An inspiring defence of the teaching of Western classical music and musical literacy

In the wake of the huge response to the article on music notation and literacy by Charlotte C. Gill in The Guardian, and encountering a certain amount of qualified support for her position amongst some academics who are more broadly antipathetic towards a Western classical tradition or at least a central place for it in Western music curricula, I recently read the following inspiring passage from an essay by Estelle R. Jorgensen, ‘Western Classical Music and General Education’, Philosophy of Music Education Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Fall 2003), pp. 130-140, which I wanted to share here. Note that this is emphatically not a denigration of other traditions and practices, nor an assertion of superiority, but part of a wider argument for rejuvenating the teaching of something which is increasingly marginalised in various musical education, according to the author; she says ‘it seems now to have acquired (in some quarters at least) a negative connotation as a bastion of elitism and privilege. Instead, popular musics (with a nod to musics of other culture) have pride of place in much elementary and secondary music education and in many university and college offerings designed for students whose principal fields of study lie outside music.’

 

Why should Western classical music be advocated by music education policy makers? Among the possible reasons, the term “Western classical music” is a misnomer. It is really a multi-cultural and international tradition forged by musicians around the world who brought their various individual and cultural perspectives to a music that grew up in Europe but that from its infancy drew upon African and Near Eastern roots. Its widespread influence as one of the great musical traditions does not make it necessarily better than others but does make it worthy of study. A music that is known so widely, has captured the interest and participation of so many musicians and their audiences internationally, has such a rich repertory, and represents so many cultures strikes me as a human endeavor of inherent interest and worth.

Western classical music is also one of the ancient classical traditions in the world. Its long history can constitute a bridge to better understanding the particular contributions and detractions of Western civilization. This music constitutes a rich heritage of instruments, compositions, theories, and performers. It sometimes instances brilliant and deeply moving creations that manifest human genius at work. There is, as Jane Roland Martin puts it, a “stock” of cultural makings and doings that support, enrich, challenge, and defy social and cultural conventions. Musical artifacts include written compositions that are brought to life in performance, archaic instruments that are preserved, copied, restored, and otherwise kept for posterity, and musical rituals that are described, recorded, and recreated in a host of ways. As Neil Postman notes, knowing about the eighteenth century is particularly important at a time when mediated culture focuses on the present. Knowing the past traditions of a particular place enables one to connect with those who have gone before just as one relates to people in other places. Viewed this way, Western classical music is a precious heritage that links Westerners to their past just as it links them to other world cultures.

This music is an organic, living thing. Although informed and influenced by Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, it is also rooted in the musics of Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism, and in the secular musics of Middle Eastern and Northern African countries in which Islam took hold. Its mythos, influenced originally by Greek polytheism, later acquired a monotheistic Judeo-Christian perspective that is now being transformed as the tradition increasingly finds its home in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, affected again by polytheistic and other religious and mythical world views. It has also absorbed a host of other musics that have likewise become classical in their own right. For example, jazz is in the midst of becoming a classical tradition and many of its elements have been included in the Western classical mainstream. Likewise, rock, country, and gospel are acquiring classic properties such as notation, instrumentation, and self- reflexivity, and becoming incorporated into and interconnected with the Western classical tradition.

Musical notation is one of its singular achievements. Literacy provides a way of recording the nuances of performance, intellectualizing music, propagating it widely and disparately in time and space, and quickly learning new pieces of music. Becoming literate in this tradition is essential. Since the music is notated, one can read a score and hear how it should sound and quickly catch on to what is happening even if one is unacquainted with the particular piece. Remaining illiterate in this tradition leaves one deprived of knowledge essential to full participation in a society that regards itself as Western. This deprivation, whether intentional or not, is arguably racist and classist when it fails to ensure that all people irrespective of their background have the opportunity to be musically literate. Recognizing the multiplicity of musical cultures in today’s societies suggests expanding literacy beyond the Western classical tradition while also emphasizing aurality/orality- a point that Patricia Shehan Campbell is at pains to make. Notwithstanding the importance of musical orality, failing to develop musical literacy in at least one notated musical tradition makes it difficult to break out of a solely aural/oral tradition into a literate one, something that exponents of aural/oral or little musical traditions may wish to do, sooner or later. And leaving students limited is arguably mis-educative since it stunts and prevents their further development.


Article from Music Teacher Magazine on Safeguarding, with Guidelines for Teachers and Students

An article I wrote calling for conservatoires to take the lead in ensuring a new safe environment for students, in the wake of the Philip Pickett trial, was published in the April issue of Music Teacher magazine, accompanied by my proposed guidelines for students and teachers at tertiary level. With permission from the magazine, I reproduce the article here.

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Proposed Guidelines to protect both Music Teachers and Students – a starting point for discussion

Yesterday saw the horrendous news of the conviction of and 11-year jail sentence for Philip Pickett on charges of rape and sexual assault of students while he was teaching at the Guildhall School. Here is the original list of charges against Pickett from last year; I do not wish to say much more specific to this case, not least because of the possibility of further trials; suffice to say that I believe a good deal more will be made public about both actions and the complicity of others.

If anything good is to come from this case, I hope it may help to put pressure for a proper international debate about the nature of music education and the possibilities for abuse and exploitation therein. I blogged in some detail about this last December, in response to an excellent article by Damian Thompson in the Spectator. Yesterday I published an article on the film Whiplash in terms of its representation of bullying and abuse in teaching, on The Conversation , and a wider article in The Telegraph about abuse and elite music teaching, in particular raising the controversial question of whether self-regulation is ever likely, and whether that a system which places enormous powers of patronage in a few people’s hands needs a greater degree of external accountability (which would mean political/governmental intervention). Naturally, I would expect there to be and would welcome a range of different opinions on these subjects, but feel strongly that the debate needs to be had amongst music educators worldwide, and more widely in the profession.

With this in mind, I wanted to post here a set of draft guidelines for instrumental and vocal teachers and students at a tertiary level (generally 18 or over) in terms of their dealings with one another, as a starting point for discussion. I drafted these around 18 months ago (which included other guidelines on such things as when it is/is not appropriate to cancel a lesson, not so relevant here), and whilst they have not yet been taken up, I hope very much at some point they or something like them will be.

I would welcome all thoughts on the below, including new suggestions, disagreements, and so on. I accept some will disagree with my views on physical touching (I suggest this is OK so long as one asks permission) and whether student-teacher relationships or sexual encounters are ever permissible (I argue that where they happen, or one or other party demonstrates agency with the intention of inducing such a thing, then both parties should act like adults and report things, their formal teacher-student relationship brought to an end without other negative consequences, then they are free to continue like any other two adults). But I think we should be talking about these things, in order to arrive at a humane system which protects both students and teachers.


Guidelines for Teachers

• In general, treat your student with respect as a human being, independently of your reflections on the quality and extent of their achievements as a performer. This should be borne in mind at all times.

• Remember that you are there to help the student, rather than their being there in order to enhance your own reputation.

• It is your choice how you wish your student to address you, whether by first name or title and surname. It is advised to clarify this to the student at the beginning of a lesson.

• Where there are serious problems concerning a student and their progress, you should try and discuss these with the relevant member of staff as soon as possible.

• It is accepted that teachers will naturally need to voice criticisms of a student’s playing or singing, sometimes severe criticisms. This should always be framed in such a way as to make clear that the criticisms relate solely to the student’s achievements (or lack of) specifically in terms of their work as a performer, not to their wider qualities as a person. Criticisms should be balanced with encouragement in the form of positive steps forward in order to improve.

• Use language which makes the above clear: for example, instead of saying ‘You are a very poor player’, say ‘You really do need to do considerable work in order to improve’, followed by suggestions of what form that work might take, or (if necessary) ‘It will be very difficult in the time available to you here to attain the level necessary in order to gain a high mark in your recital’. Similarly, avoid other generalities such as ‘You have no technique’ or ‘You are profoundly unmusical’, in favour of the likes of ‘I have to tell you that a good deal of work is necessary if you wish to achieve a higher technical level’, or in the second case, focusing on specific things the student needs to consider in order to be able to produce a more musically satisfying performance.

• You should always avoid any type of deliberately demeaning or belittling language of a personal nature towards a student, especially that designed to undermine their confidence. This can include undue and harsh sarcasm, deliberate aloofness and coldness, ignoring a student, negative comparisons with others, insensitive jokes, setting unrealistic demands, malicious rumour-mongering, threats, sexual or racial harassment, or anything which might be construed as ‘bitchy’. It is no justification for this to argue that such talk and attitudes are commonplace in the professional musical world.

• A student’s personal life is their own business, and discussions of this should generally only be undertaken when personal issues have a direct impact upon their performing. If a singer or other musician’s lifestyle – in terms of problems to do with sleep, maintaining good health, and so on – is impinging upon their singing, then it is legitimate to raise this issue. If a student raises the issue of difficulties arising from family, health or relationship issues, and wishes to talk about it, this is fine, but you should not feel under any obligation in this respect. In general, such matters are better discussed with the appropriate member of staff, who has pastoral responsibility, and who can communicate directly with you about them.

• When teaching a student, avoid befriending them on social media. [Personally I believe this is a principle worth observing for undergraduates, but which can be more flexible with postgraduates.]

• If you wish to make physical contact with a student in order to demonstrate some matter relating to performing, you must first ask their permission to do so. This can be done at the beginning of a series of lessons in order to facilitate so doing in general (but this must then be made clear to the student), or separately on individual occasion. If the student is unhappy with such physical contact and declines, this must be respected, and physical contact must then be avoided.

• Under absolutely no circumstances should there be any touching which can be construed as being of a sexual or unduly intimate nature.

• However, it is accepted that much music – especially for singers – relates to matters of an intimate and sometimes sexual nature, and it is legitimate to discuss this in lessons. But please always respect boundaries here, and be clear that you are talking about the music or the role, not directly about the student.

• Whilst in general conservatoire students are aged 18 or over and are technically adults, remember that they are still in a very early stage of adulthood, likely to be dealing with many pressures due to being away from home for the first time, having to negotiate possible loneliness, homesickness, coping with a degree of independence likely to be unprecedented for them, and of course a demanding course. It is best to work with the assumption that they are thus likely to be at a vulnerable stage in life, and should be treated with corresponding sensitivity.


Guidelines for Students

• You should always treat your teacher with respect and courtesy, be punctual for lessons, and acknowledge the help they are able to give you.

• Your teacher can choose how they wish you to address them, whether by first name, title and surname, or otherwise, and you should respect this. It is advised that this is clarified in the first lesson.

• Whilst you are certainly encouraged to solicit your teacher’s advice concerning the extent of your progress, or on future study, avoid asking such questions as ‘Do you think I can make it as a performer?’ or other such things which might put your teacher in a difficult position.

• If asking your teacher what they imagine would be your likely mark for a recital, on the basis of how you are performing at the time of asking the question, bear in mind that their answer will be an approximation, and is in no sense binding.

• Avoid flirtatious or overly ‘forward’ behaviour towards your teacher such as might place him or her in an awkward situation.

• Teachers may wish to make physical contact in order to demonstrate some matters relating to performance. They are required to ask your permission before so doing, either at the beginning of a series of lessons in order to establish that this is generally acceptable, or on individual occasions. If you do not wish this, you are entirely within your rights to refuse. Such physical contact should never be of a sexual or unduly intimate nature, nor should you respond to it in such a fashion.

• Never use any abusive or offensive language towards your teacher.

• When there are personal matters – for example relating to family, health or relationships – which might affect your performing, you are advised first to speak to your personal tutor, who can discuss these sensitively with your teacher.

• Your teacher often has a life and career outside of their work at your institution. Avoid gossiping about them, even amongst other students, including with respect to the nature of their other activities, as this can have the potential to be hurtful and demeaning. Any form of rumour-mongering, sexual or racial harassment, aggressive behaviour or threats towards your teacher will be treated with the utmost seriousness.

• Your teacher is not your friend on social media, and you should not request that they befriend you on there. [Personally I believe this is a principle worth observing for undergraduates, but which can be more flexible with postgraduates.]

• If you wish to record lessons for other reasons (so as to have a more permanent record for your own study purposes), you must ask your teacher first, and must also respect their wishes if they decline this request. (But see also Guidelines for both Teachers and Students below)


Guidelines for both Teachers and Students

• In the event of any serious worries about the nature of the relationship between teacher and student as made manifest verbally in lessons, either the teacher or student can request that the lessons be recorded. In this situation, the appropriate individual should be informed of this.

• In the event of any type of romantic or sexual liaison between a tutor and student – which can include any form of agency on either part with the intention of inducing such a thing, whether or not this is fulfilled – it is an essential requirement that both teacher and student report this to an appropriate individual. As a general rule it will be considered that in such a situation the relationship has assumed a degree of intimacy which is no longer compatible with a normal teaching relationship, and the student will be assigned to a different teacher, but without further consequences for either party.