Tuesday, 31 October 2006

6: Belonging, Being, and Promoting Music in Education

6: Belonging, Being, and Promoting Music in Education

J. Terry Gates

Music teachers have great influence at the community level. No other group of musicians has the motivation, the knowledge, and the "reach" in advocacy terms that music teachers have through the community's children and young people. In communities where music is diverse, strong, and vibrant, there is often a music teacher guiding the way. We should seek out these colleagues and study their approaches. And we should honor them. These colleagues are insightful about music in their community's culture and intelligent about how they use their knowledge of music from other places and times to expand the community's musical resources. What ideas make this possible for everyone to do?

This essay is about the personal and cultural values that support intelligent music advocacy. It is intended to encourage all music teachers to strengthen the musical life of their own communities by looking briefly and frankly at what we know about belonging to a social group and being individually human through music.

Some basic ideas

Music is one of the permanent, pervasive features of being human. People will always find and create music that contributes effectively to the quality of their individual and collective lives - in daily living and in the cultural rituals that are important to maintaining their societies. Weak music is easily discarded and replaced by other music when the resources don't support the need; and people everywhere have found free or inexpensive resources for making interesting, effective and satisfying music on their own.

Besides music, such things as language and quantification (number systems) are also pervasive. The specifics of language, number, and music are diverse from place to place, and they change over time in the same place. But their importance is never in doubt. The detailed characteristics of specific languages, number systems, and musical traditions become cultural markers, evidence that someone belongs to a social or ethnic group. People "belong" by claiming possession of specific cultural markers, learning to use them both naturally (simply by growing up and living in the culture) and through schooling.

Education is also a permanent part of human life, like music, number, and language. And, here, we need to define education: Education is any deliberate attempt to guide the learning of another person, regardless of where or with whom this activity occurs. Schools are special places where education can occur, and where attempts both to guide and accelerate learning are deliberate and systematic. Schooling is a special kind of education, in this definition.

Learning, however, occurs both in and beyond schools - we learn on our own as well as through the deliberate attempts of others to accelerate and guide our learning. Musicallearning occurs with and without schooling. Teaching occurs not only by professional teachers but also by family members, peers and others.

Belonging to a social group is critical to most humans. Belonging depends upon one's learning in and of the group's culture. It is the need to belong that accelerates an individual's learning of their culture's materials and processes, including the group's musical culture. In both informal and formal ways, the social group uses its culture to educate its members, and the group's leaders (including family caregivers) know how important the culture is to social unity, integration, and control.

Music belongs in the education of children and young people for the same reasons that language and number do - to expand and solidify each person's sense of belonging to the social group and contributing to the culture on which the society depends for its claim to uniqueness and unity.

Being and belonging in the information age

The information age is here, and it places new demands on the time-tested ideas above. More than ever before, people have access to the musical traditions of societies other than their own, and policy makers are concerned that music is beginning to lose its power to unify people within a society and separate them from other groups. Because people have almost unlimited access to what others value musically, they can also absorb the realization that it is human to create and to preserve music. This helps us to look past our differences because we now can know that valuing music is something that people from all societies do. Actions based on people's need for music bind us in a global village of musical people. We sense this now.

When societies were isolated from each other, schooling could be used to preserve the boundaries between societies and to certify that the graduates of the school were members of the society that supports the school. But, because we are in the information age, people now have the resources to "hear into" another person's value system through the music valued by these other people. Children sense that this is increasingly important and interesting to do. Children of the 21st century still need to take full possession of and to contribute effectively to their own musical cultures - to belong. In the information age they can also understand that other children have the same need, too.

Security in being and belonging

Here is where music teachers can focus much of their efforts. Schooling is about belonging. For most people, belonging to a specific society through its culture is what schools promote and what a broad education is all about. If a person's possession of a "home" musical culture is secure - if one's sense of belonging is strong - then a willingness to tolerate difference increases. This security is increased even more if a person effectively contributes to the diverse "home" musical culture. Through deliberate schooling in music, we can strengthen each child's contributions to the "home" culture and, in addition, to value diversity and understand it as human rather than to fear difference.

Most of the recent philosophical literature about music is about being through music, and readers can easily find such writings. That literature reminds us that a life simply includes music if it is to be more fully human.

Becoming mature, being whole, feeling fulfilled, being "wide-awake" or fully in touch with one's environment, expanding one's cognitive and physical capacities, becoming more effective and confident, expressing one's insights and affective states through music - all of these and more rely on music and other resources to contribute to an individual's sense of being. If a person were alone, making music on an island, music still provides these kinds of personal benefits.

Being fully human, however, is inherently social - we are genetically social animals. As individuals we act on our sociality in many ways, including musical ones. We "compare notes" musically by revealing our musical insights, and by sharing and receiving personal musical resources and benefits like those above we integrate our lives with the lives of other individuals. We grow from this, not only as individuals, but also as part of a collective through which our individual powers become magnified. We need other people, and being human is ultimately a matter also of belonging. Being and belonging are reciprocal, inseparable states; they are yin and yang in human life.


So … what's the problem?

If music is ubiquitous, and if we know that music is basic to being human, and if the information age is changing schooling in music, what can support teachers who need to be music advocates? And what general ideas, therefore, would help them be effective?

Advocates generally sense that there is a gap or a problem in a current set of conditions and they have an idea about how that gap could be filled or the problem solved. Conventional music advocacy (including much government-sponsored music teaching) is about providing advantages for some specific set of defined traditions with "approved" examples and "best" practices. This is understandable. Advocates logically must focus on music more narrowly than ordinary people do in their musical lives. Music's general importance is not promoted by most advocates, partly because it is assumed and partly because music advocates have to focus their efforts on specific goals rather than general ones so that their claims to success have validity.

To most music advocates the "gap" in resources seems artificial. A governing body is attempting to create an artificial culture, or is trying to preserve one that is no longer meaningful. In some parts of the world, "school music" is seen as artificial; in other parts, the musical walls of the school are (gratefully) more permeable. As we have noted above, at the grassroots, people are very good at closing any artificial gaps they see in their musical lives, and policy makers who have attempted to control musical diversity too much have been replaced sooner or later.

The mistake most music advocates usually make is to attach their proposals for improving a community's musical resources to one or two favored musical traditions, rather than to musical expertise in general. Music advocates take up the cause of a few musical traditions in opposition to the rest in order to show others that they are reaching their goals. This is an attempt to control and simplify, rather than liberate and diversify.

An advocacy program that seeks to limit musical options may have some short-term successes. But, because people (including our students) are human beings, and because they need music that contributes both to being and belonging, they will find and create musical options for themselves with or without schools, governing bodies, or music teachers if necessary.

As music teachers, we can be more powerful advocates for the community resources if we focus our advocacy on support for musical expertise in our students - effective skills, expanded cognitive capacities, well-considered values, and vibrant musical experiences. The first priority of music teachers is to create in our students a personal musical expertise that is powerful, liberating, creative, and mature so that they can contribute to their own musical cultures. The second is to be advocates for what our students need in order to make that happen, and in the current age, this includes musical diversity.

As advocates, music teachers should no longer worry whether music is important and wonderful: We should merely assume it and draw strength from that realization. Then, we can move the next generation into the rich musical life within and beyond their time and place, teaching our students powerfully and improving their communities' musical resources because our students need good resources to grow musically. If we do this well, the future will be more musical wherever we are. Our students will grow to be parents and community leaders who will create healthy musical lives in their families and the communities of the future.

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