You are here

BEETHOVEN OR BRITNEY

Robert Walker

Platform Paper 20

The Great Divide in Music Education

Robert Walker

Font Size: (-) (r) (+)

School music education in Australia is in crisis, according to The National Review of Music Education (2005). Most children have little or no access to quality music teaching. And nothing is being done about it. Why is this, when we have overwhelming evidence of how music-making enhances the core disciplines of mathematics, languages and a mastery of English? In music teaching you get what you can afford. A few, mostly private, schools are centres of musical excellence, the majority offer little beyond recordings of popular music. Primary schools fare the worst: 80% have no trained music teacher on staff. The knock-on effect in secondary schools is clear. Meanwhile, children are ‘educating’ themselves through their iPod, internet, and mobile phone. Few learn to play an instrument or to sing properly. The root causes, writes Walker, lie in the paucity of specialist teachers and disdain of the classical music tradition. He calls on Minister Guillard urgently to address the recommendations of their National Review; the alternative is a nation of passive consumers with no conception of music as a profound art. Platform Papers No. 21: July 2009 Ian David on our television industry: Dead on Arrival

Dr Robert Walker has spent a lifetime in music education on three continents. He held two Chairs in music education in Canada before coming to Australia and has published widely. He was Chief Examiner for Music for the International Baccalaureate 1987–1993, and Chair of the Research Commission of the
International Society for Music Education 1998–2000.

 

You must be logged in to read this full article. Please click here to sign in or join the Currency House website

About the Author

Dr Robert Walker has spent a lifetime in music education on three continents. He held two Chairs in music education in Canada before coming to Australia and has published widely.

Claims that popular music is accessible to all, and ubiquitous in everyday life, might have sociological validity, but not necessarily educational or musical validity. The latter requires more rigorous justification. Knowledge cannot easily be used as a sociological tool, as many have mistakenly thought 

 

Comments

Response to Robert Walker's Beethoven or Britney? The Great Divide in Music Education

Dr Richard Letts, AM, is founder and executive director the Music Council of Australia and is president of the International Music Council, based in Paris.

Bob Walker's paper is structured around the National Review of School Music Education, published in 2005, and mouldering since. The National Review is the most recent in a succession of studies going back to the late '60s. That none of them had any substantial effect can be seen by the situation that Bob describes.

Bob writes of inadequate resources and contrasts the provisions made by some independent schools with those of the public systems. In fact, the Music Council has statistics that show that 88% of independent non-Catholic schools offer a competently-delivered music education, compared with 22% of public schools. That is a phenomenal inequity: 2 in 10 versus 9 in 10.

Isn't it interesting that the independent schools do this despite the fact that for it to be possible, parents must pay more? Apparently this is not a grudging payment, because music is a strong element in the marketing by these schools. Most offer general scholarships and then, next in number, music scholarships. The music offering is a point of differentiation with public schools, and, as Bob writes, probably a major attractor for the continuing switch from public to private.

Interestingly, in a regular attitudes-survey conducted by the Australian Music Association, 88%-that number again-88% of parents believe that all students should have the opportunity to study music at school. Ninety-four per cent of high-school students agree. The trouble is that most of those parents depend upon unwilling governments to make this possible.

Since governments don't want to pay for specialist music teachers, primary school music teaching is assigned to the classroom generalist teacher. On average, these student teachers receive 23 hours of instruction in music and music pedagogy over their four-year course. On this basis, they are then supposed to teach music all year at any of seven grade levels. If you gave your children 23 piano lessons, how much would you expect them to know?

Apparently the amount of instruction is entirely the prerogative of the universities. But there is little check on what the universities are producing. It seems that the state education departments do not require any evidence of subject-area competency. In NSW, applicants for primary-school positions are not asked about their competencies in any subject. They simply have to show that they have the degree. In NSW, there is a mandatory music curriculum for grades 1-6 but the Department has no idea whether its teachers are capable of delivering it and doesn't even want to find out. It's bizarre.

OK, crunch time. Let's get to Britney versus Beethoven.

Bob is saying that a serious music education will be one in Western classical music. 'Playing around with pop music' is not really a music education at all. This is not, says Bob, because Western classical music is superior; it's just that it embodies the depth and breadth of the history of Western civilisation. And pop music doesn't. In fact, pop is perpetrated by musicians who are only interested in money. 'Yet so powerful has been the intrusion of the Western arts music traditions into pop/rock, that most fans believe this music can also express feelings, emotions, and psychological states as powerfully as any operatic aria.' Are you confused, too?

My guess is that most fans would have little idea of the emotional content of an operatic aria. On the other hand, they would know whether the rock music causes them to feel emotions. Emotions as profound as you might feel listening to opera? I don't know. Does Bob?

A new survey of a thousand UK 15-24 year-olds found that 60% would rather go without sex than music for a week. That is a powerful statistic. There is something in their experience of pop and rock that goes pretty deep.

Nevertheless, I'm actually with the real Bob. Classical music is superior. All musics are equal? That's crap. Shakespeare was brilliant, but what would have been the outcome if he could work only with pidgin English? Classical music is superior not because of Pythagorean hocus-pocus, but because it has an extremely rich language, it is complex, flexible, powerful, capable of carrying a great range of subtle meanings and emotions. And it wasn't all written last week.

The question here is, when and in what circumstances should it be taught?

Bob says that pop music has taken over the curriculum because of the unfortunate triumph of socio-political theory over musical content. But I think the theory just gives a little validation to something quite different. What I have heard from some school music teachers is that their kids don't like classical music, and do love pop music. The teachers were tired of hurling themselves at the stone wall of student indifference and preferred to teach something the kids like. Indeed, are passionate about. And surely that's a fundamental thing about music. It's something to be passionate about. Everything starts from there.

As to musical content, the content of a good pop song can be comparable to the content of a classical song at the level for which young students are ready. After all, Bob has told us that the Western classical tradition has powerfully intruded on pop/rock.

If, when and how a kid comes to classical music depends firstly on whether there was classical music in the home. Then on education's need to create and sustain a passion for music-making. A good teacher, properly resourced, can awaken a passion for classical music where none existed. They can also include popular music as a vehicle for an effective music education. The big missing ingredient is, as usual, a commitment from most (but not all) governments to employ and support such teachers.

This is an extract from Dr Letts' speech at a Currency House forum on music education held at Sydney Grammar School on 6 May 2009.

Margaret bradley is senior Curriculum advisor/ music advisor, Curriculum K-12, nsW department of education and training.

Listening to Britney may lead to, or from, listening to Beethoven, so music educators often use both as teaching resources rather than one or the other. We live in a world where a wide range of music is enjoyed by a wide range of people in an even wider range of settings, styles and modes. Much of the material in this musical melting pot can be traced back to its roots in Pythagorean theory, yet it also includes music of our time which will always challenge the notion of what has constituted a rigorous music education up to now.

In Australia we inhabit a unique position with regard to the way in which we experience music. Recently I was in the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House, listening to operatic overtures by an Algerian from Paris. I often sit in the fourth row of the stalls and watch the Australian Ballet weave its magic to the accompaniment of a chamber orchestra, but this was different. It was the audience that was dancing. The way we respond to music varies with age and yet here was a mixed audience embodying their response through movement.

The idea that music education in this country has been damaged by a wave of sociological theory in education is untrue, particularly with regard to music education in New South Wales. Hundreds of specialist music teachers work hard to deliver a quality music education and support students in a myriad of ways. Recent reports show the rise in students' interest in music rather than sport, and in numbers of students sitting HSC Music exams and enrolling in music courses.

Strategies are needed to improve and update the pre-service training offered in the tertiary sector in order to support the realities of the music classroom in this century and address rapid technological development and changes in educational delivery.

Music education in the twenty-first century continues to be underpinned by pedagogies espoused by music educators worldwide and yet these models for teaching music in the Western art tradition need reinvigorating to engage and continue to inspire a new generation of musicians in a global community. Recent initiatives such as partnerships between artists and teachers in schools will enhance the teaching and learning on both sides.

Music education not only supports brain-stem development but enhances other areas of learning. Having returned to the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall recently to view the Department of Education and Training's Instrumental Festival, I couldn't help but be surprised by the comments arising from the audience such as, 'I never thought recorders on mass could sound that good.' The massed string and recorder players performed with confidence and vigour. During the rehearsal process primary students developed discipline and focus to perform in unison and showcased their talents alongside those of their dedicated teachers.

Music is alive and well in the public sector and proudly reflects a kaleidoscope of styles and experiences with a diverse range of students and teachers. Primary and secondary schools in NSW are providing a significant contribution to the lives of these students and their future music education in Australia.

Elissa Milne is a specialist in the composition of educational piano music, which has been included in syllabuses around the world. she is published by Faber music and hal leonard australia and recently created a new pre-preliminary syllabus for the ameb to be introduced in 2010.

Robert Walker's essay got it right in so many regards. Yes, there is a correlation between appropriate resources and appropriate opportunities in music education, and most students in Australia get neither. Yes, primary school students typically receive music education from musical illiterates. Yes, students gain benefits from learning to play musical instruments, not from learning about them. Yes, Britney and Beethoven are not commensurate musical, cultural or intellectual experiences.

But then there are the ways in which this essay got it so very wrong.

The claim that Western classical music is the most advanced (read 'valuable') musical culture on earth is made via some flimsy manipulation of anecdote and statistics (lots of people in China learn to play Western classical music, therefore they are disdainful of Chinese music traditions, therefore Western classical music trumps Chinese opera). As well there are smoke and mirrors based on some old-fashioned notions of what makes classical music great (the use of numerical relationships based on the golden section in late eighteenth-century composition). Dr Walker compounds this by stating that only Western art music is capable of expressing individual emotion.

That Dr Walker fails to take into account the sociological factors for Western music's ascendancy in Asia is not surprising, as he appears to discount the entire discipline of sociology. That he appears to restrict Western art music to musical examples based on the golden section is perhaps more astonishing, for this eliminates much of the canon and lays the foundation for many aspects of Western art music to remain unstudied unless they can be shown to connect to this mathematical principle. That he believes that individual emotion cannot be expressed via any other musical tradition speaks more about Dr Walker's view of human psychology than it does about the musical traditions of the world.

The facts are that learning to play a musical instrument has been demonstrated to improve brain function by around seven IQ points for as long as the person continues to play their instrument; and that keyboard instruments get the best results in this IQ advantage. There is a growing body of work demonstrating how musical performance experiences (both public and private) bolster self-esteem and facilitate self-expression-key elements in maintaining good mental health. These findings are of particular interest in a culture where so many teenagers find self-harm the most effective means of communicating their anxieties, and where the economy relies on low-level self-loathing as a catalyst to consume.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics report into children's participation in activities after school shows that children coming from English-speaking homes are significantly more likely to be involved in activities like music and sport outside of the school environment. Not only are the music education resources in the education system reserved for the lucky and the well-resourced, but privately-obtained music education is also the preserve of those with the greatest social capital.

Dr Walker identifies that changes in educational strategies in the past were intended to redress some of this imbalance, but instead students were left free of grammatical skills (for example) at the end of their education. This has had a correlation in music education, where students can take hours of music classes at school and simply listen to pop music or watch until the compulsory hours are up. But Dr Walker is wrong to put the blame squarely on the shifts in educational fashion.

Because of the disparity in private musical education from one student to another, because of its one-on-one nature, and because students are able to progress entirely at their own pace (as compared to the pace of their age-based cohort), by the time classroom music teachers begin to address musical literacy (literally, being able to read music) the class is already hopelessly unevenly assembled. Children immediately fall into two camps, one feeling stupid and overwhelmed by this incomprehensible new world the teacher is whisking them through, and the other bored by this revision of basics they mastered years ago.

Australia's education system has no means of dealing with skills best taught one-on-one, and no strategies for allowing students to progress at a different pace from their peers. This is in complete contrast to the massive private music education industry, where one-on-one tuition is the norm, and students (mostly) recognise that progress is connected to their effort, not to the passage of time. The review Dr Walker is critiquing does not address this systemic incompatibility in the provision of music education, and he does not take the time to tease out this structural weakness. He does, however, conclude his essay by calling for a requirement that students study set musical works from the Western art music canon. He argues this on the basis that Western art music is best, that it is our cultural heritage, and that a student's education is impoverished by the exclusion of Western art music. On the second two points I concur, but I would add another reason for works (from any musical tradition) to be set for study: by studying the same musical works across the nation, students can begin to have a conversation with each other, beyond the fences of their state or private schools, and across the geographical divides that the internet (but not the curriculum) has made meaningless.

Mandating that the study of music include a substantial Western art music component needs to be balanced by the recognition that music is also a commodity. Part of a student's music education ought to involve an examination of the way music has acquired value of a monetary as well as a cultural kind. It is naïve (let alone anachronistic) to believe that the primary musical engagement experienced by Australians is performative, not one of consumption. When we teach students how music (and all kinds of music) works, we equip them to experience music as musicians, not simply as customers.

Dean Biron is a Brisbane-based independent scholar. his PhD Thesis, completed at the University of New England, was entitled 'Contemporary Music and its Audiences.'

Robert Walker's essay on the present state of music education in this country is both passionately expressed and enlightening. He articulates well the need for music educators to be knowledgeable and supported by adequate resources, and cites numerous compelling studies which reinforce the value of learning music from a young age. There are, however, several key aspects to his argument that invite response.

The first is encapsulated in his chosen title, Beethoven or Britney? Those attentive to recent episodes in Australia's so-called culture wars will have come across this style of language before, in countless jeremiads on English studies deteriorating to the point where comic books and shopping lists are valued as highly as Shakespeare and Dickens. Such false dichotomies only obfuscate the situation in literature, so it is disappointing to see one given headline status in the corresponding discussion in music. Surely there are enough anti-dialectical debates being propagated through the media (climate-change advocates versus climate-change sceptics, and so forth) without intellectuals encouraging more?

Walker here seeks to pass judgment on the sociological method and associated cultural studies field, two projects commonly united under the term postmodernism. Typically, postmodernism's detractors focus upon its more dubious traits (such as lack of depth, the celebration of populism), while choosing to ignore or downplay the positive ones (such as intertextuality, the softening of cultural divisions). The core issue, though, is whether the general widening of scope promoted under postmodernism necessarily equates to a 'dumbing down', as Walker and others assume.

The American educator Wilson Moses once observed that critics of the sociological method customarily refer to their quarry by way of 'the most grotesque and extreme examples'.1It can be added that nowadays advocates of contemporary mass culture are often found roundly embracing the same lowest-common-denominator cases. Yet serious devotees of classical music doubtless do not want their art represented only by the many commonplace, kitsch exemplars available-why should those who are serious about other forms of music be any different?

This brings me to another, closely-related issue, most clearly articulated in Walker's assertion that followers of rock and pop music are wrong to believe that 'this music [can] express feelings, emotions and psychological states as powerfully as any operatic aria'. In other words, according to Walker's argument, if it is not classical music, then it must be entertainment- and shallow entertainment at that. As well as being impossible to prove, such a claim truly is constantly being refuted by listeners (many autodidacts who would nonetheless shun the pejorative 'fan') experiencing the same kinds of powerful effects through non-classical music. I had yet another such encounter at the recent Liquid Architecture festival. The musician in question, the German Thomas Koner, managed the trick using only a laptop computer and a video screen, and as an added bonus his work totally befuddles the divide between classical and popular music precisely because it is neither.

Walker goes on to say that 'in rock 'n' roll meaning appears more in the gesture of the singer/dancer than in the music'. Once again, a lot of sociological and cultural-studies critics would have no argument with this. But, apart from the problem of explaining exactly what 'rock 'n' roll' means as a musical category in 2009, he has another hurdle to overcome before such an assertion can be verified. It is not possible to shove aside the exclusivity of art music-the only form of music that allegedly is expressed chiefly through sounds-so easily. Christopher Small, whom Walker cites, questions how it is that so many have unequivocally privileged, both aesthetically and ethically, a genre which is of concern to only a tiny minority within Western industrialised society.2I agree with Walker that ignorance about the history and methods of classical music is unfortunate; it is equally unfortunate that the same level of ignorance is commonly shown toward other types of music.

It is also a far from simple matter to separate off classical music from popular music in the first place. Between those two increasingly isolated poles is a vast middle ground, not even acknowledged by a majority of observers, who are too reliant upon the scant information with which television and radio provide them. Moreover, all of the arts are bound up with commercialism, classical music being no exception (for evidence of this check out Limelight magazine, that self-styled bastion of local high culture that is in truth the art music equivalent of Smash Hits). And the classical tradition, even more so than the pop/ rock tradition, has long been a haven for conformity and nostalgia.3What is perhaps most interesting in contemporary music are the many alliances, experiments and contraventions that show these received traditions to be to some extent illusory.

One could add countless names to Walker's list of Australian musicians whose dedication and achievements show the value of a deep engagement with music at both a technical and philosophical level. Included would be many of the jazz-inflected composers and improvisers mentioned in Peter Rechniewski's recent Platform Paper,4each making thoughtful and complex music from somewhere beyond the Western art-music fortress, as well as numerous others working at the margins of pop/rock. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a practical, theoretical and historical understanding of all the different forms of musical expression would best contribute to encouraging well-rounded, motivated, questioning students of diverse social and cultural circumstances.

1 'The Remaking of the Canon,' Partisan Review, 2 (1991), p.369.

2 Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), p. 3.

3 For a discussion on this, see John Gingell and Ed Brandon, In Defence of High Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 69-84.

4 Peter Rechniewski, The Permanent Underground: Australian Contemporary Jazz in the New Millennium, Platform Papers 16 (Sydney: Currency House, 2008).

Associate professor deirdre russell-Bowie, who spoke at the sydney launch of Beethoven or Britney?, has researched and taught music education at the University of western sydney for more than thirty years.

I should like to respond to Robert Walker's essay by sharing our situation at the University of Western Sydney (UWS).

Despite the fact that research has consistently shown that pre-service teacher education students have little formal music education when they enter their course, face-to-face hours in music education for these students has decreased significantly over the past thirty years, from 68 hours in a three-year undergraduate course in 1980, to just four hours in 2009 in a postgraduate 18-month course. The 24 hours that students receive in the current UWS Creative Arts undergraduate unit is made up of 15% for each discrete art form, then 40% on effective integration of the arts across the curriculum. This content is based on research into teachers' needs in relation to arts education-on the DET and NSW Institute of Teachers' requirements-and from experience and research that indicates that the arts will only be taught if they are integrated into other 'more important' subjects in the primary curriculum.

Research indicates that primary teachers do not teach music because no priority is accorded the subject: they lack resources, confidence in music, training in music and music education, and allocated time in the crowded curriculum. The current M.Teach.(Primary) course ensures that students can download a significant quantity of practical resources online and use the textbook, that they can research the importance of the arts in schools, that they spend at least 20 hours learning and making music to develop their personal confidence in music, and that they participate in practical and theoretical learning experiences in music education and authentic classroom integration.

In NSW there has always been a policy of not having specialists in primary state schools. In 2000, the NSW Creative Arts Syllabus was produced, replacing the music and visual arts syllabuses. The new syllabus described each of four art forms to be taught by generalist teachers. It had fairly generalised separate outcomes, indicators and content for each art form,l and also recommended that teachers interrelate the objectives in each of the art forms as they develop their teaching programs, thus encouraging integration.

Following the recommendations of Professor Ken Eltis's 2003 Evaluation of Outcomes and Assessment Reporting in NSW Schools, Foundation Statements for each Key Learning Area (KLA) and each stage were developed. These are descriptions of the knowledge and skills that each student should develop at each stage of primary school and contained one statement per strand/ art form per stage in each KLA. The terms were generic, e.g. Foundation Statement for Kindergarten stipulates that students should 'sing, play and move to a range of music', while the statement for Year 5/6 requires that 'students sing, play and move to a range of music, both as individuals and in a group situation, demonstrating an understanding of musical concepts'.

Connected Outcomes Groups (COGs) were developed for NSW state primary schools in response to the crowded curriculum and in order to ensure that teachers achieve the goals of these Foundation Statements. They offer a systematic integrated approach to covering outcomes and content areas across years and stages in the four KLAs. So far, thirty COGs units have been developed, integrating Human Society and the Environment (HSIE), Science, (Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE)) and Creative Arts across all four stages. If all COGs units for that stage are completed in two years (one per term), the Foundation Statements are seen to have been achieved.

However, the Creative Arts are only minimally included-maybe two or three art forms per COG with no depth or development across the years-with the result that students could go through an entire year with very little music. Many public schools are using COGs: the set timeframe for implementation of the COGs is 40% of the week; Maths and English take up 50% and 10% respectively for other activities.

If schools are not doing COGs, they are often teaching to the National Assessment Project for Literacy and Numeracy. One student reported, when he asked to teach a music lesson on his practicum class, that his teacher told him, 'We don't do the Creative Arts, as we are teaching NAPLAN.'

In their Charter on Primary Schooling, the Australian Primary Principals' Association designated the four core learning areas of English literacy, mathematics, science and social education to be taught in all Australian primary schools. Other non-core learning areas (including music education) are left to the schools to accommodate, depending on the interest, support, time, resources or expertise to teach them. These, research tells us, are the very reasons why many generalist teachers do NOT teach music!

It is clear that schools in wealthy areas have more music education than those in poorer areas; and in schools where English is a first language for most children, music is taught more often than in schools where there is a high proportion of students from a non-English-speaking background. In the wealthy, mainly English-speaking schools, parents want their children to have a good music education, whereas in many schools situated in low socio-economic-status areas parents do not regard music education as a priority. Thus, lower-economicstatus schools following the APPA charter could miss out entirely on music education, if they did not give it the support required. In other words, the question of Beethoven or Britney? would be irrelevant.

Professor Walker's paper pointed out that, like the APPA charter, the National Curriculum did not include the arts. However, it has recently been announced that the arts will be included in the National Curriculum, albeit only in the 'second phase'. This is a step, if only a small one, in the right direction.

If the National Curriculum includes the use of specialist teachers in schools, as recommended by the 2005 National Review of School Music Education, how might they be used? This is an ongoing debate, with two conflicting arguments, the 'specialist' and the 'generalist'. While the first says that the best music teacher a child could have is a highly-skilled professional artist or performer with relevant training in primary teacher education, the second asserts that the child's best music teacher is the classroom teacher, because s/he knows the children well and can integrate music within the classroom. The children then see music as part of their whole curriculum, not separated from the reality of day-to-day schoolwork.

However, cannot specialist teachers work with generalist teachers? A specialist teacher may work as an advisory teacher in a single school, or be shared between several small schools. They could work in a supportive role in the lower grades, where children are in the greatest need of pastoral care and where integration of subjects tends to occur more frequently. In the upper grades they could be used in a semi-replacement role, which would seem appropriate for children of this age-group and could also provide professional development for the classroom teachers. This model has worked well in other states in schools that have specialist music teachers.

If music education continues the way it has been going for many years, we will certainly move beyond the 'state of crisis' that Robert Walker speaks of in his essay-into a state of oblivion. However, if the National Curriculum has any influence on music education in schools, then perhaps we have come to a turning-point in music education. One day we may have to answer his question: Beethoven or Britney?