Why Musicians Need Philosophy

A recurring source of frustration in my teaching work involves interactions with educators and institutions that aren’t fully engaged with a considered and informed music education philosophy. Not that musicians and teachers aren’t philosophical by default, most are on the first day, but often on an intuitive level, simply following what and how they learned: “This is how it’s always been done, so it must be OK!” The why question is ignored altogether at the expense of the seemingly useful short term curriculum goal.

The rapid change in the world’s awareness of social, racial, and economic injustice is causing serious problems for individuals and education institutions that, in the wake of this recent revolution, have been exposed as propagators structural bias, racism, and gross economic inequality that perhaps is in small part due to an unconscious, inadequate or outdated educational philosophy.

Some revered institutions lacking self-reflection are becoming transparent to the bias at the heart of their structures, with often created serious repercussions for educators who have not considered their content, communication, and culture. Of course the most serious implications are for the students involved, who unknowingly are being indoctrinated into a system that ignores purpose and ultimate outcome by focusing incessantly on other seemingly more pressing issues of the moment. The problem of this lack of attention to a vital area of study becomes most glaring when changes need to be made to a department or institution, as there is no coherence to the frame to which that change needs to be made. Squabbles over turf and resources, as well as navigation of the tenured insecurities of faculty that have no time or interest to read up on their own philosophical shortcomings can result (at least in the institutions I have found myself). This is not to say that one philosophy is necessarily better than another and will cause all educational misdirection to vanish, but the lack of a conscious frame at all in a school or department cripples the ability to respond to the changing needs of the students one purports to serve. No conceptual framework means no frame of reference – which results in no ability to change. Even beyond the transformation brought by the eventual retirement of faculty, these structures can stay rigid and self-reinforcing.

While the target of animus is often the school or department (how much is tuition now?!?) perhaps the ultimate onus is on the individual first, the one who has the ability to act first. A teacher doesn’t need to have a degree in music education philosophy to engage in some basic self reflection: Why am I teaching this, to this person, in this way, at this time? Most of the times I have tried this experiment I hesitated, grasping for detail in my our purposes.

These questions has been grappled with by some important authors in the field of music education philosophy, most clearly so by David Elliott and Marissa Silverman in the essential Music Matters. Chapter 2 specifically outlines the clearest summation of the last 150 years of evolution music education philosophy. This needs to be read seriously by anyone engaging with students, in the classroom and bureaucratically in the administration. The conclusions present a philosophy based on praxis:

“The central tenet of the practicum idea is holistic immersion. The aim is to develop all dimensions of students’ musicianship and listenership via students’ joyful, active engagements with all forms of musicing and listening.”

This may seems a bit wistful out of context for those who consider engagement with music a purely aesthetic experience, the inherited curse of a European aesthetic tradition that propagates a dualistic and culturally incoherent view of what should be considered useful or beautiful. That this bias toward the “pure” aesthetic is still omnipresent in traditional American music curriculum creates continuous friction between those that know, and those that only pretend to teach. The aesthetic view defies all but a section of potential musical engagements, and is incoherent and grotesquely incomplete as an unconcious philosophy of a 21st century music curriculum. This is obvious when I think of educators I have encountered, especially in the jazz education field, could teach the exactitude of Coltrane changes in a theory class but stammer and fall when asked why it is important to teach it at all. Shouldn’t purpose precede particularity? To have a meaningful reflection of curriculum without the tools needed to address and describe one’s purposes, there can be no meaningful planning of education beyond the present moment. These have been articulated in a myriad of forms, and to be ignorant of at least an introduction is to be not fully serving oneself or the student.

Elliott’s praxial philosophy attempts to embrace the numerous ways students can become meaningfully engaged with music, at personal, local, and global levels, and in an ever expanding web of modalities. For those that are continuously wrestling with the “Why am I doing this?” question, this book can help provide frames, and help you construct your own. This is the ultimate goal – not to blindly follow a prescription but to use it to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances fo the subject and the student.

At the end of the Spring 2020 semester and the torrent of zoom classes, technological inequalities, and administrative reinventions, I decided to do an inventory of not just what I accomplished with my students, but why we (actually I) did things in the first place. This was for various classroom music situation of 7-12th grade students, all of mixed backgrounds, interests, and abilities (it was not an elective, but part of a core curriculum). My why answers would be independent of the specific curriculum contents, and hopefully make me consider what my motivations were as a teacher, as well as where they guided me towards positive or negative outcomes. This exercise was completed without excessive analysis or trying to make it fit into a perfect shape as messiness was needed in order to find the most useful and perhaps hidden motivations. It would be filled with biases and blind spots, but that is true of any single point of view. I wanted this to result in a visual image, as that would help me view sequence from a distance. It was obvious some goals were much more significant than others, and there was a shape that indicated a network rather than a hierarchy.

I don’t believe the final product is as informed as it could be, nor is it perfect or perhaps even coherent. My teaching is filled with imperfections and problems, my job is to be comfortable with those issues and confront them, not unlike hearing one’s self played back at a recording session. Reflecting is a start/middle point, rather than ever being end point. The process brought me a bit closer to being conscious of why I introduce things as a teacher, feel there importance on an intuitive level, and helps me evaluate the actual content of a particular class. Hopefully this gives me more power to shape my practice toward a more fully realized result. I share this so that perhaps others can chime in with their own experiences or advice on how to better my own thinking moving forward.

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