Critical Engagement with Practice is not the same as subservience, or being a practitioner

Over a long period, I have repeatedly considered the question of ‘practice’ in an academic context, its meanings and implications, following on from earlier writings on the relationship between practice and research (see an index to earlier blog posts on this subject here), then most recently two articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing for the need of different means to integrate practitioners into academia (see here and here) and then a blog article intended as a dialectical response to those articles, drawing upon a wider debate of the relationship between ‘advocacy’ and ‘criticism’, mapped by some onto ‘practitioners’ and ‘scholars’ respectively.

These subjects remain not only complex, both in theory and literally in ‘practice’, but also touch upon raw nerves amongst various scholars and practitioners. I have encountered significant rage from some composers at the suggestion that perhaps, just as few would suggest that musicological scholars are experts in the practice of composition, maybe they might show some humility towards musicologists as well, rather than assuming they know just as much about their discipline and are equally adept at teaching it. Much of this anger likely relates to competition for positions in an ever-more competitive and narrowing academic job market, especially at the current time, when at least in some other arts/humanities subjects (not music as of recently, though over the last two decades a significant number of music departments and programmes have closed), departments have been making sweeping cuts (for example Roehampton University).

There are those who choose to view the humanities on one hand, and practical work and the sciences on the other, as fundamentally opposing groups of disciplines, not only in their subject matter, but also in approach, method, ethos, and so on, so that any teaching which relates to the former is antithetical to the latter. I fundamentally disagree, and believe this view is at odds with the defining aspect of a university (as also argued back in 2010 in an article by Terry Eagleton, claiming that a university without humanities would be like ‘a pub without alcohol’). But that issue, which leads back to C.P. Snow’s 1959 essay on The Two Cultures, is extensive and for another article.

What I want to consider here is the role of universities in terms of engagement with practice, both practice undertaken by academics themselves, and that conducted in external institutions. In many ways I believe this is not just important but quite vital in a range of disciplines. Those working in medicine or other health sciences need to draw upon knowledge garnered through practical medical work, and conversely develop research with practical application. The same is true in study of business and the law. A literary scholar is engaging at a deep level with literary practice, just as is a music analyst with the musical equivalent. The extent to which academic research into the arts does or should feed into practice is more open to question, however. Certainly in the case of music there is a body of musicological opinion which is markedly sceptical about the value of performers using the findings of analytical and other research to inform their own performances, noting the extent to which a great many important performers have not done so over history, and how often their performances are quite distinct from what might be implied by such research. The same is true of composition – someone once wrote sardonically about composers who think that if one can analyse music, one can compose it, it is just a matter of doing the process in reverse! Nonetheless, in other ways performers do frequently draw upon knowledge in the business of crafting a performance (sometimes simply that garnered from listening to other performances), as do composers, and so such criticisms may in reality relate more to specific strategies than the use of external knowledge per se in the process of artistic creation.

Some areas such as pure maths (at the heart of my own first degree) may be different with respect to practical engagement; certainly from what I recall 35 years on a good deal of pure mathematical research was undertaken without primary consideration for its potential application, which was something to be discovered later on. I believe (but am no expert) that a similar approach underlies some work in other ‘pure’ sciences, and this is certainly true of those non-empirical branches of philosophy which believe in the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge.

But in fields for which large areas of practical activity exist, it would be foolish to deny the value of engaging with knowledge drawn from this realm. I will from this point limit my discussion to artistic areas, as they are those which I know best. The key issue, in my view, is not whether but how one should do so. And this is where I would emphasise the vital aspect of a critical engagement with practice, and also of academic independence. When dealing with external practitioners or institutions dedicated to practice, one is confronted with those who have their own distinct desires, needs, economic imperatives, possible rivalries with others, and so on. Not all of these things would make for good scholarship if taken at face value. An artist may prefer a scholar to focus exclusively on their most successful work, not that whose merits might be more questionable, but a scholar who did so and claimed to be examining the work in its entirety would be disingenuous. The same is true of one examining a theatre and the responses of its audiences, who chose to bracket out from their study those audience responses which were less positive, in order to avoid upsetting the theatre owners. To use a dichotomy underlying a blog post from almost a decade ago, this is the difference between scholarship and PR. The scholar’s task is to follow where the results of their research lead them; to bury some of these in order to keep an external partner happy, or for that matter to undertake the research in such a way as to make such an outcome inevitable (as I have criticised sharply in some varieties of ethnographic work which eschew a critical view of the views and perceptions of their subjects, and as such can amount to hagiography), is to foresake one of the most fundamental aspects of being a scholar.

What I am arguing here is that critical scholarly engagement with practice (which can certainly involve partnerships and the like) should not be confused with a subservient relationship to this. This may not be the preference of some external practitioners, but if they wish for academic input, they need to respect the integrity of the academics involved.

But what about if the scholar is also the practitioner, as is the case in various forms of practice-as-research, artistic research, and so on? I have argued repeatedly that the question of whether certain practice is research is rather banal. In some ways most practice can be construed as such (as most practice requires answering certain types of questions to which there are multiple possible answers, and a range of methods for doing so), but what really matters is the quality of the research. This is not necessarily synonymous with what satisfies other aesthetic criteria (in an artistic context), but has to do with the generation of new knowledge expressed in the form of practice, which can have at least potential application for others. So an artist who develops new approaches which are found to bear aesthetic fruit, and upon which others can draw, would in an academic context generally be thought of as having done valuable research of a type.

Not all do accept this view of research (certainly artistic researchers have on the whole rejected the idea that research can simply be located in practice itself). I do accept it, but I am less sure of the extent to which it maps onto other forms of research, or qualifies the practitioner to undertake the latter, other than in some exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, while the quality of such research can, I believe, be gauged simply by close inspection of the practical work engendered, I wonder of the extent to which those engaged in assessment really do those to an intense degree (hardly possible if one has a wide range of things to assess), or whether the research quality is based upon finding the work more-or-less seems to resemble some of the qualities presented in associated verbal material (see my post on the 300-word statements that are essentially mandatory for submission of practice-based outputs to the REF).

Once again, I return to the question of critical engagement, or self-critical engagement. A practitioner can describe their work, even give a significant amount of detail about how it was put together, upon which ideas, philosophies or other determinants they have drawn (as one will find in many an ‘artist’s statement’), but that does not amount to this form of engagement. What can be difficult for practitioners is an attempt to ‘stand outside’ of their own work (and the immediate concerns of their own self), especially when in other contexts they are required to ‘sell themselves’ and in the process hide any acknowledgement of weaknesses, doubts or other more ambivalent self-reflection. Of course academics are far from immune to the latter tendency, which can sometimes dampen the possibilities of their own self-criticism, but they do function in scholarly arenas where if they do not do so, others can and often will follow up on vulnerabilities in their work, which is not always the case in more precious artistic circles.

The much-debated and contested field of autoethnography appears to me to hinge on the critical element; critical self-reflection upon personal experience, for the purposes of generating new knowledge which wider potential application is not the same thing as simply writing about oneself (which would be closer to autobiography), though a fair amount of writing and lectures I have encountered which is billed as autoethnography comes closer to the second category.

One anecdote may explain how these different attitudes and approaches can also inform teaching and its relationship to external practice. At a former institution, I was once tasked with developing a module on ‘Music and the Marketplace’, which I conceived as a broad consideration of the ways in which market forces inform music and music-making over a period of history, how other forms of music-making less subject to market forces might be different in nature, and so on. I had to be away for a period for some external performing work, so someone else took over the module design in my absence. When I returned, it had been changed to something like ‘How to get ahead in the musical marketplace’, which was a long way from my original design. What is the difference exactly? The module as originally conceived was about a critical engagement with the practice of music-making and its economic context. This by no means need imply a primarily negative view of market forces or their effect upon music, but should have been able to entertain a plurality of possible perspectives based upon careful and critical study of the phenomenon. The latter would have been entirely an ’employability’ module. Now I am certainly not going to deny the importance of such things. Some aspects of such teaching, such as how to write a CV or design a business plan, I would categorise as ancillary rather than academic skills – certainly they are things which do not necessarily require a university in order to be learned. But if employability skills become the only or primary things taught in a university context, or the attitude associated with them underlies the majority of teaching, I wonder then if a university degree has become more of a training course, lacking true intellectual inquiry and critical thinking that is more than purely functional. This touches on the question of a humanities approach – critical thinking in that context I would associate with a relatively dispassionate search for ‘pure’ knowledge, rather than subsuming that knowledge to narrow external criteria such as ‘how do I get ahead?’ or ‘how do I keep certain people happy?’

Any academic department without critical scholars will be impoverished in terms of the wider mission of a university. Practitioners can be critical scholars/thinkers as well, as can external partners, but one should not assume this is necessarily the case and certainly not ignore the possibility that other agendas may condition their thinking, either as expressed explicitly or implicitly assumed. In order that universities fulfil their central mission, it is vital to engage with practice, but in a critical and independent manner, whilst recognising that simply undertaking practice and promoting it in a certain way is not at all the same thing. And institutions must take care to guard and protect scholars’ independence from external pressures, simply to ensure that what they do remains scholarship. Then there is no reason to worry that engagement with practice entails any necessary conflict with the imperatives of research.


Musicological Observations 10: Practitioners and Scholars – Advocacy vs Criticism?

There was an interesting recent social media thread from Cambridge Professor of Music Marina Frolova-Walker, following reading of some unhappy Twitter exchanges between musicians and musicologists. I am not exactly sure which these were, but there had recently been a particularly angry set of responses to conductor Kenneth Woods after his suggestion that some young musicians were not getting the type of training and experience they need when the National Youth Orchestra spent half a programme on some contemporary works – which I have not personally heard – which he described as ‘tenth rate’ and not featuring much of consequence for the players to do. Some may not realise that any type of value judgement is rejected and even despised in some musicological quarters, and so many responses were to pile on Woods for daring to indulge in such a thing, which is after all ‘subjective’ (as if a lot of what musicologists say and write does not also fall into this category).

Anyhow, Frolova-Walker (who I am citing with permission) suggested wryly (and perhaps only half-seriously) that musical practitioners and music academics might to best to keep apart from each other, since they inhabit such different worlds, value systems, use different vocabularies, etc. This provoked considerable debate, some including myself reluctant to throw in the towel when it comes to fruitful interactions between practitioners and scholars. One of Frolova-Walker’s conclusions was ‘performing is about advocacy, musicology is about criticism’. From a position of high respect, I want to consider this dichotomy further. For the purposes of this post, I define ‘scholars’ as those who produce generally written outputs in the standard forms (article, book chapter, monograph) for academic publishers; ‘practitioners’ as those whose work is primarily in the form of practice – performance, composition, artistic installation, recording, video, etc.

This issue, which I have touched upon in earlier blog posts (see here, here, here and here) is naturally very close to my own heart, as I straddle the worlds of performance and scholarship. Sometimes I like to think this makes me able to bridge the two worlds, but equally often I can feel estranged from and sceptical about both. Frolova-Walker’s point about different vocabularies employed by practitioners and scholars is highly familiar; even such basic terms as ‘the canon’ or ‘Western art music’ are found much more frequently amongst scholars than practitioners, in my experience, whilst few scholars are happy with ideas of ‘musicality’ and the like.

I have recently published two articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing for the need for universities to facilitate higher academic status and progression for a range of practitioners in the performing arts (see here and here), questioning in particular the use (in the UK) of the Research Excellence Framework as the primary measure of the value of their work. This short article is in a sense a rejoinder to those from a different perspective which realises the limits of the field of practitioners, after advocating for their academic integration.

The concepts of ‘advocacy’ and ‘criticism’ can of course have a variety of meanings or emphases. ‘Advocacy’ can mean a basically supportive though not uncritical view of some phenomenon (such as some artistic work), but can also mean either a rigid or even a defensive attitude towards such a thing, which brooks for no dissenting views, and thus can be dismissive of such views, or even try to pathologise those who hold them. ‘Criticism’ can imply something a primarily pejorative view of a phenomenon (in that sense, the direct opposite of advocacy), but here I believe it was intended more in the manner of ‘critique’, relating to a more dispassionate evaluation of a phenomenon (in the case of musicology, this could be an aesthetic critique, an ideology critique, or other type of commentary or analysis of musical phenomena undertaken with that degree of critical distance that is generally believed to be the best approach for a scholar).

Can or should musicologists be advocates? The former Regius Professor of Music at Cambridge, Nicholas Cook, thinks they should not. In a 2003 article (‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), pp. 249-261), examines a range of types of advocacy found in musical writing – for individual composers and performers (especially in biographical writing), for rock musicians by demonstrating various qualities within their work, advocacy for new music, arguing for its merits in the face of marginalisation, for early music, and political advocacy for the writers’ informants in ethnomusicology. Cook is especially scathing on forms of advocacy for new music which positively valorise its alleged resistance to consumer culture (breaching Godwin’s Law in a hyperbolic passage in which he compares the view of one protagonist expressing such a position, Anne Boissière to a tradition of thought which ‘fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of “blood and soil”‘ (p. 257)). But in terms of advocacy based on value judgement, after surveying in particular the relationship between this and analysis at the hands of the likes of Heinrich Schenker, Carl Dahlhaus and Rudolph Réti, Cook delivers the following pronouncement, ending in a formulation reminiscent of Leopold Ranke’s view of the job of history:

It seems to me that the idea of the musical academy acting as some kind of quality control, with musicologists or theorists issuing admission tickets to a canonic hall of fame, is way past its sell-by date, and that the prerequisite for a more open-minded approach to musical culture than musicology has traditionally had is a more modest intellectual ambition: to register, to describe, to establish the facts as they are. (p. 259)

While taking Cook’s views seriously (though not his outrageous slur on Boissière), I disagree with this rejection of value judgement and advocacy in general, reject his caricature of ‘musicologists and theorists’, and find it hard to imagine such a view coming from a practising musician, who would have a different personal relationship with the music in question. (I also do not believe there is such a thing as ‘establishing the facts as they are’, somehow free from the interpretive lens of the academic who is doing that (though this is no sense to take a post-modern ‘anything goes’ attitude with respect to relatively objective factual data), but that is a different matter.)

It is hard to see why one would wish to spend a very considerable amount of time or energy on studying music if one did not care about it, or at least find it fascinating. The exceptions might be if one has a passion for history, sociology or another discipline distinct from music, so one studies the music to learn more about the wider history, the society from which it comes, and so on. I have spent some fair amount of time considering what I consider minor and now-forgotten works in various traditions, not in order to uncover ‘lost masterpieces’ (though it is of course a bonus if one finds something really striking in such research), but rather to gain a wider understanding of the context in which other music which I do value was developed, or to comprehend better developments in style, genre, and so on.

Nonetheless, there are basic principles developed in the humanities which I believe continue to be as essential as ever in musical scholarship: maintaining a key awareness of the range of data available and its limitations, not ignoring inconvenient findings if they might interfere with a priori theories or conclusions, familiarising oneself and engaging critically with existing secondary literature and recognising the relationship of one’s own work to what has already been achieved, understanding that the assumptions, tastes, priorities and values of other times and places may be quite different from one’s own, and most importantly here, maintaining a degree of healthy critical distance from one’s subject, so as to be able to assess and interpret it in a more balanced manner, while avoiding the types of highly subjective judgements which rely essentially on whim rather than more substantive and detailed appraisal. For music, I would add the avoidance of pronouncing on music without having heard it (or, where music has been published but either never-yet performed, or no recording exists, studying the score as the next-best thing). Furthermore, in general I believe it is better if scholars are at least guarded before making blatant political pronouncements which assume the reader share their own particular ideological convictions. If the arguments and interpretations are made in a rigorous and well-substantiated fashion, the reader is perfectly capable of drawing their own political conclusions.

I do enjoy immensely reading scholarly work on music (of all types and traditions) by those who clearly have a passion for it, including on occasions when I might not share the same aesthetic view as the writer, at least initially. I may hear some music which makes an impression, but not always be clear to myself why this is the case, and am always interested to know more of its workings in order to understand more about my own reaction. Amongst large bodies of work, such as Marenzio’s Madrigals, Haydn’s Symphonies, Schubert’s songs or Miles Davis’s albums, I am interested in reading those intimately familiar with such bodies of work and their arguments for why some parts of these oeuvres might be especially distinctive. I (and I am sure a great many others) am perfectly capable of still having my own view after such reading, and of course there has always been lively debate amongst different people about aesthetic matters; Cook’s view of such advocacy as a type of hegemony appears to assume that readers will inevitably have an opinion imposed on them, and presents them as essentially passive. By contrast, as I have argued in a review-article on his book Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), I can find Cook’s stand-offish approach clinical and alienating, objectifying and removing the life from music by treating it like a laboratory specimen. It is more ‘open-minded’ to allow for advocacy, at least of certain types, than to attempt to have it banished from scholarly writing, as Cook seems to wish.

However, to give the range of Cook’s arguments the proper consideration they deserve, some of the more questionable types of advocacy within musicology he identifies do certainly exist. The line dividing some supposedly scholarly writing on popular music from that which might appear in a ‘fanzine’ is not always carefully drawn (not least because popular music scholars are not so often well-versed in the types of more detailed perspectives on aesthetics which can be found elsewhere, including in some popular music journalism or other non-academic writing). In and outside of ethnomusicology, ‘activist’ writing can be an unedifying spectacle, eschewing attempts at scholarly balance and critical distance in favour of bald assertion of political points, to an extent that I would question whether some such work really qualifies as scholarship. And, as I said earlier, there are forms of advocacy that rest either on the simple fact that such a view is commonplace, and has been over an extended period, or the assumption that there must be something wrong with anyone who disagrees (an approach which unfortunately permeates such composer monographs as that of Lois Fitch on Brian Ferneyhough, of Pirkko Moisala on Kaija Saariaho).

The works of Fitch and Moisala may be amongst the most egregious examples, but they epitomise a wider phenomenon within writing on new music, one of the areas mentioned by Cook (about which I have been writing much for publications recently, and on which I am preparing a longer blog post). A very large number of practitioners working in research positions in UK academic departments are involved with new music, including myself. In this context I have found the dichotomy between advocacy and criticism to be most acute.

While a few practitioners also produce written and other outputs (as I do, some of which have no direct or obvious link to my own practice), others are focused primarily or exclusively on their practice. More to the point, they frequently also operate in external non-academic arenas, sites dominated by different values, attitudes and behaviours than one might find in academia. Practitioners need to network with those with the power to grant them commissions, performances, exhibits, etc., have to advocate strongly for their own work and sometimes that of others, and often cannot risk expressing views or perspectives which might give grounds for any scepticism about their work, or which those with whom they network might not favour. I have certainly found this when attempting to engage some in the new music world with issues of the development of that world in the aftermath of fascism, or the more specific example of the patronage of new music by the Ernst von Siemens Stiftung, bearing in mind that the Siemens family fortune rests at least in part on their having run slave labour camps at Auschwitz, then spent 30 years trying to fight against compensation claims from survivors – not what those who have received or wish to receive a major grant from this organisation, or their acolytes, wish to hear. Often they are part of wider networks of practitioners whose collective reputation impacts upon their own individual one, and so need to be staunch advocates for these networks.

Amongst practitioners operating in more highly commercialised environments (compared to that of new music, which can at least occasionally entertain some more critical discourse within its ranks), in which total loyalty to an employer, an outfit, a brand, etc., can be utterly essential, and anything else might have one ostracised, these issues may be even more acute. Some of those working in academic departments who are also pursuing commercial work can be mystified when they encounter the type of critical discourse pursued by musicologists, uncomprehending of why one would engage in the type of thinking which may be at cross-purposes with what might help one gain work. Similarly, study of the music industries/business can take radically different forms depending upon whether one is seeking to understand their workings, operations, priorities in the manner of a scholar, or trying to look at (or teach others) how best to succeed in them. Nonetheless, there are important figures with commercial connections who can move between such discourses.

In many institutions and conferences, I have sat through a range of events billed as research presentations by composers, improvisers, sound artists, other performers, and so on, which amount essentially to a form of self-advocacy or even self-promotion, somewhat akin to ‘artists’ statements’. The practitioner will describe what they do, why they chose to embark on a particular project, how they set about this, often with some liberal number of references both to other admired artists to whose work this practitioner links their own, and to certain intellectual figures (Gilles Deleuze or Bruno Latour are often a safe bet, and increasingly a few writings by anthropologist Tim Ingold, though rarely his highly critical articles on ethnography or soundscape), as well as to key concepts from philosophy and other fields (not always presented in a manner which accords with their recognised and established meanings) as part of the process of situating one’s work within a research culture. This is distinct from autoethnography (which, for reasons too intricate to go into here, but which I have argued elsewhere, I do think is often quite deeply linked to the framing of practice-as-research), which is not simply autobiography, but at best entails a critical perspective on the self and the practice in which they are engaged. Occasionally one will encounter a bit of critical self-reflection in such research presentations, entertaining the possibility that it entailed failures as well as successes, but I have found this increasingly rare, as if the practitioners are loath to engage in something which might make themselves seem vulnerable.

Of course there is an important place for this type of self-advocacy, but the values and attitudes it embodies appear at cross-purposes with those of more disinterested humanities scholarship. For this reason, situating practice-research (for this type of presentation invariably relates to such a thing) within the humanities may be a category error.

It would also be unfair to associate this type of advocacy and lack of critique exclusively with practitioners. I have certainly encountered it frequently in some presentations on popular music (in the manner mentioned above), certain types of ethnography dominated by simple representation of the views of the informants, with little critical interpretation (to such an extent that some such work can appear hagiographic, as I have argued in a variety of cases – see my two essays on ethnography in this volume), or those soundscape studies which consist primarily of listing a range of sounds to be found in a particular location, whereby the simple fact of the sounds being variegated appears to suffice for interpretation.

Some of those can rub off on those working in academia who are not themselves practitioners, but write about contemporary work (this was a recurrent subject in the 2017 conference at the University of Surrey on ‘Writing on Contemporary Artists’, where it was fascinating to find how many scholars working on different artistic disciplines had experienced the same issues, conflicts of interests, and so on). Many will share faculties with practitioners, sometimes working in fields related to those about which they write. In my experience, such practitioners, especially those who believe their fields to be beleaguered or little recognised in a wider social context (as with many in new music, not least electroacoustic music), can respond very negatively and even in a hostile fashion that the sort of critical writing which might do something other than simply flatter the type of work they do. While this can only be conjecture/speculation, I do believe that this type of ‘peer pressure’ often has an impact on scholars, leading them to avoid more difficult critical questions, aesthetic or otherwise. But this compromises the depth and integrity of their research, and in my view has led to scholarly writing on new music remaining a very uneven field compared to those dealing with other areas, where will not interact almost on a daily basis with individuals deeply invested in such fields.

This is the type of major conflict which can result from the integration of practitioners in academia without some grounding in wider critical scholarly discourse and the values of the humanities. It can also be damaging for teaching, if one might otherwise not necessarily deem the work of a practitioner colleague itself sufficiently significant to be included in a survey of a field of work, or might wish to unpack some of the aesthetic and ideological assumptions behind their work or those of the circles with which they are involved. Here we do see advocacy and critique drastically at cross-purposes.

But I do not believe this has to be the case, so long as there is recognition the distinct qualities and types of expertise of scholars and practitioners, neither conflates these nor tries to establish a rigid hierarchy, and respects the independent perspectives and academic freedom of each. With teaching, this can be more complicated; here I would aver that on balance scholars might hold back from engaging in practical teaching, and practitioners from scholarly teaching, if they do not have considerable experience of their own in such fields. Teleological views of music history which just happen to feature the work of the composer teaching them as the telos, academic study of performance trends and cultures which are centered around the work of the performer teaching them, or abstract and dry directives on how music should be played on the basis of academic knowledge, by those who have little experience themselves of the process of performing music, are not often good practice in these respective areas.

Music-making can exist without musicology (indeed has done or continues to do so in various times and places), but musicology not engaged with music or music-making which still remains a living concern at least to some (which in no sense means any prioritisation of contemporary work), or has the potential to be so, will invite, not unreasonably, charges of ‘ivory-towerism’. Academics talking solely to each other is not always encouraging, nor an insistence that their own work is only valorised by those other academics (usually within the same sub-discipline, and often sharing a range of ideological assumptions) who by virtue of their very position can never really be more disinterested judges of the wider societal or other value of such work.

It is in my view essential that academic musicians are engaged with music and music-making existing outside of academia, without in the process sacrificing their scholarly independence. This is not about adopting advocacy wholesale, but recognising a world in which this does play a very major role, developing perspectives on this which are not blindly dismissive, but also demanding that practitioners equally recognise that academics may not share the assumptions appertaining to the particular (and sometimes small) cultural or social milieu inhabited by some practitioners.


Safeguarding and the Avoidance of Deskilling: Position Statement for Debate on ‘Music in the Curriculum: tensions, choices and opportunities’, City, University of London, 15 November 2019

A significantly abridged version of this statement will be delivered at the public debate on ‘Music in the Curriculum: tensions, choices and opportunities’, City, University of London, 15 November 2019. This is chaired by Steven Berryman, Director of Music, City of London School for Girls; Cultural and Creative Learning, City of London Education Team, with a panel consisting of Dr David Hughes, Research Associate at SOAS and expert on Japan and Japanese musical culture, Professor Barbara Kelly, from the Royal Northern College of Music, also President of the Royal Musical Association, Professor Barbara Mawer from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Gillian Moore CBE, Director of Music and former Head of Education, Southbank Centre, Dr Jessica Pitt, Lecturer in Music Education at the Royal College of Music, Dr Henry Stobart, Reader in Music and Ethnomusicology, Royal Holloway, University of London, and Simon Toyne, Executive Director of Music at the David Ross Education Trust and Director of the Eton Choral Courses.

Statement

I wish to speak about two distinct issues facing music education, both of them relating to my own research and areas of expertise. The first is safeguarding, the welfare of pupils undergoing instrumental and vocal tuition. This comes out of my work as a researcher, lobbyist and campaigner on abuse in music education, following the revelations in this respect that have become public since the trial and conviction of Michael Brewer, former Director of Music at Chetham’s School of Music, and his former wife Kay. All of this led to spate of reporting on widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse within specialist music education, leading to hearings on the subject in October at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, for which I gave evidence as an academic expert. A link to videos, transcripts and other documents from these hearings can be found here.

The second issue is the ‘deskilling’ of musical education, and draws upon a range of writings and public statements which began with an article I wrote in 2015 for the 80th birthday of musicologist Arnold Whittall (Ian Pace, ‘To do justice to Arnold’s enviable legacy, we should reverse a tendency towards the de-skilling of a discipline’, Society for Music Analysis Newsletter 2015, pp. 28-9), and was recently the subject of a roundtable at the Royal Musical Association Conference 2019.

Safeguarding

A range of what I believe are my most important earlier writings on abuse and safeguarding in musical education are the following:

‘Reported Cases in Musical Education, 1990-2012, and Issues for a Public Inquiry’ (2013)
‘The Trial of Michael and Kay Brewer and the Death of Frances Andrade, and the Aftermath, 2013’ (2014)
‘The culture of music education lends itself to abuse’, Times Educational Supplement, 8 May 2013
‘Safeguarding’, Music Teacher (April 2015), pp. 13-15
‘Marcel Gazelle and the Culture of the Early Yehudi Menuhin School’ (2013)

I have recently collated a series of forty-five testimonies from former Chetham’s pupils who generally studied there between the 1960s and 1990s. These paint a bleak picture of a school characterised by physical, emotional and sexual abuse on a regular basis, as part of a wider culture of bullying (including from teachers), isolation, grooming, routine humiliation, cynical exploitation of competition, institutionalised misogyny, self-harm and eating disorders.

I would add that the range of testimonies I have heard relating to other specialist music schools over the course of their history are of a similar nature, and would not want to suggest that this has been exclusive just to one school. Nor that conditions from the 1960s to 1990s are the same as today, though we should be cautious in assuming that everything has changed.

There is much to say about measures to ensure these sorts of environments can never arise again, and indeed about how schools which build their reputation upon the success of some their historic students need to accept responsibility and make amends for the immense suffering, often with long-term implications, experienced by some of the others who studied at them. But what I want to pinpoint now is the relationship between the student and their 1-1 instrumental or vocal teacher. The pianist Martin Roscoe said to me that his own teacher, Gordon Green (about whom a PhD student of mine is currently writing a thesis) thought that the best teacher is the one who makes themselves dispensable. I wholeheartedly agree, but have seen the opposite far too often: teachers who try to dominate and take over the lives of their students. We must above all recognise boundaries here, and ensure clear guidelines to instruct teachers for good practice in helping young musicians  to develop and flourish without trying to mould their whole person. I absolutely believe in the importance of vigorous and intensive musical training, especially for those seeking professional careers as musicians, but refuse to accept that this requires any type of demeaning behaviour or language on the part of the teacher, which can often crush a student’s wider confidence. At the heart of safeguarding should be a recognition for the dignity and independence of a student as a person, and a nurturing culture which does not isolate them from the world. I have seen all too well what the alternative entails.

 

Deskilling

Beyond the 2015 article in which I was one of the first to apply the term ‘deskilling’ to musical education, reports from the roundtable I chaired at the RMA 2019 conference can be found here and here. I have also, with Australian musicologist Peter Tregear, been co-editing a book together entitled Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling. Many of the contributors are concerned about a progressive reduction, in the teaching of and research into music at some Anglo-American universities, of many core skills – notation, musicianship, theory and analysis, knowledge of historical context and so on.

Many students can gain degrees in music with only limited development of these skills, if at all. Some then go on to teach in schools and are unable to transmit such skills to their own students. Corresponding, some academics whose own sub-disciplines least require these skills to any great degree can become the most enthusiastic advocates of dumbing-down and deskilling.

Skills are not and should not be set in stone, and different skills are more appropriate for different types of music. But in order to accommodate the possibility of developing some skills to a high level, I do think we should at least question an assumption that an increase in ‘diversity’ in the curriculum is an unquestioned positive in all respects. Without extra teaching time available to accommodate this, superficial breadth often takes the place of depth. Attempts at books on ‘global musics’ and the like, such as Kay Kaufman Shelemay’s Soundscapes (New York: Norton, 2001) inevitably find it hard to avoid presenting a touristic view, which hardly breeds more concrete engagement either with music or its context, and can reduce a lot of music primarily to varieties of exotica.

The skills involved to engage with a Schubert song in terms of its relationship to early nineteenth-century Germanic melodic and harmonic conventions, those of text setting, poetic conventions, early romantic aesthetics, wider German philosophy are of a different order of depth. Scholars who can engage meaningfully with all of these factors (and would have a wider contextual framework owing to knowledge of the composer’s output and much other music of the period) are increasingly out of demand in all but the most elite institutions. In every sense the skills required to engage with various Indian, Chinese, Arabic or other musical traditions, or with the work of Miles Davis or many other musicians in various genres, are just as extensive and require just as wide a range of wider contextual knowledge.

I believe some other valuable teaching skills have been undermined by wider forms of corrosion in academia, various of which will be addressed in the book Peter and I are co-editing. Some of these stem from the marketisation of academic and the need to attract and retain as many students as possible, regardless of prior aptitude or achievement, leading to the growth of ‘soft’ subjects. While there is a good deal of ethnomusicology involving exhaustive inquiry into unfamiliar musical cultures through immersion and application of sophisticated theoretical models, some other work involving ethnographic approaches can consist of little more than rather slavish reiterations of the views of the subjects interviewed, with minimal wider contextual knowledge (this is explored in some detail in my ‘Ethnographic Approaches to the Study of Western Art Music: Questions of Context, Realism, Evidence, Description and Analysis’ and ‘When Ethnography becomes Hagiography: Uncritical Musical Perspectives’, in Researching and Writing on Contemporary Creative Art and Artists in Theory and Practice, edited Christopher Wiley and Ian Pace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)). Some of those who supplied statements in response to a 2016 debate on ethnomusicology have described an unhappy situation of an evangelical and censorious set of attitudes from some ethnomusicologists to most others, and a ‘rather flat, uncritical reporting of what the people of country X say about their music(al practices)’.

The field of popular music studies in the UK has many deep roots in sociology and cultural studies, not necessarily requiring musical expertise. The popular music academic Simon Frith once wrote disparagingly of listening and close engagement with music in favour of focus-group style investigations into what people think of it, an enthusiastic endorsement of what I have elsewhere called ‘musicology without ears’. But I do not believe a degree in Music should be essentially one in Market Research. A good deal of popular, film and video game music studies reflect the populist biases of many of their academic practitioners, and a wider wish to keep such study accessible to those with no specialist musical knowledge. There are of course many exceptions, for example in rigorous analytical work on popular music, but I have not seen evidence of these yet playing any central role within their sub-disciplines.

The peer-review system faces serious challenges in the face of an atomisation of sub-disciplines, so that many articles, chapters and books gain acceptance from reviewers and editors with a particular sub-disciplinary knowledge but not necessarily expertise in the subject of inquiry or wider methods which have been applied to it. Sweeping pronouncements on historical performance, on new music, on nineteenth-century aesthetics, to give a few areas about which I have some expertise, are not always subject to the right sort of scrutiny. As a consequence, all sorts of factual errors, half-truths or untruths, falsifiable or unsubstantiated claims, material lacking rigorous use of data or reasoning, or which cherry-picks data to support a priori assumptions, appear in print in respected journals or books by major publishers, and much of this type of material is reiterated by students and other academics, in the process becoming ideology. At worst, demonstrably unreliable or unresearched work is treated uncritically or even defensively by others with tribal loyalties to particular ideological approaches, especially when their advocates have institutional power.

I believe this is the result of a decline of critical thinking in academia, in favour of narrow political advocacy or simple group think. Has this not has always been the case to some extent? Perhaps, but I do believe a sufficiently vigorous intellectual culture has previously served to reveal and discredit clearly false and uninformed claims. But this process has itself been under some attack for a number of years, most prominently by the advocates of William Cheng’s book Just Vibrations (Ann Arbor: MI: University of Michigan Press), subject to a sustained critique by Peter Tregear in the pages of Musicology Australia and also in the RMA panel. Cheng dismisses the value of fact-checking, scrutiny of reasoning, and so on, in academic writing, as part of a ‘paranoid’ approach; he prefers to judge work by the extent to which he would claim it does social justice. What this amounts to is a simple surrender of scholarship to a narrow political agenda.

I am disappointed that our discipline has sunk so low that arguments like those of Cheng are taken seriously, but believe this is symptomatic of a wider Anglophone culture and politics in which music and other art forms are little valued. In Britain and America, which adopted industrialisation more fundamentally than their counterparts elsewhere, with associated utilitarian values, music and other arts have often been valued primarily to the extent they serve as pointers to other phenomena, or can be associated with a clear social function. The former constitutes a variety of artistic realism which ultimately denies the art. As the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton once wrote, ‘A poet who managed to make his or her words ‘become’ the fruit they describe would be a greengrocer’. Art does not simply provide a window onto reality, but adds to that reality.

The violinist Nicola Benedetti, however, has recently spoken about how:

It [Music] is the art of all the things we can’t see or touch. It is feelings and thoughts, offerings of generosity, vulnerability and openness. It addresses us, communicates and passes invisible things from people creating sound to people receiving sound. It has the power to capture us, to make us feel many complex things. It can lift us high into optimism and accompany us during feelings of hurt and pain. The making of music can be described as healing, invigorating, exhausting and all-consuming. It brings millions together through the basic act of listening and thousands together through the act of making melody, rhythm and harmony in the practice and service of collective expression.

[During Benedetti’s work with schools and music organisations]: ‘I saw a huge number of inspiring teachers engaging their students with no sacrifice on quality, […]

I saw great teaching and playing, regardless of level. The more I looked, the more excellence, ingenuity, creativity, dedication, resilience and unbelievable steadfastness in both teacher and student I encountered. […]

But I also saw lacklustre music teachers and students, worn down by years of zero celebration of their work, continuous battles to hold onto the tiny resources they have, and feeling like they are pushing against a culture that only celebrates music sold like addictive candy.

(Nicola Benedetti, ‘Music teaching is vital to a child’s education’ (2019); another section from the talk is found in ‘Music is the art of all the things we can’t see or touch. We need it in our lives’, The Guardian, 8 November 2019).

Benedetti’s ‘music sold like addictive candy’ is symptomatic of a wider educational culture which distrusts aesthetic judgement and as such is wary to try and develop wider taste among young people beyond what provides a form of instant gratification.

Two other quotes encapsulate issues at stake. The critic Charlotte Gardiner has written about the problems of de-professionalisation of music criticism and concomitant decline of technical engagement with music:

Every day as a professional critic I’m talking with artists, attending concerts, listening analytically to recordings, writing concert program notes, and getting on planes to hear what’s interesting beyond my native shores, and the sheer weight of context that brings to every review can’t be equalled by someone with a non-musical day job.

Furthermore, technical knowledge is a vital ingredient towards painting the picture for a reader who wasn’t there. For instance, if you’re reading about the premiere of a cello piece drawing on Arabic musical traditions, what best helps you imagine it in your head: being told that it had you practically feeling the desert sand on your face and smelling the exotic spices, or that the composer used the quarter-tones and wavering notes heard across Middle-Eastern music, and mimicked the sound of the region’s traditional reed flute by getting the cellist to play airy harmonics on their lowest string? Basically, emotions and adjectives add important color, but the meat of the review will be the verbs.

Sticking with technical knowledge, when artists themselves have spent their lives training to the highest technical standards, they deserve critics who are similarly trained and who properly understand what they’re doing. I’m actually yet to meet an artist who wants to be reviewed by a non-professional. They want specifics and accuracy.

(Charlotte Gardiner, ‘Criticism Reviewed’takt1 (11 June 2019))

Then, the cellist and composer Franklin Cox made a comment on social media which I found remarkable and earlier blogged. He was prepared to express the unfashionable view that those teaching music have a responsibility towards tradition and history, because of the poor consequences of a musical culture in which musicians and scholars have no knowledge of these, rendering students only really able to create a type of musical or scholarly ‘fast food’ (resonating with the remarks of Benedetti and to some extent Gardiner):

The depth and potential of any given present is dependent on its knowledge of the past. By default, the animal needs will define any present–food, reproduction, entertainment, war, and so forth.

It is only owing to the depth of the historical heritage of English literature that Joyce’s work reached the level it did. He was acutely conscious of the high standards of the literary tradition he was working in. There was great literature in this tradition ages ago, and the tradition has been nourished continuously. If you are immersed in this heritage, you have some notion of what is required to contribute to it; second-rate work is bound to appear shoddy. But if people surrender the effort of learning this heritage, it’s probable that second-rate work will become the norm. Unfortunately, this process is sweeping through the American educational system.

There’s a similar heritage in art music. You have access to all of the historical music you were referring to owing to the immense efforts of earlier musicians. I feel a duty to learn about, cherish, and pass this tradition on to the next generation. It’s increasingly difficult to do this as higher education is converted into a fast food education industry.

These traditions won’t be passed on automatically; by default, the cheapest and easiest solution will be found. Each generation will have to find a new way to defend these traditions.

 

Conclusion

Those who care about music – and about scholarship – should stand up for a proper curriculum, for rigorous teaching of core skills and methods. The current (2016) QAA Subject Benchmark Statement is very loose in its benchmark skills:

QAA1

QAA2These need to be strengthened to incorporate more clearly core requirements – in notation, aural skills, analysis, history, aesthetics – for any degree simply calling itself ‘Music’, a designator which at present as often quite vague. We should not be trying to teach too many types of music simultaneously, and be prepared to re-embrace specialisation and depth. Also, classical music does not deserve a more hostile treatment than other genres and idioms, as I feel it does receive in some environments.

Music (or any other art form) should be taught because it matters, because musical traditions are worth preserving, disseminating and developing for new generations, not because music is just some sociological phenomenon. If teachers and academics do not appear to be personally invested in music, what are the chances that students will feel inspired to study it? To be able to engage with the myriad range of detail, meanings and context of music means far more than simply being able to parrot that X or Y group in society negotiate their identity by listening to genre A or B. We need curricula and approaches to teaching which value music and other arts for their own sake.