Spent the last week or so working on the problem statement for my dissertation....
Scholars have argued that western culture has an “interpretative monopoly” (Battisti, p.10) on the language and culture of Indigenous peoples, and that research by non-indigenous people on indigenous language and culture is fraught with colonial values and inexorably linked to European imperialism. Because of this inherent colonialism, care and partnership are required to facilitate the de-colonizing music education. (Battisti, 2012; Kallio, 2020). Other scholars have argued that culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) is a research framework that fosters work to sustain linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism within education. (Alim &Paris, 2017; Good-Perkins, 2021). These scholars believe that CSP focuses on sustaining and supporting plurality, rather than simply making it relevant.
However, music education in Nova Scotia is firmly ensconced in a Western paradigm. Elementary students are taught singing in the Bel Canto style, and most of the music education in middle school and high school falls within the choir, orchestra, band paradigm. Music education is delivered with an underlying praxial philosophical approach in that students are expected and directed to learn about music through creating, making and presenting (NSDEECD, 2020).
Although the music curricula in Nova Scotia have undergone a rewrite over that last five years and are now philosophically and practically rooted in culturally sustaining pedagogies, the resources to present music of Mi'kma'ki in a praxial philosophical environment do not exist. More importantly, the underlying understanding of how to create these resources respectfully and authentically does not exist. The music of Mi’kma’ki exists within an alternate epistemology than the music of Western Europe. Rooted in nature, song, chant, and intimately connected to dance, Mi’kmaq music both modern and traditional is vast and relatively under-researched. A study is necessary to explore respectful and authentic ways to create Mi'kmaq music resources and decolonize the delivery of the COB paradigm to allow for the delivery of curricula that is rooted in CSP and grounded in a praxial philosophy.
I am thinking today about space. Not outer space, but space in music, and I suppose space in life. Why? The universe often brings ideas together for its own purposes. My amazing and talented partner Diane is busily purging our belongings. I approve wholeheartedly. Belongings have never meant much to me, apart from a few instruments. The house is starting to feel bigger without all the detritus.
I also just listened to David Gilmore's solo in Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2). Improvisors, if you want to learn about leaving space in your solos, listen to that! So many interesting things, all over two chords. In fact, pretty much any solo by Gilmore is with a listen. Great melody writers are hard to find. I myself tend to throw as many notes into a solo as possible, and hope for the best. I amaze myself with how many ideas can mean so little.😏
As with most things, art imitates life imitates art imitates life....I let my life get too cluttered with ideas, plans, goals, objectives and , ya know, wants. I fill up time with all of that noise, and I don't let things breathe. I guess that is what music is....filling up time with noise. However, the very best at music, and I suspect life find ways to take a second to contemplate the good before they move on. I have always been terrible at that.
As an educator, I have always been a projects guy. I do big things with great students, and before the applause is fading I am contemplating the next big thing. This, it occurs to me, robs both my students and myself of the tremendous reward of introspection, and the learning experience of space. Sometimes it helps just to say "wow, what was that?".
Also as an educator, I tend to push hard at students to comprehend, move ahead and think about 'constant forward motion." Not only is this antithetical to research, it is just bad for the soul. Now that I am a student again, I am really enjoying just taking a moment to sit and think about what I have been sitting and thinking about. It is cathartic.
So, today I am going to listen to Comfortably Numb, and think about why I might need less furniture in my office. I am going to think about teaching, and learning and writing, and I am going to allow myself some space to do so. I am also going to listen to some Mozart. He also thought about space in music, although he also loved the relative chaos of lots of notes.
Lately, anything I talk about would be empty without a Thile reference. Chris Thile is accused of using too many notes all the time. I think that he may have taken that to heart, because the stuff he is doing lately, at least to my ears has more space. However, however many notes he uses, that all sound right me, so some folks seem to have all the luck. 😁
In music, and in life we all need a little space, if only to appreciate what we have already heard. But seriously, go listen to a Gilmore solo, like, now.
Another brick in the Wall (part 2)
Thile-Too Many Notes
Strange days indeed.
Here I sit, in my little study. I spend a bunch of time here each day. I try to structure the day to give myself a little bit of security in a crazy world. I work, I try to be creative and I practice, all in this little space. It is a strange thing. I am used to being on the go. I am used to being way more in control.
Teachers all over the world are doing the same thing. They are sitting at home in the quiet, or in the tumultuousness of their own family and they are trying to exert some control over their situation. They are planning; they are communicating; they are looking for structure. Teachers move. That is our work. We talk, we talk and we talk, then we move and we move and we move. We are universally bad at sitting.
Most importantly, with little or no training we are adapting.
Teachers are adapting to online delivery. "No, you are on mute. We can't hear you." "Yes, that zoom background is cool...really." No, we can't have a rehearsal over zoom or google meet. Why? Because of latency and....well because I don't have time or skill to professionally edit and produce an Eric Whitacre virtual choir at this moment.
Maybe soon...I am adapting.
Teachers are checking in with our students. We want them to know we miss them. They may not think so. Love sometimes looks like expectation or demand. None the less, we truly do. We miss the challenge, the communication, the struggle and most importantly, really most importantly the victory of a small success. We can get through many failures for that one moment of...well..."I get it."
Teachers who are uncomfortable with some elements of technology are feeling guilty about that. They are trying to learn a generations worth of progress in a weeks worth of time. They are trying really hard, and they will succeed.
That is their work. Learn to teach to learn to teach to learn...
Why is this not easier?
The one thing teachers have difficulty with is compassion. Oh, you say. I knew it!! Listen further: Teachers spend compassion like currency with others, but are misers of the worst kind with themselves. We are hard on ourselves. We feel the weight of expectation, and we want to be worthy of the name, the title and the position of educator. We push at ourselves way harder than we push at others. If we ever used our internal voice, the voice that we judge ourselves with on others, we would have no friends and we would be fired.
So, like my colleagues, I sit here and think of ways to bring music to my students. How can i help them? What do they need? I want them to see that music and the arts in general are supporting the world like two firemen linking arms to carry an injured person out of a canyon. I want them to know that what they do each day should include a little creativity, discipline and practice. I want them to know that as apprentice artists, they are necessary. Truly necessary.
So I sit here in my little study. I work, I try to be creative and I practice. I learn. I adapt. Now. I need to adapt now. Now is when it is needed. I communicate. I plan.
I try to structure my days to bring a little security into this crazy world.
Musicians are no stranger to isolation. It is what we do. Find quiet spot, alone and work on the instrument. We do this for hours at a time. We are used to solitude. We embrace it. We use it to make us better, stronger and more capable players. We find inspiration and motivation in the hours in the practice room, digging into the details.
Now the world is being asked to slow down, to isolate and to find a quiet spot. As a planet we are being asked to be still. Stay home, we are told. Do your work in solitude. Stay away from large gatherings and only go out if it is necessary. Reduce time spent shopping, running errands and doing the thousands of tasks that eat our daily hours.
The good thing is, we musicians know that out of solitude comes the potential for growth and even greatness. We spend time listening to great musicians and being inspired. We spend time reading great books about our art and imagining making a contribution ourselves one day. We spend time dreaming. In short, making music requires solitude to grow, and of course, so does making a quality life.
Today I plan to spend some time thinking about education. Not reading about it or discussing it or writing about education. Just thinking about it. I also plan to spend some time making dinner with my beautiful partner, walking dogs at a safe distance with my 78 year old dad and learning a new Celtic tune on my mandolin. All of these things are slow, considered activities, and all of them combine to create for me a beautiful life.
Maybe out of all of this we remember what we already knew: Speed is not always the answer. The proud statement: "I am really busy" is not necessarily a sign of success, but rather a sign of imbalance. Maybe our natural rhythms return to a reasonable tempo. A tempo we can manage, and in which we might even thrive.
I know that I am privileged to be able to take this time and not worry. I am still being paid. I am safe, secure, warm and dry, fed and watered and perhaps most importantly loved deeply by many people. I am speaking from a place of security that many do not have. So, maybe this is a time for us as a society to slow down, have a look at the social imbalances that are created by the systems we strive to maintain. Systems we maintain by working ourselves quite literally to death.
All over the internet I see posts that state "The Canals of Venice have dolphins in them again" and "Pollution in China has dropped exponentially because of the lack of movement due to isolation." I don't know if this is true, but I would like to believe it. The earth might be letting us know that slowing down is, essentially... kinda good. This insight comes at a high price, in money, upheaval and most importantly lives.
Maybe we need a little upheaval. Maybe we need a little more time to think, to learn, to pray, to dance, to talk, to be still. Maybe we need to spend a little more time in life's practice room, digging into the details, finding out what is important, dreaming of a more perfect life and what that might look like.
Maybe if we did that, when we all get back to making music and living with one another we might do it with a stronger sense of gratitude. Gratitude for each other, for our planet and for life itself.
Maybe we might find a little gratitude for isolation as well.
“In fact, if you only focus on superficial culture, you are doing a disservice to cultural responsiveness overall because you are ignoring who your students really are at the deepest levels.” (Hollie, 41)
I have been thinking a bunch about Culturally Responsive Pedagogy lately. Our province has made it a priority, and I am interested in how music education, particularly the type of music education that I personally do, can be made more culturally responsive. I work with large, Western European inspired ensembles. These ensembles have a traditional canon of music by white, predominantly male composers. (This is happily changing, but changing slowly.) I am a white, middle aged man. The ensembles themselves are top down, industrial revolution style organizations that place the conductor/teacher, the manager on a podium, slightly higher than the ensemble. Hmm...where to begin?
There is a growing amount of literature and research focusing on CRP and music education, as well as a strong desire by most educators involved to make this style of music education responsive. If you are interested, one great resource I have found is Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education: From Understanding to Application by Vicki Lind and Constance L. McKoy.
My particular interest in this post is the choice and use of songs and repertoire in music programs. What barriers are we creating? What bias are we exhibiting?
What is in a name?
As a 28 year veteran of teaching instrumental music, I find this a fascinating and disturbing subject. Have the good intentions that I have had in choosing repertoire been misguided? Sometimes, yes. Definitely. Do these decisions make me unable to create a culturally responsive program in the future? No, I don't think so.
Education researcher Nitza Hidalgo proposed three levels for culture: concrete, behavioral and symbolic. The concrete level is the most visible, and includes elements such as food, clothing and music. The behavioral level includes elements such as the way we communicate, both verbally and nonverbally, as well as our approach to gender roles and even the political party we support. The symbolic level is the most abstract.It is at this level that we find our values and beliefs. (Lind and McKoy, 8)
In spite of our best intentions, the choice of repertoire can lean toward the superficial, and live very much within the concrete level of culture. The title of a piece, such as Africa: Ceremony, Songs and Ritual by American composer Robert W. Smith exemplifies the concrete level of culture as defined by Hidalgo. Although the program notes seem to imply an attempt to acknowledge the rich cultural heritage of the African continent, the overall impact of simply reading the program notes to students and performing the work appears to be minimal.
Africa: Ceremony, Song, and Ritual is symphonic work (for concert band) based on the primitive folk music of Western Africa. Inspired by the recording and research of Mr. Stephen Jay, the work features traditional ceremonial music for dance and entertainment as well as dynamic percussive invocations and historical songs. African musicians feel that they bring life to their instruments just as God gives life to the musician. As a result, individual instruments are believed to possess consciousness and are treated with the same respect and reverence given to an honored living person. (Smith)
In fact, there is some thought that the use of tropes and musical stereotypes in music for concert band such as this do more harm than good. For example, the use of Africa, the continent in the title reinforces a concept that all people, race and culture in Africa are the same, and can be captured in a nine minute work. No acknowledgement of the wide variety of cultures, countries, geopolitical and geographical regions or peoples that make up such a huge space and place.
So, as an obvious example, Robert W. Smith’s Africa is not multicultural in the sense that it somehow transports our students to that culture so we may learn new things. Quite to the contrary, it anchors our students in the most local of contexts, their own subjectivity, and already held beliefs about African culture. The practice, performance and consumption of this piece only reinforce their viewpoint and they mistakenly take the composition as yet more evidence to support the verisimilitude of their beliefs. (Ambro, 14)
Now I don't want to be too harsh to Mr. Smith. In fact, in general and apparently against current music education trends I'm a fan of R.W. Smith. I recently conducted (for the last time) a piece entitled Train Heading West and Other Stories.(Not by RW Smith) Not too bad a piece. Recommended by many. On many festival lists. However, there is one moment where there is a sterotypical First Nations musical trope is used to tell the story of heading west. It made me uncomfortable, I must admit. Listen to the piece yourself and see if you hear it.
However, if we look at band music titles, we can see a sense of "other" implied in many of them. What stories are we sharing, and what shallow cultural expectations are we reinforcing when we perform and teach works with titles such as:
Chant and Fire Ritual
Chant and Tribal Dance
Chant and Savage Dance
Invocation and African Dance
Which is not to say that these pieces are not filled with good intentions, however how would we surround these pieces with cultural knowledge? What would we be using these works to teach, beyond notes and rhythms?
Here is a link to another interesting article on the NAfME site entitled "You Might Be Left With Silence When You're Done." (Urbach) This article discusses the tendency of teachers to be defensive, and to resist change when, for example, the inherently racist meanings of certain folk songs are pointed out.
The author, Martin Urbach points out that much like physicians, the goal the music educator is to do no harm.
Whether merely superficial or even harmful, choosing repertoire because of the text or title does not fulfill the goal of being culturally responsive. The aboriginal support worker of Oxford Street School in Halifax summed up what culturally relevant meant to her with a simple statement: “Nothing about us without us.” The implication of this being, if we wish to create meaningful and authentic experiences we need to move beyond the surface multicultural implications of the repertoire and into a far more thoughtful and deep approach to exploring culture through music. Music educators need to ask the questions “Who can we include in this project from the represented culture?” and “What cultural identities and funds of knowledge are my students bringing to class?”
Last year I asked permission from the Downie Wenjack fund to arrange and perform Secret Path with my students. Secret Path is the musical telling of the story of Change Wenjack, a residential school student who died while trying to walk home from the school. I entered into discussion with several members of the Mi’kmaq first nations here in Nova Scotia about this project. Some were extremely enthusiastic and some were less so. (one answer I was given was "This is just another White Man Saviour Complex thing.")
I decided to go ahead with the project. The concert also included a first nations performer, and I engaged speakers from the Mi'kmaq community who could tell the residential school story to share it with my students. Was this enough?
I don't know. The stories of residential school survivors are certainly not my stories. However they are important stories, and I wanted them in front of and in the thoughts of my students.
Bringing culture bearers into classrooms and creating opportunities for collaboration offers the potential for a much deeper engagement of culturally relevant pedagogy. In his article Countering Musical Tourism and Enacting Social Justice: Repositioning Music Education as a Cross Cultural Meeting Place, Edwin Wasiak discusses the advantages of engaging with culture bearers, or those who are able to authentically speak on culturally relevant musical practices, in a collaborative way.
In contrast to the superficiality of musical tourism or the dabbling of dilettantism, collaboration requires extended engagement, commitment and effort. As the process is prolonged, cultural knowledge and expertise are exchanged, relationships are developed, and understanding and respect are deepened to an extent not possible through most other means. (Wasiak, 214)
Engaging students by finding out what music they are listening to and affirming that there is value in their choices allows music educators to tap into a deeper knowledge of each student. Validating that knowledge and affirming its intrinsic value allows music educators to build bridges to other types, styles and genres of music. Lind and McKoy advise us of the need to acknowledge with which a student comes to class.
“To put it another way, we learn by taking new information and experiences and making sense of them based upon the knowledge, beliefs and skills we already have.” (Lind, 42)
As Sharroky Hollie states:
“Part of being culturally and linguistically responsive requires the effort to combat the long lasting effects of deculturalization through validation and affirmation of the home language and culture.” (Hollie, 50)
I have always believed that in music education, the music is our textbook. We can teach everything that we value through quality repertoire choices, and with thoughtful and insightful design and planning of lessons. If we are going to use repertoire to be more culturally responsive, than I believe that we need to be so very thoughtful about what the repertoire we choose says to and about our students, communities and cultures.
This is challenging work that we do, most certainly!
Some works cited:
Abramo, Joseph. Mystery, Fire and Intrigue Representation and Commodification of Race in Band Literature. www- usr.rider.edu/~vrme/v9n1/vision/AbramoFinal.5.29.07.pdf, Date of access January 2020.
Hollie, Sharroky. Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning. Huntington Beach, Shell Education, 2018
Lind,Vicki R., and Constance L. McKoy. Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education. New York, Routledge, 2016.
Smith, R. W. Africa: Ceremony, Song and Ritual. Miami:Belwin-Mills Publishing Corporation, 1994. 1994. Print.
Urbach, Martin. You Might Be Left With Silence When You Are Done: The White Fear of Taking Racist Songs out of Music Education. https://nafme.org/you-might-be-left-with-silence-when-youre-done/ Accessed Feb 24th, 2020.
Wasiak, Edwin B. Countering Musical Tourism and Enacting Social Justice:Repositioning Music Music Education as a Cross-Cultural Meeting Place. Exploring Social Justice: Music Music Education Might Matter, Edited by Elizabeth Gould, June Countryman, Charlene Morton, Elizabeth Stewart Rose, Canadian Music Educators’ Association, 2009, 2009, 2009, pp. 212-224.
Six years is not a very long time. When we are doing our undergraduate in music it seems like forever, but compared to a thirty-five-year career it is short. This is incredibly challenging work. There are so many things we need to know to begin with, and then things keep changing. It can be overwhelming, to be sure. For example, here are some of the things we need to think about:
- new technology and innovations;
- instrument pedagogy and methods;
- conducting and rehearsing;
- communication with students, parents, administration, and community;
- instrument repair and replacement;
- music library and purchase;
- tour planning and organization;
- budgeting and fundraising;
- concert production and publicity;
- school musical Broadway-style shows;
- marking, assessment and evaluation, report cards;
- individual program planning for students in need;
- social justice action, such as free instruments and instruction;
- special projects and events;
Huge and complex is this music education calling. Not to mention, somewhere in there is life, family, financial planning, and generally making it through the day. This career can be daunting.
There is a great story about the building of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. It goes like this: A man was passing three workers as they worked on the cathedral. The first was working on a large slab of wood with a chisel. The man asked the worker what he was doing. The worker replied, “I am carving the door for the northeast corner.” The second worker was chipping away at a block of stone. The man asked this worker what he was doing. He said, “I am carving a sculpture that will sit on the second tier of the south wall.” The third worker was an older lady who was sweeping up the stone and wood chips made by the other two workers. The man asked her what she was doing and she replied, “I am building a cathedral.”
Everything we learn helps us to “build the cathedral.” Every day we find something that we didn’t know, and we try to make it part of our practice. Reading new books on the profession, attending conferences, speaking with and observing colleagues, attending performances, listening to great recordings, making music with new people, trying new practices, and staying open—these are ways we remain a student, and remaining a student is vitally important to being a great educator. Know what you don’t know, and actively chase new knowledge down. I believe your students, at whatever age, will see this in you and feel a sense of collegiality and connection that comes with us being fellows on the journey as opposed to “imposers” of learning.
In the end, what we believe is what we teach. If we value learning as a lifelong pursuit, we need to put our proverbial money where our mouth is. It is easy to become hidebound. We can become tied to the ways we have always done things and ignore the ways we could be doing things. Music is a huge field, filled with so many important, interesting, and amazing things to know. Wherever you are in your career, know that someone knows something that will help you become a better educator, musician, and person. Seek them out.
Nothing fills me with more rage (yes, I used the word "rage"—it is that important) than hearing some well meaning administrator say, “Well, as long as the kids are having fun, that is all that matters. What is that? Who says that for any other subject, or anything else in life? You go to your dentist, he removes three teeth without anesthetic and you say, “Well, it’s okay, he looked like he was having fun.” Kids in math class can’t really do long division by grade ten, but hey! They had a blast in class. The answer is: no one. No one says that. Ever.
And yet, if music class is fun things must be going all right. The problem is, this philosophy undermines the whole nature of why we teach music in the first place. We teach a complex, powerful, and demanding art. It should be fun, but it should also be good. And by the way, it is more fun if it is good. Excellent music played well is worth every minute, hour, and lifetime of preparation.
There is something dismissive in the way “just having fun” is portrayed as a goal in music. It implies that the fundamental curricular material is somehow less important than students enjoying themselves. I know that students need to find the learning enjoyable, but they also need to find it compelling, interesting, challenging, and fascinating. Music students need to have the opportunity to see music as a deep, relevant, and powerful art, worthy of their time and attention.
When we see fun as the primary goal, we allow for poor performance, inappropriate repertoire choices, inappropriate or no curriculum choices at all, and weak delivery models. Don’t get me wrong; I believe that music education can be delivered in any number of ways. I am not a “classical snob,” if such thing exists. However, I believe that any delivery model or curricular program should be structured to promote individual and group excellence.
I have played in groups that play both poorly and amazingly well. I can tell you that the better groups are more fun. It is much more fun to play if the repertoire is great and the music compelling. Students, in my opinion, desire to be challenged. They want to see a goal and reach for it. One of the most wonderful collateral benefits of music is encouraging a desire to excel. When I speak to my students during rough or gruelling rehearsals, I talk of the end goal—the beautiful performance, the sense of knowing that we, all together, have achieved something wonderful. There has to be a way for students to know that the pursuit of excellence is worth their time. We cheapen that philosophy with a demand that everything be fun.
Now, if students hate every second of your classes and program, soon you will not have classes or a program. There is a reason why it is called “playing” music. It should be enjoyable. I look forward to my rehearsals every day, and I leave, for the most part, with a smile on my face. So do the students, more often than not. We work hard and we expect a lot from ourselves, and at the same time we enjoy the process. We chip away at the music and we dream big.
However, I also stipulate early and often to students that music is not always fun. Sometimes it is work. Just plain work. I feel like it is okay to be honest. If I have planned my lesson or rehearsal well, there will be a time for lighter playing, or confident playing, or some activity that reinforces prior knowledge in an enjoyable way to balance the previous work.
But to only aim for fun, well then, we sell the students short. They rely on us as educators to know the direction we are going and to light the way confidently. They don’t need constant fun activities. Fun activities might make our work easier in the short term, but in the long term, what we will get is a group of students who don’t know how to excel and are unsure of why they should take our subject seriously.
I tell my students, “This is serious business. The world has been changed by music just like you are playing. Don’t take it lightly. You are swinging a big, important, complex, and valuable musical hammer.” I want that hammer to ring true and passionate and authentic. Fun? Sometimes. Authentic? Always.