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The place where I will regularly post thoughts and comments on any aspect of music.
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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)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

On Participatory Presenting II

I like presenting research in front of groups of people. Whether it is a guest lecture at a university, a presentation at a conference, a talk for a local women's society, a class at a school - it is always nice to do.

Basically I work with two formats: either the 'reading of a paper' (so literally reading; a form I had to get used to but I like more and more because it allowes you to be very precise in your words and your phrasing) or the 'guided talk' where the guidance comes from either some speaking notes or a power point which guides you through your message - and leaves room for some extemporality.

But recently I realize that I am more and more attracted to forms of what I call 'participatory presenting'.  I wrote about one form of it before - see my blog on working with music workshop leader Hannah Conway - and now have another, maybe even more 'participatory' example I would like to share.

Monday, May 15, 2017

On Schizophonia

I went to see the gipsy. Or: I went to hear a Nobel prize winner sing. When I announced it on Facebook, one of my FB-friends asked me which one. I answered that I was not sure how recent Groningen-laureate Ben Feringa sings but that in this case I would go to listen to Bob Dylan.

The concert was great. Dylan sang a collection of his own songs, interspersed with songs from the American Songbook. Maybe he did it for Nobel purposes, to make clear why it is completely justified that he did receive the Nobel prize for his lyrics, rather than the writers of the American Songbook lyrics. The difference between the two is obvious and couldn't be greater. Day and night.

One of the other great things of Dylan's concert was that he is still, at 70+, able to infuriate people during a concert. A guy right behind me took pride in boo-ing every American Songbook song and every piano note Dylan hit. And honestly: I am not a fan of his American Songbook crooning, and neither do I think he is a great pianist. But for me, it is the fascinating play of foreground/background that counts.