Take a long pause to reflect on music education as a vehicle for social change

Learning music “is basically a quest for beauty,” says Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A quest for beauty has a certain desperate allure in these times ravaged by COVID-19 and racial injustice. And for students who don’t have access to a high-quality education or affordable extracurricular activities, a musical quest for beauty can still hold deep appeal.

Inspired by El Sistema – the program in Venezuela where Dudamel trained and now directs – music programs have sprung up around the world with the aim of opening up a “quest for beauty” to all students. Dudamel’s mentor and founder of El Sistema, José Antonio Abreu, said: “Music is extremely important in awakening sensitivity and forging values.

If Abreu is right, then we should all be invested in music education, because it is also the education of values. If we invest and follow closely, we might start to get curious. If we see music education as a quest for beauty, what beauty, exactly, is being sought? More importantly, what values ​​are forged through this education?

It may be easy to view social good-oriented music programs as valuable opportunities for children living in a world otherwise devoid of beauty, but my experience paints a slightly more complex picture.

Before the pandemic, in the summer of 2019, I built a research project with the goal of understanding the values ​​and goals of music education programs that target underserved students. I have traveled to three US states and three other countries in the Americas to observe orchestras and classrooms to see how valued beliefs translate into action.

After-school and summer music programs like the ones I visited — aimed at disadvantaged populations, working toward an idea of ​​social good — tend to be grounded in an orchestral model. Due to the number of children and generally limited financial resources, this makes sense. Playing in an orchestra can have many educational benefits, and many students enjoy it. A violin student I spoke to loves the orchestra because it’s fun to be around everyone and the noise – “the harmony with every instrument and the energy, because everyone concentrates”. Having played in an orchestra myself, I can attest to the greatness of the experience.

Nevertheless, Geoffrey Baker, one of El Sistema’s most vocal critics, raises several fascinating concerns in his book El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. Baker argues that programs like El Sistema push their own musical traditions without encouraging ownership such as composition. When other types of ensembles or musical genres are included, they are considered supplementary or peripheral.

Speaking to teachers, I wondered if there was an ethical balance between a love of classical music and the idea that it’s not for everyone. A director of an El Sistema-inspired program admits there are “two pitfalls” in this conversation about choosing classical music with her student population: “Forcing Western art music on these black kids, and it is not native to their culture. And there’s also something to be said for…why should we think that black kids can only rap and listen to hip hop; it’s also pretty formulaic and put them in a box. I don’t want to be in any of these camps.

This sense of catch-22 accurately captured my own conflict as a music teacher. Perhaps the commonality between the two parties – the imposition of Western European culture versus the assumption of student inability or disinterest – may lie in a lack of understanding between the teacher and student.

A teacher, who travels from the United States to a neighboring country to teach harmony in summer camps, admitted: “Where I feel disconnected is not understanding… what is their desire to learn what I teach.”

Given the relative lack of professional opportunities for classical musicians in many developing countries, his feelings are understandable. Unfortunately, her disconnect has led her to make assumptions about her students and their culture. “There is a lack of connection with classical music. … They just don’t understand it. … They don’t have the education to appreciate all aspects.

This band teacher argued that local teachers cannot effectively promote appreciation because it requires someone to “radiate the feelings of classical music.” Foreign teachers, she said, bring that appreciation and those emotions. Yet she wonders “how much [students] are ready for classic niche ideas…or if they understand the importance of them. Similar to beauty and values, significance must be defined contextually. For the teachers I met, classical music is of great importance, but the paths that led them to this conclusion are often very different from those of their students.

If teachers do not understand their students’ motivations for learning or their connection to the music being taught, they cannot adequately establish the relationships necessary for quality instruction. A teacher who believes himself to be the guardian of an elite art form prevents himself from truly empowering a student. If a program only offers classical music, what reason do they have to impose this Western art music on an underserved student population? If an organization claims that its students choose classical music, do we know the reasons for their choice?

It is crucial that music teachers learn to prioritize the social relationships students have and the values ​​they forge in an orchestral setting. Baker finds it all too easy to fall into the trap of orchestras as sites of “competitiveness, cliques, authoritarianism and the reproduction of social hierarchies”. He denounces the lack of voice of the musicians and the inflexible expectations of the leaders. Unless teachers make conscious efforts to the contrary, the values ​​taught may include “obeying the rules, being quiet and punctual, and behaving properly” – an environment constituting what Baker calls a “school of social discipline”.

If that sounds extreme, I’ve seen it myself, in rehearsals where students were told “you stink” or “get out” when they couldn’t play a passage correctly. I was part of a 72-person orchestra with a principal conductor in which some of the students who fall behind “won’t play the gig anyway.” I’ve seen a conductor stop rehearsal so that each violinist can play one passage at a time, saying, “Is it difficult? Of course not.”

These teachers are not bad guys; they face material, time and energy constraints, and they may feel internal or external pressures to pursue musical excellence. But these moments lead us to ask ourselves: do students forge ambitious values? Are they learning to build empowering relationships? Whatever the intentions of these teachers, their methods risk treating students like cogs in an orchestral machine, their success being fixed by the uniformity and precision of the group’s product.

The programs I’ve seen also use alternative formats to promote more interactive learning – adaptations that, by taking students out of the orchestra machine, help see students as agents in their own right. A program ensures that a teacher for each instrument is present during rehearsals of the full orchestra, so that all students have a mentor. Another sticks to small string orchestras and bands because of the difficulty of producing quality music with large groups of beginning students. One after-school program has completely abandoned the orchestral model and focuses on small ensembles of three to four students. Several programs teach additional subjects such as music theory, improvisation or composition.

In her book, Baker draws on Paulo Freire and Deleuze and Guattari, whose theories illustrate the benefits of student leadership and egalitarian communication, including being honest about contradictions and conflict. In imagining this new music policy, we must recognize that a community knows its own needs better than any outsider could. If music teachers don’t come from the community where they teach—which many don’t—what gives them the power to choose the music and format of their curriculum? What are they doing to transfer power from those who had the privilege of starting the program to those who come and maintain a better connection with the community?

As teachers of values ​​and social relationships, musicians have a unique responsibility to question and justify their attitudes and methods. It is precisely those musicians who have grown up invested in classical music and orchestras, who see styles and orchestral ensembles as always and already natural and virtuous, who most desperately need to rethink their devotion to these works as agents of change. social.

The questions and reflections that emerged during my research and travels in 2019 are even more relevant today. In 2022, as organizations around the world hold Zoom meetings to review their commitment to inclusion and diversity, music education programs should be no different. I hope that during the forced reflection time that the pandemic has given us, when students have been at home and educators have had to reassess their abilities and challenges, more fundamental questions of value have also begun to come to mind. foreground.

There is no inherent problem with the strings of a violin or the notes of Beethoven. What prevents us from using them as tools for liberation is not the tools themselves, but the system in which they invariably exist. As long as we cultivate on the soil of colonialism, the fruits of our labor will bleed iniquity. Music touches the soul; through it, we forge values, embody relationships and seek beauty. Without proper caution, such a powerful medium can effortlessly exacerbate inequality. Sown intentionally, however, the seeds of change can yield harvests of empowerment and imagination that previously seemed unthinkable.

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