Music Education and Advocacy – Artists House Music

This article originally appeared on www.artistshousemusic.org, the free online musician’s resource.

Music Education and Advocacy
David Elliott

My father was an amateur jazz pianist who played every night at home after his daily work and at sing-along parties with our neighbors on Saturday nights. He also composed songs for his own satisfaction and for the delight of his friends. I loved the sounds he played, improvised and composed. The joy that swirled around his music making at our musical get-togethers was infectious and transforming. I wanted to be like him; I wanted to be able to do what he did. So, after starting me out with informal jazz piano lessons, he sent me to study with a professional jazz pianist who taught at a local community music school. I was six-years-old. Soon I began to play at our musical gatherings, surrounded by supportive adults who sang and played along.

Although my elementary school did not offer a music program, I was often called upon to “provide the music” at many school and community functions, which gave me a strong identity among my peers and teachers as “the musician.” During my middle and secondary school years I was taught by two excellent artist-teachers who worked diligently to involve my peers and I in all forms of music making and listening. Because of them, I became involved in band and jazz band groups as a performer, arranger, composer, conductor, and a novice teacher of my peers. These varied experiences allowed me to take leadership roles in my school music programs and in many community music groups, including my own professional dance band. And so it was that I began my tertiary music studies with a rich and joyful foundation of musical experiences and a deep commitment to music and music education.

Advocacy in Context

My point in relating my personal story is to suggest that, although verbal statements about the values of music education are necessary and fundamental forms of advocacy, the most powerful means of making our case are the processes and social settings of musical particip-action that yield deep satisfactions for participants of all ages and ability levels. For example, a parent engaged in joyful music making and listening usually means a child engaged in music making and listening. A school principal, politician, or CEO involved in joyful singing, playing, or composing tends to work hard to support school music education. So, in addition to teaching our students, I believe we need to find more and various ways to provide satisfying musical experiences for our students’ parents, their friends, other teachers in our schools, and policymakers in our communities. Alternatively, we need to consider ways to help establish community music groups and school-community partnerships that provide opportunities for parents, colleagues, educational leaders, and corporate bosses to engage in joyful music making and listening and to witness our teaching expertise in action.

That said, it is imperative to consider scholarly views about the values of music and music education as a basis for evaluating advocacy statements and, perhaps, as material for advocacy statements. Our ISME Advocacy project it an excellent example. Still, we must always keep in mind that advocacy and scholarship are fundamentally different. Sometimes advocacy statements line up with scholarly research, but very often they do not. This is because advocacy is about marketing and selling music education to obtain various kinds of support. Philosophy (for example) is about critical thinking and rigorous foundation building, which advocates often dismiss impatiently as boring or long-winded because “advocating” is about the “short, fast sell.” In fact, advocacy statements often “dumb down” our values and aims by means of simplistic “sound bites” or t-shirt slogans tailored to fit the latest educational or societal crisis. These “pop” forms of advocacy have the potential to mislead and/or disappoint parents, colleagues, and potential supporters, and to demoralize excellent music teachers. In short, without a clear sense of our professional values, we run the risk of misrepresenting our profession and/or skewing our curricula to match short-term goals dictated by questionable research, or the latest government edicts.

This is why it’s so important to approach advocacy cautiously and critically, and to teach future music educators to do the same. How? We employ music education philosophy, psychology, sociology (and so forth) to help us critically examine and formulate our professional aims, goals, objectives, curriculum content, teaching strategies, and assessment procedures. Because these fields pivot on rigorous thinking, we should go to them to develop valid and reliable statements about the nature and value of music education.

With these thoughts in mind, I offer the following perspectives on several (but not all) values of music education, which I then connect to education in general.

Several Values of Music Education

On one hand, what music educators do is similar to what all teachers do because thinking and knowing lie at the heart of all educational efforts. Teachers in every subject area focus on the outcomes of student thinking in relation to domain-specific standards of accuracy, appropriateness and originality. At the same time, what music educators do is unique because developing musicianship and listenership is a matter of teaching multidimensional forms of artistic-cultural-bodily thinking that engage all aspects of our being in relation to auditory-social events.

Developing our students’ musicianship and listenership through performing, improvising, composing, arranging, conducting, moving and listening gives our students the skills and understandings they need to participate in creating musical-cultural expressions of emotions, musical representations of people, places and things, and musical expressions of cultural and personal values. This range of opportunities for self-expression and creativity offers our students numerous ways of giving artistic-cultural form to their powers of feeling, thinking, knowing, valuing, evaluating, and believing, which in turn engage other listeners’ emotions, interests, and understandings.

Of course, each different musical style-community (or practice) is also significant because the musical works produced by its music makers and listeners play important roles as unifying social artifacts. That is, cherished musical works are crucial to establishing, defining, delineating, and preserving a sense of community and self-identity for individuals and their social groups. Musical works and musical practices constitute and are constituted by their social contexts.

It follows from this that teaching and learning a variety of musics comprehensively (as music cultures) is an important form of inter-cultural education. When we initiate, induct, and guide our students in unfamiliar musics through active music making, students can engage in self-reflections and personal reconstructions of their relationships, assumptions and preferences about other people, cultures and other ways of thinking and valuing. In these ways, inducting learners into unfamiliar musical styles links the central values of music education to the broader goals of humanistic education. Since schools today are concerned with preparing students for life in pluralistic societies, and since schools in most countries are more culturally diverse than ever, it stands to reason that schools should support the rich and enjoyable inter-cultural learning experiences that school music programs can provide.

By engaging in these forms of musical particip-action under the guidance of a professional music educator, music students (of all ages) can experience the most profound values of music and music education: self-growth, self-knowledge, self-esteem, and the emotional experiences of enjoyment or “flow” that accompany these forms of growth, empowerment and transformation. How do these forms of self-growth and optimal experience occur? Stated plainly, as music teachers develop (a) students’ musicianship-listenership in matching balance with (b) the challenges and meanings presented by a musical work, students achieve self-knowledge, enjoyment and self-esteem. Musical forms of self-growth and enjoyment are unique because music making and music listening involve musical “products” (works, or challenges) and auditory-cognitive-social processes that are distinct from those required for any other endeavor. Musical flow experiences are unique because artistically-and-culturally produced and processed sound is the sine qua non of music. In other words, the conditions of musical flow experiences are specific to musicing and music listening. Accordingly, the conscious contents of musical experiences — their cognitive and affective qualities, the way they feel while they last, their short- and long-term effects — differ from other forms of experience, including other kinds of artistic experience.

Music Education and General Education

How do the values of music education connect with education and advocacy in general? The most essential, long-term task facing our profession involves enrolling parents, colleagues, administrators, policy makers, and politicians in the quest to make our schools more educational. By more educational I mean that our schools should aim to develop students as people, not just job-fillers for today’s marketplace mindset. As many scholars have insisted in different words, education is for life: education ought to be conceived for life as a whole, not just for one aspect of life, such as work. Put another way, much more is involved in the full and beneficial “development” of a child than the acquisition of literacy in the simple sense of job skills and academic knowledge, or the so-called basics. What more? Worldwide, human cultures past and present pursue a common set of “life goals” or “life values” including happiness, enjoyment, self-growth, self-knowledge, freedom, fellowship, and self-esteem, for oneself and for others. These life goals are so basic to human beings that people seldom ask, “Why do you want happiness, enjoyment, self-growth, wisdom, freedom, fellowship, and self-esteem?”

Schooling should enable learners to achieve life goals in school and beyond school, in working life, family life and social life. If so, then music education should have a secure place in the school curriculum from kindergarten through secondary school because musicianship-listenership is achievable by all students and because musical skills and understandings can be developed early in life, thereby giving most children early access to the life goals of self-growth, self-knowledge, enjoyment, flow, and the happiness that arises from being involved with others in musical ways of life.

In summary, music education is a unique and major source of many fundamental life goals. By actively supporting the aims of music education, school systems increase the likelihood that students will learn to make a life as well as a living both inside and outside school.

Advocacy Revisited

Why is advocacy a necessary part of our professional work? A major reason is the huge difference between education and schooling. On one hand, most Western nations make strong rhetorical commitments to providing a balanced curriculum for the whole child, which they state in official educational policy documents and curriculum guides. In reality, however, public school systems in most countries are becoming more and more focused on “testing” students in a narrow range of “academic” subjects using mechanistic measurement devices. Why? Many scholars suggest that this movement (sometimes called “Educational Reform”) is part of a global effort by corporations and “marketplace educators” to shape and “manage” schools according to the needs and values of “marketplace capitalism.” (This is an old story tracing back to the industrial model of the “school-as-factory” that exists to produce future factory workers). Educators have always been under pressure from the business world to devote more time and resources to the production of students-as-job-fillers by means of academic-vocational studies alone. This pressure has become more intense in the last fifteen years with the advance of globalization, which requires “standardization” in all realms of life, including schooling. Clearly, however, corporate leaders and marketplace educators are not concerned (at all) with enabling our students to make a life as well as a living.

Broadly speaking, then, we need to advocate on behalf of music education and arts education because what we do professionally is deeply connected with the need to protect and sustain the right of children to receive a balanced and comprehensive education, which means a school curriculum that makes a central place for the life values we can provide through systematic music teaching and learning.

And so, to conclude, I return to a major theme. Long before I studied advocacy statements or scholarly discussions about the nature and value of music, I experienced the powers of music through music making and music listening in my childhood and adolescent years. I believe this holds true for many people, including most music educators. If so, then our concept of “advocacy” must include but go beyond words. I think we must employ our skills and understandings as musicians, teachers and community leaders to empower our students, colleagues, supervisors, politicians, and communities with the musical skills and understanding they need to experience the potency of musical experiences and to “make a life in music” to the extent they desire. Our future strength and security depends on our ability to combine our best words about music education with our best actions aimed at wider and more varied approaches to extending music instruction inside and outside schools. We must engage more and more people of all ages, in all walks of life, in the joys of musical particip-action.

Reprinted from the website of the International Society for Music Education with permission of the author and the International Society for Music Education.

David J. Elliott, Professor of Music Education at New York University’s Steinhardt School and an advisor to the School’s Graduate Program in Music Education, writes about Advocacy and Music Education in this article.