Sunday, April 2, 2017

Attacks on Western Civilization Continue...

Apparently the left side of society is more "open" and therefore more creative, according to psychologists. Well, maybe, but lately it seems as if an inordinate amount of that creativity consists of finding ever more creative ways of wreaking havoc on the cultural traditions of the West. Today's example comes from the Guardian with the innocuous title: "Music education is now only for the white and the wealthy." One might assume that the article is going to be about extending the benefits to the non-white and non-wealthy, but the author, Charlotte Gill, goes much further:
For a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement. While there are routes into musical careers for the untrained, and many pop, rap and grime artists have never studied music formally, there are also dozens of choirs and amateur collectives that put a huge focus on musical notation.
This is a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education. Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.
So what she really wants is to return music to the pre-literate state it had before the invention of music notation a thousand years ago. As is so often the case, the author's attitude is shaped by her own biography:
I cannot sight read. This is something that means I cannot join the many choirs around the UK that name this as a requirement. The patterns and figures of music don’t easily unravel in my mind. I suspect that’s the case for many other children and adults; some get notation, others don’t. Neither is indicative of talent, but while we do not find lateral, inclusive ways to engage people – as well as loosening our ideas of what constitutes musical ability – we are losing masses of would-be performers.
The inability to sight-read is certainly indicative of a lack of talent in that area, one would think.
The insistence on theoretical understanding is underpinned by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, which sets the most widely-used music exams. To meet its requirements, pupils must work through limited repertoires of old, mostly classical music, focusing most of their efforts on mastering musical literacy, above songwriting, composing, or even enjoyment.
Damn those Associated Boards for privileging classical music over songwriting!

Well, I won't keep quoting, as you get the idea. The basic precept of post-modernism is that there are no values and therefore, no need to teach any understanding of them, theoretical, aesthetic or otherwise. The only thing that matters is your subjective whim, here cleverly disguised as "enjoyment" as if the very idea that anyone anywhere might actually enjoy performing and listening to classical music is a very peculiar one.

Ms Gill got rather a lot of pushback from professional musicians, as related at Slipped Disc:
Charlotte C. Gill (‘Music education is now only for the white and wealthy’) argues that ‘to enable more children to learn [music], we must stop teaching in such an academic way.’ While rightly noting the increasing chasm between state and private education in terms of music provision, her conclusions about musical notation and theoretical skills amount to simple anti-intellectualism.
Gill dismisses the study of music ‘theory’ and argues patronisingly that musical notation is ‘a cryptic, tricky language (…) that can only be read by a small number of people’. This claim flies in the face of countless initiatives over two centuries making musical literacy available to those of many backgrounds. As with written language, musical notation enables effective and accurate communication, as well as critical access to huge amounts of knowledge. In many musical fields, those without it will be at a deep disadvantage and dependent upon others.
Gill’s comments about ‘limited repertoires of old, mostly classical music’ are unfounded and presented without evidence: composing, listening, singing, and playing are embedded in much musical education, which also widely encompasses jazz, popular, and non-Western traditions. Claiming that classical music comprises a limited repertory is inaccurate: composers have been adding to its repertory for centuries and continue to do so. We agree with Gill that aural and other skills are equally important as those in notation. However, through her romanticisation of illiteracy, Gill’s position could serve to make literate musical education even more exclusive through being marginalised in state schools yet further.
There follows a very, very, very long list of signatories.

Speaking of choirs, Guido of Arezzo invented the idea of a lined staff largely to be able to record specific melodies. He also invented a way of sight-singing to help choirs learn to read this new-fangled writing.

If things keep going in the direction they have, then in a few years I fully expect someone to be opining in the Guardian that the idea of requiring students to read at all is unnecessary. English is, after all, a cryptic, tricky language and learning how to read it largely unneeded now that we have audible books. If you are creative, just dictate your novel into your iPad or iPhone. Really, what is the point of requiring anyone to read written languages?

Our envoi is the Symphony No. 5 by Prokofiev conducted at the Proms by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. You will notice that many of the people onstage are actually reading from musical notation. The performance itself starts just before the 5 minute mark:


Anonymous said...

I agree it's a silly piece. But, speaking about the US, the education system has made a choice, which is not to teach music. Typical high schools have music ensembles (orchestra, choir, jazz band) that kids can join (often selectively): they practice together, they perform in school functions or competitively (especially jazz). But music per se is NOT taught by the schools. This means that anyone who wants to join has to learn music elsewhere. And that means private lessons. As a result, music knowledge has a clear class divide. Basically, people below the median income don't know music. They might be able to practice it (strumming open chords on their guitar) but they don't understand what they're doing.

Schools teach computer programming but not music. I think the more interesting question is whether that's the right priority. I don't think the answer is entirely obvious by the way, so the debate is one worth having.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Anonymous! Now why is it that my commentators are usually much wiser and better informed than opinion piece writers for the Guardian?

I spent many years in music education in one way or another, so I know something about it. Yes, public schools (in the US and Canadian sense) have music ensembles, but not music instruction in the sense of classes in theory and history (though I suspect there might be a bit of that in the ensemble classes). What is especially lacking is private music lessons on the instruments (and voice). The reason for this is the cost. A private music lesson has got to cost at least $20 an hour and probably much more. The more well-off families can afford it, the rest cannot. But I suspect that a lot of middle-class families arrange for various kinds of extra-curricular instruction (dance, hockey, martial arts, tennis...) for their kids, so why not music lessons?

I came from a very poor family and basically paid for my own music education (with my parents' help) which included private lessons, master classes, university degrees in music, even travel to Europe for advanced instruction. How? Well, there is always a way if you want it bad enough!

In Quebec they have a province-wide conservatory system that offers high-quality music instruction to children up to the university level. You have to audition to get in, but the cost is entirely subsidized by the government.

I guess this is the best way to do it. No child with talent is excluded because of poverty. But no rich kid can buy their way into the program. Audition only.

Anonymous said...

I like that very much. I believe the public conservatory approach exists in many European countries as well. But privatization seems the "solution" to everything these days. (Even prisons are being privatized.) Sigh...

David said...

Bryan, I want to jump quickly into your pool of wise and better informed readers! So here is my two (Canadian) cents worth.

Public music education is like many things which have become victim to limited public finances (or the re-direction of such finances to the military budget).I suspect, those that have the benefit of looking back on the times in which we now live will see with clear hindsight the mistakes that have been made. Socrates recognized the effects of music and the benefit of music education. He considered it an instrument of indoctrination and character development. Socrates stated (subject to translation errors):
"Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful." In fact, music education was compulsory for children in ancient Egypt and in the Greco-Roman culture. The powers of the day recognized that music education, broadly available, led to a rational, good and beautiful society.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks to all my commentators (who should undoubtedly be convened as a special committee advising governments on music education policy).

I think that the Quebec conservatory program is proving its worth in things like the growing numbers of musicians from Quebec who are becoming more widely known. Prominent among these is Yannick Nézet-Séguin, an alumnus of the Conservatoire who has recently been named music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The Conservatoire is undoubtedly an elitist institution, with only students accepted who are able to win a place by audition. It is also pretty costly. But Quebec seems to feel that this is a worthwhile program. You don't have to spend dollars to offer everyone costly musical instruction, just those with proven ability.

And it is useful to bear in mind that governments seem to spend enormous amounts of money on things that are far less worthwhile than music education. We could all make up a list!

Will Wilkin said...

1) The Guido Hand has been on my agenda as the next object for me to try painting in water colors.

2) I removed the Guardian from my collection of news links because they are so polluted by an identity politics agenda that, yes, hates white men. As if that is my identity! We are all just PEOPLE and it seems the cultural left is insistent on crystalizing the divisions based on"gender identities" and anti-scientific identities like "race." They really are race-hucksters.

3) Learning to read music is one of many examples of a valuable skill that requires focused attention and practice. If the lady doesn't want to learn to read music, let her join a pop band. Don't pretend its an enlightened position to tear down skills and traditions built on years (and centuries) of discipline and creativity mixed together.

4) My awesome 17yo son is now studying for the ABRSM Theory exam for Book 6. He passed most of the earlier tests "with distinction." And YES he has talent and he he studies and his ABRSM tests are a rightful source of pride and a valid predictor he will be able to play figured bass continuo in a baroque ensemble.

5) FACT: Baroque sacred music is THE BEST MUSIC EVER.

Steven said...

The Guardian actually is a very good paper for classical music, alongside the (London) Times, at least in Britain. What a blessing Tom Service has been, for example -- always a fair and interesting writer and broadcaster on classical music. This article shouldn't detract from that.

All of that said, I really can't understand the author's attitude that just because she got to grade 8 and couldn't sight read (and grade 8 doesn't require particularly competent sight reading anyway), she intuits that she'll never be able to sight read, and moreover that many other people are similarly handicapped. I remember finding music notation an impossibly cryptic language. Yet it didn't take long to understand it (and this is coming from someone who consistently failed foreign language exams). Music theory is far easier to comprehend than foreign languages, or indeed algebra.

Still, schools often don't teach it properly and she's right to point out that many students do rely on outside tuition. The problem is that music teaching in schools is not always that good, especially as more and more specialise in music tech and popular forms. The revolution the author calls for is already partly underway, and it's a cacophonous nightmare where secondary school kids spend their music lessons playing out-of-time renditions of Lady Gaga, say (not from a score, of course) on cheap flimsy keyboards while other kids make crude use of the sound effects settings. Needless to say, this is what they find 'enjoyable'.

Bryan Townsend said...

Steven, I completely agree that the Guardian's classical music coverage is among the best, especially that of Tom Service. He did those great series on contemporary composers and the symphony. But I haven't seen anything recently?

Does your illuminating description refer to what is going on in schools in the UK? Sounds both predictable and horrific!

Steven said...

Yes it does. The only difference is that that was my experience a few years ago. Now, it might well be worse. I believe music becomes an optional subject even earlier now. And by the time you get to GCSE (14-16 year olds) and then A Level (16-18) the numbers doing music are equal if not less than subjects like 'food technology' and 'media studies'.

You can look up the specifications for music released by the exam boards. In all fairness, a lot of good stuff is detailed, even a unit on 'Western tonal harmony' or 'Western classical tradition' I recall (though just one compulsory unit). If a teacher wanted to give his students a rigourous education centred on the classical tradition, he could. But for the bulk of it the teacher can choose to teach either the classical tradition or the 20th and 21st century popular tradition, which includes pop music, 'stage and screen' and jazz. I would be interested to know the stats for what's chosen, but with a cursory search I can't find any. Space is also given for electronic music and sampling -- this point was given emphasis at an A level conference we once had to attend -- which is of dubious academic worth in my opinion. (The OCR A level music specification is what I'm referencing here. But others are pretty similar.)

Note also that seemingly academic requirements such as that 'a fully notated score must be handed to the examiner before the performance' do not mean the student will ever read a note of music! I'll admit, when I was an electric guitarist in school, I would read a tab version, if not just learn by ear, and hand the examiner a copy in pure music notation. No wonder we couldn't sight read.

And on the essays -- well, safe to say they're far from Music Salon standards! From A Level music (16-18 year olds), an extract from an apparently 'exemplar' essay on Mozart's Jupiter Symphony (despite the awful spelling):

'The 1st subject stays in the tonic of C major with out modulating, and there is a tonic pedal through bars 9 – 16. The trasition modulates to the dominant major through a cycle of 5ths at bars 30 – 35, which also demonstates the second half of the 1st subject fragmented and treated to a falling sequence. The domnant is emphasiesed by a G major pedal in bars 39 – 46' (

That is supposedly the best it gets at the highest level of secondary school music. There are also essay question whose purpose evade me, e.g. 'Compare the nature and function of percussion instruments in Rossini’s Overture with
those in jazz in the 1940s and 1950s.' And for student pre-GCSE (11-14), the standards can be appaling. I'd bet my left leg that most wouldn't know anything more than major is happy and minor is sad, even after 2 or 3 years of weekly music lessons.

Yes, Tom's output there seemd to have slowed -- one can only hope it's temporary. But he can be found regularly on Radio 3, or presenting shows on BBC TV (he did a good historical one on Shostakovich 7 few months back). And I even saw him curate/present, whatever the word is, a tribute concert to Peter Maxwell Davis in London, which he did quite well.

JBB said...

In reply to Anonymous: My experience of music education in the U.S. is vastly different from yours, apparently.

All elementary (K-6) students receive at least one class per week in general music, taught by a degree-holding- and duly licensed music specialist.

Students may elect to study strings starting in the 4th grade and winds/percussion in the 5th. Students with families in financial difficulty are provided with an instrument for a fee of $20 per year. Truly indigent students are provided instruments at no charge at all in many cases (the PTA, etc., pay the fee). This rental program continues through high school.

Students in my high school can take band, chorus, guitar, and/or orchestra, and beginners are welcome to receive instruction. While lessons are of the group/ensemble variety, most directors in the area hire sectional coaches and pay them through fund-raising activities and booster organizations.

We also offer a two-year program of music history/literature/analysis (the I.B. Music curriculum). Yes, it serves only those students who opt in, but is available to all.

I think the public schools in our area are doing an excellent job and wish it were so in other parts of the country.

Bryan Townsend said...

@Steven: thanks for the extra detail. It sounds as if the individual teachers are pretty free so that in some regions you might get a great education and in others not! That essay you quote is pretty deadly theory, without much understanding.

JBB: Where are you located? Sounds like a great program.

JBB said...

We're in northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

Interestingly, we did not make the list of the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation's top 527 Best Communities for Music Education this year.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, I'm sure you should have.