Discussion of the MonthEcclectica Reprints

Discussion of the Month – July/2016

Welcome to the fifth installment of a new feature on the MayDay Group website: Discussion of the Month. For the next several months, this feature of the website will reprint the collection of short articles that first appeared 10 years ago in Ecclectica. The collection was edited by Wayne Bowman, and published online by Brandon University; this particular issue explored the topic, “The Future of Music Study in Canada.”  Contributing authors to this collection represent a diverse range of music scholarship and interests. The MayDay Group obtained permission to reprint these articles from Ecclectica and the various authors for the purpose of discussing the ways music in higher ed has changed since these articles were written ten years ago. The original publication may be viewed at http://ecclectica.brandonu.ca/issues/2006/2/

Our hope is that as you read, you will think about what has changed in the past ten years, what may not have changed at all or very much, and where there are signs of shifts in both thinking and practice. While the Ecclectica issue dealt primarily with music in higher education in Canada, the issues, we believe are common to higher music studies in other parts of the world, and this reprint seems timely given the 2014 report from the College Music Society calling for sweeping changes in the approach to undergraduate education in music. Please take a moment after you read to share your thoughts, so that we may generate the kinds of discussions that will lead to the kinds of changes the original Ecclectica authors call for.

Canadian Music Schools: Toward a Somewhat Radical Mission

David J. Elliott, New York University
Kari K. Veblen, University of Western Ontario

Screenshot 2016-06-27 15.17.47Screenshot 2016-06-27 15.17.19

Consider some of the major forces sweeping and dividing today’s world: terrorism; world poverty and disease; hopeless migrant populations; collapsing educational systems; cultural appropriation, colonialization, and exploitation; global warming; high-speed computer communications; vast corporate wealth; mass image exchange; struggle for gender equality/ equal rights; unprecedented international research.

Against this backdrop of monumental societal issues, university music schools in Canada and elsewhere seem quaint, if not largely irrelevant. We focus our energies on training performers and composers for a tiny and declining market of art music, new music, and jazz, with the most token of nods to world musics. We prepare theorists and musicologists for a miniscule need. Music education programs prepare students to teach bands, choirs, and, sometimes, pop and rock groups that “cover” past hits by the Beatles, or create new pop material with recent computer technologies.

Notwithstanding the deep healing values of experiencing and producing musical “beauty,” it seems fair to ask, What are we doing? Why continue to focus on producing hundreds of musicians each year for an unsympathetic society and economy? Do we want to do more? Can we do more? We believe it is possible. How?

Our suggestion is that we as a profession gradually rethink and reorganize our institutions to prepare students for broader social and political missions. Put another way, it is in their best interests, and ours (as citizens), that we enable our students to conceive themselves as artists and artist-educators in a radical or, at least, in an alternative sense: as public intellectuals for world citizenship. We need to impart a commitment to the “life goals”1 of developing creative musical approaches to conceiving social-political complexities and expressing musical solutions for the public arena.

But should our schools abandon traditions altogether? This would be foolish. Being a musician in the broadest sense and for expansive goals requires all the myriad skills, understandings, and dispositions that make up musical artistry. What we are suggesting is that instead of limiting our institutions’ missions to educating classical violinists, jazz bass players, and choral music educators (to list a few conservative examples), we ought to expand our institutional themes. Consider this: although Canada is officially bilingual and perhaps trilingual with the advent of Nunavut, for the most part the university curriculum continues as a hegemonic euro-centric canon. We have a golden opportunity here to re-negotiate, to open fissures in the façade and connect more with this country’s musical mosaic.

In addition to expanding the musics learned and performed, we need to pay attention to the students who populate our universities. Who are these students? They are young, eager, promising performers and able to pass theory exams. All these things are good, but they also mean that, for the most part, our students are from the dominant class and privileged socio-economic circumstances. There are excellent young musicians who never apply to music programs because their choice of instrument, their genre or their training (be it in jazz, rock, South Indian tabla or Ottawa Valley fiddling) is not acknowledged. And yet, these students are fully capable of growing musically and contributing. In order to create more elastic and creative environments, music schools need to recognize a variety of musics expressed through multiple mediums. Furthermore, more emphasis needs to be placed on cultivating students’ abilities to problematize cultural issues and create sonic-performative solutions. In short, let us continue to teach our music students to do what has been done before; however, and much more importantly, let us enable them to do what has never been done before.

For the sake of argument, let us suppose that there is a critical mass of music professors who have the wills and the skills to take our institutions on a slow “left turn.” If so, then we would need to create new curricula that would allow our music students more freedom to cross intellectual and creative borders (e.g., to integrate studies in ethnomusicology, performance, and music education) and, next, to make partnerships with other students and professors outside our music schools such as visual artists, dancers, film producers, and poets. At the same time, we would need to further this “turn” by making rich connections between our music schools and many other areas of the university and the surrounding community

Related to these moves, we would need to relax some of the demands we place on students to produce finished products such as recitals; lesson plans and supervised teaching performances; and written examinations. Some of these requirements could be replaced with credit/no-credit evaluations of students’ ongoing commitment to involvements with others in the sense of interdisciplinary projects, or community music projects. Such an open, freewheeling approach has the potential to produce new art forms, or new teaching processes, and, in doing so, teach our students that music transforms and evolves in relation to the problems of society.

Although many Canadian schools require liberal arts courses, we do too little to integrate these studies with music courses in any critically reflective ways. If we did, then we might enable students to deeply consider their responsibilities and discover their potentials to create music that reflects and leads audiences to “hear” the sounds of AIDS, or urban violence, or degenerating cities. Instead, we perpetuate hoary notions of “the aesthetic” and “art for arts sake.” By separating “beauty” from “reality” we encourage students’ idealized, romantic images of what it will be (or should be) like to work as a musician after graduation: admired for their so-called talent, but not their public service; mysteriously skilled and gifted, but temperamental; musically expressive and creative, but not to be trusted off stage; and so forth. In fact, many university music professors and students relish these stereotypes, largely because they have been passed down to us, like genes, from our early piano lessons.

Given the above, it is not surprising that society tends to view music academics as uninterested in or incapable of contributing in meaningful ways as (say) members of parliament, union organizers, or government advisors. The general assumption (based on the roles we act out and instill in our students) is that we are too preoccupied preparing performers to please wealthy patrons, or play in small clubs, or compose exotic music for other music students and professors. Although it may be an overgeneralization, it’s worth pointing our that in comparison to our schools’ missions, and the ambitions of most of our graduates, the ideals of many rock, country, and so-called folk musicians include a commitment to creating music for, and speaking on behalf of, social issues.

If our institutions gradually evolved to the point of dedicating some of their philosophical, ethical, and practical efforts toward achieving the aims suggested here, the result (one day) might be that more of our students would take up their professions with greater self-esteem, energy, and inventiveness. Were we able to help them attain the abilities they need to re-vision themselves as artists-for-society, they could (if they wish) remain “on the margins” for the strategic social purpose of creating music, musical spaces, and musical communities that pose, create, and embody musical solutions to intractable social problems, resist today’s political commonsense, or care for people of all kinds. If so, then our music students would grow to become what Edward Said2 calls “organic intellectuals,” or “amateur intellectuals,” or “fluid intellectuals,” by whom he means people who use their minds, vocations and arts to speak for people and issues that are routinely ignored.

No doubt skeptical readers will be thinking, rightly, that only certain students are likely to adopt this identity and link their life’s purpose to serving the public good through the artistic integrity and innovativeness of their work. Most will probably see themselves as conservative professional musicians and music educators committed to perpetuating traditional musical conventions.

This is true, of course. Lacking the kinds of models and understandings our institutions could (should?) provide, who could expect them to traverse artistic or educational silos, create alliances with artists and organic intellectuals in other fields and worlds, or create inclusive musical process for the public arena. But does this mean we should not try? Should we accept the expectations of our incoming students? After all, we are supposed to be centers of creativity, and our institutions are often embedded in research universities or liberal arts colleges that place a premium on forwarding knowledge and preparing young people for new worlds, as much as preserving the status quo. Perhaps it is time to emphasize forwardingour efforts in relation to some of the themes outlined here.

To take one example, during the last fifteen years we have focused our own efforts on investigating and developing community music programs (e.g., designing a community music MA degree at the University of Limerick), and, in David Elliott’s case, designing an MA in community music at NYU; together, we also founded an online journal in 2002 to encourage and disseminate research in community music: The International Journal of Community Music.3 Indeed, there is an enormous need for musicians who can serve the public sector in a vast number of ways. Thus, our institutions have a major opportunity and responsibility to serve the public good by awakening new visions and providing new avenues of preparation for our students as community music workers.

In conclusion, as Howard Gardner suggests, committed professionals usually want to work in a well-aligned domain, meaning one in which a profession’s aspirations, practitioners and institutions are consistent with the needs of the public stakeholders that it serves4. If a profession’s aspirations, institutions and public contributions are in harmony, its members will lead satisfying and socially rewarded lives; if not, either the practitioner or the profession will fragment or collapse from misalignment.

Considered in relation to the needs of today’s world, it is our fear that music schools in Canada and abroad are becoming one of the most poorly aligned of all fields, internally and externally. The bottom line is that unless Canadian university music schools can redevelop their missions, strengthen their alignment with today’s social needs, and persuade Canadian society that we represent a valuable and progressive domain, we will become more and more marginalized socially, economically, morally, ethically, and globally. We can change; we have the abilities to do so; but do we have the will?


1 David J. Elliott, Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): chapter 12.

2 Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Pantheon, 1994).

3 See: http://intljcm.com

4 Howard Gardner, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet ((New York: Basic Books, 2001)

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