Welcome to my blogging page. I write here about topics that intersect with music and society and education. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.
Does music teaching carry moral implications and obligations?
Does music teaching carry moral implications and obligations? Some contemporary thinkers, such as the American neuroscientist Sam Harris, posit that values and morality can best be viewed through a scientific lens. Others, such as the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, think that lifting a hand to reach for a glass of water implies a moral decision. And those who espouse the post-modernist view, such as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, deny that objective moral values exist - that the question itself is meaningless. Morality is concerned with the distinction between right and wrong. An obligation, on the other hand, is concerned with a specific course of action to which a person is morally bound. Small (1997) states that, “If knowledge is to be sought, the question may fairly be asked, who is the knower and who the known? and if power is sought, one may ask, power for whom? and even power over whom?” (pp. 70-71). Small’s main ethical concern in this statement is, “power over whom?” In his Meditations Sacrae (1597), Francis Bacon famously stated that "ipsa scientia potestas est": knowledge itself is power. Music teachers attempt to pass knowledge on to their students. These educators often abuse their position of power over their students. Many of these abuses are due to cultural biases. Sometimes the abuse is intentional. Analyzing these biases and abuses of power within the teaching setting, with the goal of arriving at moral imperatives, requires a critical assessment of one’s belief system and epistemological assumptions. In this blog, I examine two teaching scenarios – one ethical and one unethical – using the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’sMoral Imperative theory as the basis for my assessment. Kant’s moral imperative contains two axioms: 1) we should behave as if our actions would become a universal law for all people at all times; and 2) every human being must be treated as an end rather than a means to an end.
There are several prominent 20th century thinkers who espouse moral philosophies of education. The French developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, and the Russian social psychologist Lev Vygotsky, figure predominantly among these thinkers. Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) identified three possible states of learning readiness: (1) activities or knowledge that a student possesses or has mastered (2) activities or knowledge that a student could learn only with the help of an experienced peer or teacher; and (3) activities or knowledge that are outside the student’s grasp. Learning cannot take place when the student has already mastered the task. This is self-evident – they already possess the necessary skills and will become bored. Learning cannot take place when the to-be learned task is too difficult for the students to accomplish on their own – they will become frustrated. In between these extremes lies a sweet spot – the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD. In this zone, learning can take place with the aid of an experienced other.
Identifying the ZPD of a student requires an assessment of their skills and knowledge. A plan of action can then be constructed and implemented that is designed to raise the student’s level of expertise. During private studio instruction, this assessment and planning becomes a regularly re-occurring event over the course of many years. For classroom music educators, the process is more difficult. The sheer volume of students in a classroom exacerbates this assessment and planning/implementation process. As well, having new students each year means that instructors may not be familiar with the educational history of each student - limited skills and knowledge may go undetected. Regardless of the educational environment, the theory of ZPD aligns with Kant’s moral imperative theory in at least two ways: (1) if ZPD were to be implemented as a universal teaching method, in all places, and at all times, human learning would flourish; (2) the ZPD theory describes the manner in which teachers facilitate educational development in their students - from a lower resolution representation of the world, to a higher resolution representation of the world. Students in this educational paradigm would be viewed as ends in themselves, not merely as means to an end.
On a macro level, we might say that the core tenant of an abusive student-teacher relationship is manipulation. However, as we have seen, it is unethical to manipulate others for one’s own goals. This manipulation is most evident within a “top-down”, inflexible, teaching style. The eminent Spanish guitarist Andrea Segovia clearly demonstrates this teaching style during a master-class with Michael Chapdelaine, at the University of Southern California in 1986. In video below, Chapdelaine begins by playing Mallorca, by the late 19th century Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz. Fifty seconds into the performance, Segovia abruptly stops the performer and begins to chide him for altering the fingerings of the musical score (the performer was using Segovia’s edition). Chapdelaine explains to Segovia that these were “artistic decisions” that he had made. Segovia asks if he thinks the altered fingerings are good. Chapdelaine responds, “I think they are good”. Segovia scowls at his response and tells him to continue. It is important to note that this piece was originally written for the piano - not the guitar. Segovia’s fingerings may be considered all the more subjective for this reason. Chapdelaine continues to play; this time eliminating all of the portamento indications from the score (which, again, were not part of the original piano score). At this point, Segovia begins to berate Chapdelaine, gives him the score and tells him to leave.
Throughout this altercation, it is clear that Segovia viewed the musical text (which he had arranged and edited) as “gospel”: no deviation was to be permitted. It is also evident that Segovia viewed himself as the final arbitrator in all artistic matters related to the piece. He was inflexible, unable to see beyond his own ego. The eminent Australian guitarist John Williams has gone further, saying that Segovia bullied his students, stifled their creativity, forced them to play in his style and was musically snobbish (Alberge, 2012). Segovia’s goal was to create carbon copies of himself. He had no goal of raising students to a higher artist level. He dominated and manipulated them to his own ends.
The effects of this teaching style can be seen on Chapdelaine in the final, awkward, seven minutes of the video. In this section, Chapdelaine acquiesce to the narrative that Segovia has presented. He believed that Segovia was right to treat him so poorly. Chapdelaine’s rationalizing clearly exhibits signs of the psychological condition known as “learned helplessness”. Martin Seligman, the late 20th century classical conditioning psychologist, viewed this as a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed.
To summarize, music teachers are charged with the care of their students. Their goal, as Small indicates, should be to use their power (knowledge) to maximize student flourishing through learning. This learning is best achieved when a teacher identifies a student’s developmental level, constructs learning activities just above that level, and works alongside the student to help them reach their goal. Manipulation of a student by a teacher is immoral in the Kantian sense. Those individuals taught in an abusive student-teacher relationship tend to be timid, unsure of themselves, and psychologically damaged. As music educators, we have a profound moral obligation to our students. We need to put our student’s best interests first. We need to be aware of our predilection to manipulation. We need to be on guard against the inherent conflicts of interest in the teacher-student dynamic. As much as possible, we need to use our “power over” to facilitate student learning; to lift them to a more complete understanding of the world.
Small, Christopher (1996). Music, Society, Education (Music Culture). Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition
Community Guitar Orchestras:
Motivation, Self-Efficacy, and Intergenerational Dynamics
I began teaching duos, trio, and quartets about a decade ago within my private guitar studio. I did this to create a supportive social environment where students could learn from and get to know one another, to help students become better readers, and to provide a lower pressure performance experience. These groups evolved over time into several larger ensembles. In an effort to make the ensembles more accessible to the broader community, they were integrated into the programming of the Guitar Society of Brantford in 2011.
My goal with the ensemble programs was to foster self-efficacy in our community members, cultivating a frame of mind in which members could say to themselves, “I can be successful in this endeavor.” These beliefs are nurtured when students experience consistent and repeated success (Schunk, 2012, p. 149). They also come through peer modeling, which happens vicariously when students observe peers of the same age and background succeeding in a task (p. 149, 372). When students see this, they begin to say to themselves, “if they can do it, I can do it as well.” The Social Cognitive theories of Bandura (1977), outlined above, provides the theoretical foundation for many of the ensembles learning environments.
What I find fascinating about the three guitar ensembles that I teach is how different each one is. Each ensemble has a great diversity of ‘ages and stages,’ and so I am continually asking myself, “What are the needs of this group? What is it that motivates each person to join the ensemble?” I then look for ways to meet those needs through the guitar, the curriculum, and through performance opportunities.
For instance, when I started the junior ensemble program at the Guitar Society of Brantford, I anticipated that we would have a large number of young community kids join the group, and this is in fact the case. The parents of these children value music education in their lives, yet may not have sufficient disposable income to enroll them in private music lessons, and the Guitar Society meets this need by providing low cost group instruction for beginners. What I did not anticipate, however, was the significant response we received from the forty-five to seventy-five year old age group. I came to understand that their motivation for joining was that they had always wanted to learn the guitar, but the responsibilities of work and providing for a family had hindered them from doing so. As they approached middle age, with families grown, and with more discretionary time and income, they were able to re-engage with that life-long desire. What’s both rewarding and notable about this ensemble is the dynamic that exists between younger and older members. The adults care for and encourage the development of the children, while the younger members respect the adults and view them almost as extended family (Newman, 2008).
Children’s motivational levels are understood to be affected by familial influences (Schunk, p. 361). From a biological perspective, Passive Gene-Environment Correlation may also affect children’s motivation and learning. This theory posits that the environment that parents chose to raise their children in is influenced by the parents own genes (Kim, 2015, p. 27); this may be one reason why children often follow in their parents occupational footsteps. For the adults in this group, their desire for personal growth and success in a creative endeavor aligns well with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory (Schunk, 2012, p. 352), and Covington’s motivation theory of Self-Worth (Schunk, 2012, p. 364).
The senior ensemble of the Guitar Society of Brantford is also made up of two cohorts of guitar enthusiasts who have been playing the guitar for many years, some of whom, at one point, had considered becoming professional musicians. The senior members now have careers in other professions, and for them the ensemble provides a way for them to reconnect with an important part of themselves that has remained dormant for many years. The other demographic consists of high school students aspiring to post-secondary music studies and students who are currently attending local College and University music programs. These students join the ensemble to get their reading chops together, to learn to play effectively in a chamber music setting, and to make friends with like-minded individuals of the same age. The intergenerational nature of this ensemble also creates an environment that draws out the best qualities in each group. To offer an example, a senior member recently began reminiscing about a master class in which he had played for David Russell thirty years ago—suddenly all the young players crowded around, and with full attention began asking questions. This type of simple interaction is consistent with intergenerational learning theories of Newman (2008) in that it provides the junior players with a connection to the past while giving the senior members an opportunity to assume a generative role within the community.
The third ensemble I teach is the Guitar Orchestra program at Breamar school where I’ve taught for the past ten years. Kids enter this program not knowing what to expect, yet they are enthusiastic, motivated, and eager to learn. My job is to keep that motivation level high; to do this I assign simple pieces and keep the focus on creating beautiful tone, playing with dynamic contrasts and maintaining tight ensemble alignment. While introducing students to music notation is important, this class draws significantly on pre-existing musical knowledge, the use of the ear, and as much peer modeling as is possible. With this approach, the students remain engaged, listen critically to one another, make suggestions for improvement, and work as a team. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, and Zimmerman’s theory of Scaffolding both play an integral role in this class with students often model correct fingers, playing position and chords for one another.
Guitar ensembles provide peer support and modeling for beginners (young and old); a place for aficionados to reconnect with their musical lives; a vehicle for young para-professionals to find their place within the immerging local guitar scene; and finally, the opportunity to develop social competency skills through intergenerational relationships. I think it is reasonable to suggest that the confidence gained through participation in guitar ensembles carries over into other areas such as academics, social skills and sports, making for stronger, more self-assured community members.
Everything I Know About Music I Learned in a Garage:
Self-Regulated Learning Within an Informal Music Paradigm
“Young popular musicians largely teach themselves to play music through processes of skill and knowledge acquisition that are both conscious and unconscious” (Green, 2002 p. 16). They acquire their musical apprenticeship not in the conservatory, but in their garage; not from an esteemed professor, but from ultimate guitar.com; not through reading sheet music, but from downloading free apps on their Smartphones. This kind of “informal learning” relies heavily on self-teaching within a social context. This, in turn, implies intrinsic motivation – doing something for the love of the thing, not because of any goal or reward one might receive. Intrinsic motivation is a natural starting point for any educational endeavor because it will sustain individuals throughout their lifetime, far after formal education is completed. In this blog, I discuss aspects of “informal learning” from the viewpoint of the six dimensions of self-regulated learning outlined by McPherson and Zimmerman’s (2002) social-cognitive theory. I use Jaffurs (2004) paper, “The impact of informal learning practices in the classroom, or how I learned to teach from a garage” to illustrate how these dimensions map onto a real world, informal music context.
Individuals involved in informal music making practices develop self-regulated learning skills that are necessary for success in virtually all other areas of life. McPherson and Zimmerman (2002) posit that there are six dimensions to self-regulated learning. The first dimension, Motive, deals with why individuals do what they do. This dimension describes, “how individuals come to value their learning, choose to continue learning, and persist with their musical practice” (p. 329). Informal music students display this characteristic by deliberately choosing to engage in a musical endeavor, by setting goals for that endeavor, and by pursuing those goals amidst many distractions and obstacles (chores, homework, etc.). At first, these choices are reinforced through the social interaction of band mates (peers), but in time, these individuals develop the capacity to choose for themselves what musical projects they will become involved with and what musical styles they will pursue. These choices may also be linked to the development of personal identity and the exercising of agency on the part of the individual (Jaffurs, 2004, p. 195). Most importantly, these abilities and capacities are generally developed in the absence of adult supervision; something that rarely happens with classical music students.
The second dimension of self-regulation theory, Method, deals with how an individual does what they do. At first, band mates’ deal with the complexities of task-oriented strategies, such as deciding how to rehearse without an adult, what tempos pieces should be taken at, and which sections of music are in need of rehearsal. Over time, these processes become internalized, resulting in members practicing their parts individually at home and arriving to the rehearsal with their parts prepared; this type of ‘self-instruction’ is essential for self-regulation.
The third dimension of ‘Time’ deals with the efficient planning and managing of this resource. Jaffurs states that the individuals in her study decided for themselves when to practice; the members planned and managed this aspect of rehearsal corporately.
The fourth dimension of ‘Behaviour’ deals with what is to be evaluated. In Jaffurs paper, it was clear that much “peer critique” was taking place. Participants exhibited this through overt forms of communication, such as yelling and arguing with one another, as well as more subtle forms, such as a simple glance or gesture. However crude these evaluations may seem to be, they nonetheless exhibit the beginnings of the metacognitive skills needed when assessing one’s own strengths and weaknesses.
The fifth dimension, ‘Physical Environment’, deals with where learning takes place, and the structure and organization of that environment. It is interesting that band rehearsals often take place in a garage - what more ‘informal’ space could there be? This environment is quiet, usually full of tools that may be required to fix band equipment, and is far enough away from parents to ensure that they do not interrupt the proceedings. Of particular importance, especially when bands are learning ‘cover songs’, is the use of CD’s to gain an aural representation of the piece being learned.
The final dimension of McPherson and Zimmerman’s theory of self-regulation, ‘Social Factors’, addresses who is involved in the learning process and how these individuals actively reach out for help from knowledgeable others. Jaffurs reported that the individuals in her study asked for advice from one other on three occasions. McPherson and Zimmerman have stated that “asking advise from another player in the ensemble indicates a readiness to seek information that can benefit one’s performance” (p. 339). These individuals will often access websites to search for chord charts and tablature of pieces that they are learning. Similarly, they will often go on YouTube to learn how other knowledgeable players perform a particular riff or chord progression.
What can music teachers learn from the way student engage in self-learning through these informal learning environments? From an education perspective, teachers are often viewed as being authoritarian - without regard for our student’s goals, vision and determinations. On the other hand, when classrooms are totally child-centred and driven they can resemble the old adage “the animals are running the farm.” As music educators, we must balance the needs and desires of our students with those of our own; like a trapeze artist, we must not error to one side or the other. In this way, we will harness the intrinsic motivational impulse often associated with informal music making, while at the same time supporting, guiding, and scaffolding students with our formal knowledge and approaches.
Tia DeNora and the Power of Music
In the beginning pages of Tia DeNora’s book, Music in Everyday Life (2000), the author outlines her “Human-Music Interaction” theory and her interactionist critique of the semiotics of music. In this blog, I seek to understand her thoughts, to elaborate upon them, and to draw connections with them to contemporary society. In conclusion I illustrate ways that DeNora’s theories have informed my own guitar teaching practice.
DeNora’s Human-Music Interactionist theory is at once social, practical, and ethological (p. 32). Her theory focuses on the social context in which musical interactions take place and how how those agents believe that music moves them to action. To illustrate her theory, DeNora draws on Paul Willis’s “motor-bike boys” from his classic ethnography Profane Culture (1978). These English working-class motorcyclists listened to the early rock 'n' roll of the late 1950s. They preferred music that did not leave them “sitting there mopping all night” (p. 7). Instead, they listened to fast records that invited them to get up and do something, such as dance or go for a motorcycle ride. For these individuals, the music they chose to listen to alluded to aspects of the world around them – speed, vitality, and movement. They aligned and synchronized themselves with the music through action; skating, dancing, and motorcycling. This interaction between listener and musical artifact - and the actions that issue forth from this interaction – is essential to DeNora understanding of the “human-music interaction” theory. Here, in that moment, the listener ascribes meaning to the music.
Nested within this prosaic “human-music interaction” theory is DeNora’s critique of musical semiotics. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. In semiotic theory the symbol is known as the signifier, and the object the signified. The word “car” for instance, is merely a symbol for “that thing” that moves an individual from one point to another. It is also important to note that the symbol bears no similarity to the object – it is arbitrary. Music is also thought to be a signifier; a symbol containing meaning. DeNora believes that the semiotic decoding of music, by writers such as McClary and Adorno, rests on epistemologically weak ground. That is because these authors imagine that their transcription - conversion between signifier (music) and signified (the written word) - is objective. However, individuals are prone to decoding symbols through the lens of their own lived experience. The result of this faulty premise is a mapping that is more autobiographical than universal; they mistakenly imagine that their interpretation would be the same as everyone else’s. In his instance, the voice of the semioticitian is given privilege over the interaction between the listener and their music.
A musical example may help to illustrate. We can easily asses if a musician successfully transcribes a piece of music from iconic symbol (e.g., musical notation) to sound. We look at the musical score and compare it to what was heard. The difference between the musical sight-reader and the semiotician is that there exists an agreement about what the signifier and the signified represent (musical notation and auditory representations) - there is no such agreement about the meaning of sound, however. DeNora argues for a more isomorphic musical mapping; one that is more corporeal, situated in action, less cognitive by nature. She advocates that the activities generated by musical agents be recognized as the signified, and not the written word. Her theory proposes that, not only can music act on individuals, but that individuals can, through their own agency, act on music. People structure the use of music to their own ends; they choose what music to listen to, where to listen to it, and for what purpose. We see this embodied in today’s society when people use iPods at the gym, drive to work with the radio on, as well as to get them out of a bad mood.
But what does this mean for music educators? DeNora herself does not address the question. We might begin by asking ourselves, “Do musicians interact with music in significantly different ways than non-musicians?” I think that they do - DeNora suggests the same. She highlights an important difference between musicians and non-musicians when she writes; “for those respondents over seventy and to those who were professionally trained musicians, the idea of music as “background” to nearly anything was antithetical. Music is something one either makes or listens to intently” (DeNora, p. 61). For DeNora, the function of music in society is utilitarian, pragmatic, domestic. For most professional musicians, however, (those who make their living from teaching and performing) music is more than that. They have a need to be involved in the creative music making process and to reveal themselves at a deep level. Musicians are people who become fascinated with certain sounds. They want to be able to reproduce those sounds. They gravitate toward a particular instrument and begin to practice. They have a desire to progress and to become better at what they do. To offer another analogy - most people understand the concept of money, however those who work with money as a profession, such as economists, understand money at a much higher level resolution than the layperson.
One way of integrating DeNoras ideas would be by envisioning the process of music education as a means to an end. This model would be student-centered; more egalitarian in nature. It would also be focused on practical music making within the community and how students use music in their everyday lives. This model would place significant challenges on the educator; requiring them to adjust their curriculum for each student. Some educators may rise to this challenge, while others may feel inadequate or overwhelmed, depending on the range of repertoire. The guitar, for instance, has a 500-year history that straddles two parallel universes – one in the pub, the other in the royal court. No other instrument has such a wide range of styles and genres. In England alone, the repertoire spans from the high Renaissance lute songs of John Dowland to the punk rock anthems of the Sex Pistols. A typical guitar student might come to a lesson intending to learn the latest Metallica tune from tablature, or how to improvise over blues and jazz progressions; they may want to “hum and strum” folk songs, learn flamenco dance rhythms, or even play a Bach fugue. To more closely align with Denora’s theory, I have changed pedagogical directions in my studio by focusing on the musical ethnography of my students. One student may request help learning “cover songs”, because they are in a rock band. I show how to transpose chords to another student because the choir they lead on Sunday morning cannot sing in the prescribed key. These two instances show why it is important to teach with human-music interaction in mind. Giving appropriate musical tools to student’s enables them to be more in control of their individual musical settings. These students are aware of the powers of music, and freely allow the music to control and shape elements of their everyday lives. They consciously engage in musical participation in a way that is self-directed and enhances their everyday lives - socially, emotionally, and musically.
DeNora, T. (2000) Music in everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
For more information please contact Patrick Feely phone: 519-756-2080, or e-mail:email@example.com