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Saturday, October 27, 2018


"In tackling the problem of music as a function of culture proper (...), we begin where biology and psychology leave off. In culture we find music as a given magnitude existing right from the moment culture itself existed, accompanying it and pervading it from the earliest beginnings right up to the phase of civilization we are now living in. We find music present everywhere as a well-defined quality of action which is different from 'ordinary' life. We can disregard the question of how far science has succeeded in reducing this quality to quantitative factors. In our opinion it has not. At all events it is precisely this quality, itself so characteristic of the form of life we call 'music', which matters. Music as a special form of activity, as a 'significant form' , as a social function - that is our subject. We shall not look for the natural impulses and habits conditioning music in general, but shall consider music in its manifold concrete forms as itself a social construction. We shall try to take music as man himself takes it: in its primary significance. (…) We shall (…) try to understand music as a cultural factor in life."

This is not me speaking. It is me paraphrasing a paragraph from the very beginning of Johan Huizinga's famous 1938 study Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play Element in Culture. To be sure, I deleted a couple of fragments which were not appropriate to my ends, and replaced 'play' by 'music'. And suddenly, Huizinga makes the point I try to make: music is not 'in reality' something else (an activity of the brain; a social activity; an aesthetic experience; or an whatever), music is itself. Yes, it is probably also brain activity; yes, it is often a very social activity; yes, it often is an aesthetic experience. But that is rather irrelevant, given the fact that music is music.

I wonder why that sometimes seems so hard to accept. We do not allow ourselves to be just the musical beings we are. We want to explain it as something else - maybe we find 'just music' to be too trivial, or maybe we feel that we need to convince others. So we soothe away our anxiety to lead a trivial life by claiming, for example, that music must have been important for the evolution of the human being (what a pity we weren't there). Or we claim that music is one of the most powerful socially binding media (which is true - just as the opposite is true when we consider the existence of e.g. neo-nazi rock). Or we hype up music by claiming - on too little evidence - that it is a unique braintraining activity, preferably defining 'the brain' purely in terms of grey matter and ignoring the fact that in spite of all their brain training professional musicians for some reason have not become the super-humans they should be on the basis of such claims.

What I would like: that, before we pimp up music by translating it into anything else, we "take music as man himself takes it: in its primary significance".

That's hard enough, as a project, and too little done nowadays.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

End of an Era - the Frisian folk music revival 1975-2018

In 1975, some Frisian musicians thought Frisian folk music deserved a revival, in line with the Irish, English, French and Dutch folk-music revival movement. For that reason, they created the group Irolt, which brought out its first album, the 'Gudrun Sêge' (the Gudrun Saga), in 1975. Because no such thing as Frisian folk music existed and therefor nothing could be revived, really, they invented it. The invention was successfull - they made six more albums until they disbanded in 1987.

In the meantime, folk music boomed in Friesland. In 1978, the Frisian Folk Festival 'Tsjoch' (literally: 'Cheers!') was organized for the first time. In 1979, the Association of Frisian Folk Musicians 'Tsjoch' saw the light. Groups and singers like Irolt, Doede Veeman, Roel Slofstra were the heroes of the time. Apart from the yearly Tsjoch festival, various towns had their own folk music festivals (Frjentsjip in Franker, for example).

I became attached to the Frisian folk revival movement quite early on. At the Tsjoch 3 festival, in 1980, I played for the first time with my band. I was 15, or maybe 16. Since then, I have been following it. Mostly from the sidelines, I must say - I moved out of Friesland when I was 18, and folk music has become one of the many musics I have been playing since then. Gamelan, the 'ud, tembang sunda, bluegrass and C&W, the shanty choir all have become part of my musical me in the past decades. But with my Frisian language band Butenom I kind of re-entered the still existing Tsjoch circles more than ten years ago, performing at various Tsjoch festivals and Tsjoch concerts.

And now, I feel, an end has come to all of that. Irolt, not active since 1987 apart from a couple of reunion concerts when their LPs were re-issued as CDs in 1994, did a new reunion tour in 2015, 40 years after the Gudrun Sêge had appeared. They  announced it would be the very very last time they would perform as Irolt. In 2017, the struggling Tsjoch festival - now called 'Tsjoch Nij' (Tsjoch New) - was organized for the last time. The renowned Tsjong evenings, organized by the Tsjoch Association for decades, closed its doors after a final evening in March 2018. And then, the Tsjoch Association was dissolved; its archive will be stored somewhere (I hope at Tresoar, the official Frisian archive), and its website has now ceased to exist.

Nearly 45 years of Frisian folk music revival. An arch beginning and ending with Irolt and one of its main members, Nanne Kalma, one of the most extraordinary musicians I happen to know. An arch I have been a witness of from the beginning to the end. I have been a member of the Tsjoch Association from nearly its very start until its finish; I have played at Tsjoch 3 in 1980 as well as at the final Tsjoch Nij festival in 2018; I heard Irolt perform live in the late 1970s and witnessed the final concert of the farewell tour in January 2016; I played at the final Tsjong evening in 2018.

And then it was over. I spoke with Nanne Kalma about it at the final Tsjong evening, where he, of course, was one of the central performers (although he would never describe it that way). I asked him if he was sad. He said there was no reason - things had been great, and life went on; the time of Tsjoch was over but music, including Frisian music, thrived, and new times need new forms. He was looking forward; on to the future!

And I feel the same. We had a great time, but we are still having a great time, and we will continue to have great times.

But at the same time, I hope this 45-year cycle of all those people active with music will be given the small monument it deserves. The Frisan folk music revival has been, right from its conception, an outright counter-movement in so many ways. (I was going to write a sentence now with all the things it countered against but I have decided not to write that sentence because it does not reflect the ethos of what I noticed.) But it was a counter-movement in a positive way. Many people were part of it because they were looking for wworthwhile alternatives: Frisian lyrics; an orientation towards open and friendly small-scale communities; an openness towards all forms of music making - anyone being able to play two chords on a guitar was welcome to perform, even at prime time on one of the festival stages. It was, to me, mostly a celebration of musical optimism and inclusiveness.

From an academic perspective, here is the unique opportunity to study a music revival movement from its very beginning to its very end. Many of the people involved, even from the beginning, are alive and kicking. Memories are fresh. Archival material still is accessible.

I have been doing a bit of academic work on it. I published a Dutch-language article on Irolt long ago, and hope to be able to rework it into an updated English-language version soon (including materials from a new interview with Nanne Kalma I hope to be able to do soon). I presented some papers at some international conferences on the topic. In he 1980s, I wrote a PhD proposal for a study on Frisian language music at the time - which was rejected, Some years ago, I went for a talk with the director of the academic institute the Fryske Akademy (the 'Frisian Academy', part of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences KNAW) to talk about a possibility to do research into Frisian music, but it was made very clear to me that the Fryske Akademy focused on different subjects and was not interested in studying Frisian music. That's about it - there has been some writing about the Frisian music scene, but that's more journalistic than academic.

No monument yet.

But I hope, at some point, I will find someone to take it on. To write the book on the Frisian folk music revival, 1975-2018. To show 'what the hell' (Geertz) has been going on these years. To show why it was so meaningful, back then until right now, for so many people. To show how it connected to context - to Frisian regional radio; to Frisan pop and rock; to the Frisian poets; to the upcoming shanty revival movement; to other 'regiolect music revivals'; et cetera. And how it will live on, in different forms, from 2018 onwards. Because the fact that the music institutions have died does, of course, not mean the music has died.

It's worth it.

So let's do it.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Brain pill

We - and I don't know exactly who these 'we' are - we worry about the state of music education in Dutch schools.

We say, in accordance with living in the age of measurement, that it has to become 'more': there has to be 'meer muziek in de klas' - 'more music in the classroom'.

Therefore we make an online 'Handbook for more music in the classroom' and give it as a subtitle 'THE work of reference for a sustainable place of music education at primary schools in your region'.

And if in THE reference work we have to answer the most important (and least answered) question in music education - the 'why?'-question - we write about 'measurable effects' of 'music' to childrens' development. And because we live in the age of measurement, we hire a neuropsychologist who explains that 'music' (and it never becomes exactly clear what that 'music' is, because we all know that, don't we?) is important for the development of kids' brains.

That 'music' contributes to cognitive development - children become better in maths and language. That it contributes to creativity - because the brain relaxes and then new ideas blossom. That it contributes to socialization and the development of personhoood - because empathic development is fostered. That it contributes to motor development - because even thinking of music leads to activity in the motor cortex.

The most noticeable thing: no word about music, really. Not a word about carefully thinking through what music does in human lives, and how - if at all - we might use that in education. Not a word about music education being good for musical development. And not a word about what musical development might be (because we all know that, don't we?). Not a word - apart from that it is good for the brain.

The even more noticeable thing: not a word about education, too. Not a word about 'the beautiful risk of education', about what may go wrong and about what may go right, about the miracle and the magic of teaching. Not a word about the so intricate interaction between a teacher and her pupils; about carefully and lovingly fostering the development of each individual child. About the uncertainties and the anxieties many teachers feel. Not a word - apart from that it is about more brains.

In a country where music becomes a brain pill and education the specialism of serving the brain pill so that it be swallowed, there is no true hope for music education.

Check THE reference work here (Dutch only): http://handboekvoor.meermuziekindeklas.nl/handboek-voor-meer-muziek-in-de-klas

Saturday, January 20, 2018


One of the joys of teaching is that, in the preparation as well as in the classes themselves, one is constantly challenged to explain oneself. So now that I have been teaching a class on ethnography to master students at Erasmus University Rotterdam those past months - just one session to go next week - I cannot feel but thankful for all the old insights it forced me to revisit and all the further and sometimes new directions it forced me to examine.

One of the things we - my dear students and me - read and spoke about right in the beginning of the course was the debate on realism. Can we access reality directly, unmediated by our interpretive frameworks which allow us to make sense of reality?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


I was at an international conference last week, about conservatoires. I was leading a workshop on audience engagement, or audience development, or similar phrases, visited by people mostly in a managerial position, I guess. The workshop boiled down to the idea that rather than thinking about audience engagement, we should probably think about the engaged musician; and rather than thinking about audience development, we should think about musician development - or even conservatoire development.

Nothing new or remarkable, really.

A colleague from a conservatoire far away then said: "I have given up the idea that I might change the conservatoire, or the orchestra, or any organization. If I can add anything at all on a small level, I am content."

I recognized what he said. And I remembered that, not so long ago, I had emphatically declared that I did not want to give workshops in this kind of context anymore, because although they were often received favorably they didn't seem to make much of a difference in the end.

Hearing my colleague from the far-away conservatoire, I realized that the sole fact of thinking that I might make a difference on a larger scale than making a small difference for a particular individual at a particular time can only be characterized as hubris. As if I am that important. As if it is not healthy that individuals are not able to exert such an influence. And as if we all not know the perils of individuals who want to be influential in a more major way.

And I realized that me being part of the conservatoire world - albeit reluctantly and in a 'one foot in, one foot out' manner - means that I have to make my contribution to the development of that world, although it is as limited as I suppose it is. Precisely because it is as limited as that, maybe.

Nothing new or remarkable, really. It is just simply that I apparently occasionally need a wise colleague from far away to remind me of the basics of a working life.

Sunday, October 1, 2017


Another new word: perturbation.

Of course I knew it existed. But one doesn't hear it very often.

I was in a small meeting in which one of the attendees, a very distinguished professor who is a specialist in the Complex Dynamic Systems Theory, at some point pointed out that one might look at anything - including for example a music lesson - as a Complex Dynamic System. All kinds of interactions are going on, and there is no way to think about what is going on in the simple terms of 'cause' and 'effect', of 'variables' which can be 'isolated'. If I understood him right - and if not, this little blog entry is completely my fault - he considered this as '19th century science'. Of which there is still a lot going on, of course.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


I am learning new words every day.

Recently I stumbled over he word 'neuromythology'. It is a word I, retrospectively, had been looking for for a long time. It also is a word that has been around for a considerable amount of time - at least a decade. It is just that we only met recently.

In music education, there is quite some neuromythology going on. Neurosicience, the mythology tells us, is proving that music enhances empathy, fosters 'cognition' or academic skills, et cetera. It has been proven. It is true. Very true. Music is great. Very great. We must include it in our schools. Must not wait any longer. MUST act now.

Et cetera.

Luckily, researchers are looking into these neuromythological claims. It turns out, I learnt recently in a paper presentation, that neuroscientific researchers in general are very careful with their claims about music. They normally don't confuse correlation with causation, nor the labaratoire with everyday life outside it. But then, journalists popularize their work, and music education advocates take up their popularizations, and neuromythology gradually is born.

Recently, researchers looked into the acceptance of neuromyths among music education students and among teachers in primary and secondary schools. One of the myths presented to them was "cognitive abilities, e.g. intelligence in children, can be effectively enhanced by music education". Over 70% of respondents judged this myth - wrongly - as scientifically substantiated.

(For those of my readers who also believe this is true, I refer to the conclusion of another article: a recent metastudy "... suggests [see how careful resarcers are?] that music training does not reliably enhance children and young adolescents' cognitive or academic skilss and that previous positive findings were probably due to confounding variables".)

What worries me in all this is not so much that we use neuromythology rather than neuroscientific findings in our justification of the importance of music education. What worries me most is that we, in music education, seem to think that the primary justification of the importance of music in education can be derived from neuroscience in the first place. Although of course neuroscientific findings may help to underpin one's thinking about the importance of music education, it is only one of the many sources of knowledge we need.

As long as we think that the question 'why music education?' can be answered by simply pointing to fMRI-scans, I think there is little hope for music education to reclaim its potential important place within schools.

There's no excuse for laziness.

Nina Düvel, Anna Wolf, Reinhard Kopiez - Neuromyths in music education. Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers and students. Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2017)

Giovanni Sala, Fernand Gobet - When the music's over. Does music skill transfer to children's and young adolescents' cognitive and academic skills? A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review 20 (2017)