by Rachael Litt
It is true that our experiences shape the way we view the world. I have participated in competitive choirs in southwestern Ontario throughout my childhood and adolescent years. My conductors’ goal had always been for the performance to be exquisite so that we placed in the finals of a competition. Similarly, I have participated in secondary school vocal classes where one is evaluated on their final performance. In these classes, there was little regard for the effort that went into the music making process that lead to the final performance.
My experience with music education has lead me to believe that the final product of music making is what matters most, and the process one takes to get to the final product is irrelevant. The issue with this statement is that it is rooted in western traditions, therefore, excluding many other cultures and genres of music that do not see the final product as the ‘be all, end all.’ For instance, the idea of mastery is alien to many people, from the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri forest of central Africa to jazz and rock improvisational genres of western society. As Small points out in his book Music, Society, Education (1997), “in our culture there is an unspoken assumption made when a child starts to learn an instrument that he must practice hard, do his scales and exercises, and some day, perhaps, he will be able to play it” (p. 167). However, at what stage in skill development can a person be convinced that they can create music or play an instrument? The impression that you must master an instrument before really being able to ‘play it’ is a product of western cultures’ emphasis on producers of commodities. Art is a commodity whose production is placed firmly in the hands of the expert professionals (Small, 1997). These professionals have total control, making amateurs feel inferior. Therefore, the only way for students to feel as though they can make music that is truly ‘good’ is to become a master of their instrument.
I feel this creates problems in the realms of music education because students come to believe that the product-oriented view is the only way to create valid and good music. In order to free students from the limitations of western tradition, teachers should move their focus from the product of the musical work (playing a piece to perfection) to the process of creating music. This will foster creativity, enhance self-esteem, and increase accessibility of music for all students. There should be no destination, only exploration!
As teachers, we must acknowledge the creative power of young minds. In this way, teachers should place creativity at the center of their lessons (Small, 1997). Instead of focusing on the final product, we need to focus on the enjoyable process that a student undergoes when creating music.
In the recent past, there have been several initiatives that have shifted the focus of music education to the process of creative music making. Lucy Green’s work on informal learning and her musical futures project and Walter Thompson’s soundpainting are just two examples.
Green’s concept of informal learning and her musical futures project (2002) emphasizes the process of music making by placing the instruments in the hands of the students from the very beginning. Students are encouraged to listen and copy recordings and exchange knowledge and skills with peers. Students no longer feel they must master an instrument – along with all the theoretical and historical background – before truly being able to play. O’Neill and Bespflug (2011) explored the use of Green’s musical futures project in a Grade 7 band class in British Columbia. They discovered that this learning process allows for increased engagement in music learning, increased expressiveness and naturalness of playing, and high levels of autonomy. One student participant explained that “for me it was easier and more fun because you can bend the rules a bit in the sense that not every note has to [be] exactly right” (p. 27). In this way, the focus is shifted from the product of music making to the process.
An introduction video to the Musical Futures: Just Play approach for primary teachers, June 2015
Like musical futures, in my own private voice and piano lessons I have tried to give my students more freedom in their choice of repertoire. By giving students the freedom to choose music that they want to learn, it increases motivation in the lessons. Also, I have noticed that my students have a good idea of what they want their pieces to sound like; therefore, I choose to act as a coach guiding my students, instead of an authoritative figure who tells them exactly what sound to produce. In this way, the atmosphere in the private lessons has changed to a more relaxed and interactive environment as we focus on the creative music making process.
Likewise, Thompson has invented the universal live composing sign language called soundpainting. The soundpainter (composer) creates music by utilizing gestures to mold and shape an ensemble’s sound in real time. There are elements of unpredictability as the soundpainter does not always know the sound that he/she will receive from the ensemble. This ability to compose with what happens in the moment places the emphasis on the process of music making, instead of the outcome of the composition.
A Soundpainting by Walter Thompson, performed by the Walter Thompson Orchestra, November 2007.
As educators, I believe we must ask ourselves: what is the goal of music education, anyway? If the goal of music in schools is to create little musical virtuosos, then product-oriented music education may be a valid strategy. However, as we have seen, the product-oriented approach to music education gets in the way of playing and experiencing the process of music making, while excluding many other musics of non-western cultures. Therefore, why do we teach this way?
Green, L. (2002). How popular musicians learn: A way ahead for music education. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Medway youth choir (2015). Medway choir performance. Medway Music Association. Retrieved from https://www.medwaymusicassociation.co.uk/medway-youth-choir
O’Neill, S. & Bespflug, K. (2001). Musical futures comes to Canada: Engaging students in real-world music learning. Canadian Music Educator, 53(2), pp. 25-27.
Small, C. (1997). Music, society, education. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.