new technique, perceived but unsubstantiated deficit or just the need to do something different. Education is much too important to squander in this way; life's time is too precious for such educational caprice.

Some of the technological aspects of change deal with the increasing information base and the speed with which information can be communicated. While I suggest that the ease of communication is inversely proportional to the quality of the same, I contend that all issues related to "distance learning," "greater access to information," and all other aspects of technological development is not something that we may or may not choose to involve ourselves in. Indeed, these changes are inevitable. Much like early developments harnessing electricity and making it available to almost everyone, technological development will continue inexorably, quickly becoming much like electrical outlets and running water. Those in public education who "choose not to participate" will do so at their own peril. We in music have much to gain from technological advances because of the nature of our subject matter.

Instead of continuing to debate this issue we should begin to develop the best instructional products available and engage in our highest levels of creativity in order to take advantage of that which is inevitable. And every school district must be prepared to invest up-front in order to take advantage of these opportunities. There are burgeoning groups of teachers who evidence great promise in developing and using the very best of technology and collaborative association with others makes these possibilities truly exciting. Some of the most important advances concern the use of technology in order to teach world music. But we should be sure to differentiate between those aspects of music education that can be enhanced by technology versus those that cannot. It appears to me that the most important issues are subject matter specific and somewhat complex.

For example, it does not make sense to have our in-school music students engage in a virtual band or a virtual chorus, except for those who believe that anything virtual is better than the live thing—"You think she's pretty? You should see her digital picture." Yet the possibility of studying world music via the internet or using interactive learning to develop heightened music listening, dictation or performance skills or to design a virtual music shopping exercise to help persons with mental challenges develop simulated skills that can then be taken to the actual physical environment, or to bring the music of a far distant area into virtual association with our place-bound students—these technological uses might prove extremely worthwhile. I suggest that every individual teacher, school and district decide what should and should not be included in these endeavors.

We need to develop all avenues of distance learning, making sure that every course or learning experience not only has the highest degree of integrity, but also is of the highest quality level. We should also nest all of our most emotionally charged and poignant human traditions within every distant learning experience and develop all of our media toward the end of making students both aware and appreciative of their wonderful world music heritage. We should also make a contingency for those place-bound students who only study at a distance. After successfully completing some initial distance learning music experiences they should earn the privilege of coming to a live interactive learning environment from time to time. For example, one could bring students to campus for such activities as concerts, one-on-one interaction with outstanding music specialists, student socials, music industry sponsored events, actually being able to have a hands-on experience with an instrument from a different culture, and so on. The point would be to stir their emotional juices toward a love of music and realize the power that it has to connect the human condition. This is precisely what we have done for years with our music groups in bringing them to solo and ensemble festivals. The value of these activities should never be underestimated and they need to be increased to include a wider array of world music.

I also suggest that people will always want social interaction, and, if at all possible, meaningful human to human—not virtual interaction. Human beings are herd animals as it were; people want to be with people. And the idea that someone sitting alone for hours in front of a computer is "communicating" and "making human contact" ranges from representing an extremely poor substitute to just plain ludicrous. Some of our students already spend far too much time in this activity and the ubiquitous "chat room" filled with pseudonyms, idle exchange, and often thinly-veiled dishonesties makes this point. Many people also speak of increasing the "sense of community" within our educational institutions. I too believe this is important, and I think that the best way to accomplish it is to create as many specific opportunities for it to happen as possible. There are more than a few students "who leave our educational environments and never forgive the institution for granting them their degree." To make sure that all students "love" their school experiences we must get them to give something of themselves to the institution—outside of the football weekend. Indeed, one learns to love by giving, not by being given to. Student involvement can be anything that the student feels is meaningful—participating in student activities, public performances, helping keep-up the ensemble room, helping younger or less accomplished students with their music tasks, sharing their unique music background with a class, being counselors, performing in various ensembles, giving tours of the school, and on and on. I suggest that most music teachers have this special giving relationship with many, if not all of their students and, thereby, receive the "pay that is not in the envelope." There is a reciprocal benefit for students as well.

We also need to grow smaller as our institutions grow larger to insure individuality and the unique contribution of every person. This concept has traditionally been evident in our performing organizations where students continuously interact within a smaller group of students than the larger total school aggregate. Music is a natural activity for implementing the special qualities of every individual where each student is put in relatively small and large learning-groups and thereby establishes a nurturing sense of "community" while still experiencing the unique contribution of their own effort. Participatory music activities provide this type of benefit and various world music ensembles (large and small) would heighten these human interactions. It should be remembered that even when we attend large social functions we usually go with our own group of friends—all students, everywhere, need to have a group of friends.

So, where are we today? Where are we going? And most important, where ought we be going? I suggest that we are in much the same place as people have always been, at least concerning those "time-honored" values that have been part of the human condition, including music. Students will always be more concerned with how and in what ways they socialize than with what their teachers or parents want them to learn. Most people will continue feeling more comfortable with the folkways, language, customs and the music of their own as opposed that of others and technological development will continue to be in constant ferment. Yet the study of music and meaningful musical participation will continue to provide that bone-deep feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment that few other things can. The great literary and artistic works that speak to the core of the human condition will always be important. Regardless of where these works geographically originate they still are capable of touching all people. Yet, much of that which is "great" may indeed be culturally specific and that music which is not "familiar" will also need to be studied. And as the world's people become even more interactive and interdependent, the importance of understanding those people outside our own clan will not only continue to be increasingly necessary, it will become essential.


1Vision 2020: The Housewright Symposium on the Future of Music Education, Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference, 2000.

2National Standards for Arts Education, Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference, 1994.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 17/10/2018

Clifford K. Madsen

Clifford K. Madsen, PhD is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor in the Center for Music Research in the College of Music at the Florida State University where he completed his doctorate and has served as a faculty member since 1961. His expertise is in experimental research in music and systematic observation and analysis concerning teacher effectiveness. His research interests are in perception and cognition having done a good deal of research in intonation and teacher effectiveness. Additionally he pioneered the use of the Continuous Response Digital Interface (CRDI) to investigate aesthetic and emotional response to music. He is widely published in many scholarly journals and has authored and/or co-authored 13 books.

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