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Monday, March 18, 2013

The Tyranny of Playing an Instrument

Christopher Small once invented - or at least reinvented - the word 'musicking' to indicate musical behavior,  stressing the fact that music is not so much a thing but rather an activity. A good idea.

However, at the same time he implicitly stressed that some sorts of musical behavior - some sorts of musicking - are more musical than others. He tied the word musicking to the performance as the musical situation in optima forma: musicking is playing; or listening to people playing; or helping people to play, or to listen to playing. A hierarchy of musicking thus is present in his description of musicking.

This hierarchy however is not at all 'logical' or 'evident'. It is a choice. A choice ubiquitous in western music culture, and maybe in all music cultures - but a choice, still. "It could have been otherwise", Anthony Giddens whispers in our ears.

Sometimes it is good to leave the hierarchical ideas of our culture behind for a while. Let's suppose, just for the sake of the argument, that musicking is any behavior in which music (in its broadest sense) plays a role; and that  all sorts of musicking may be equally meaningful to the musickers in question. There is no hierarchy between playing on stage, singing in the shower, listening, or collecting 1950s Hawaii-music records,

And let us suppose, again just for the argument's sake, that music education is about helping pupils to develop the forms of musicking that fits them best, that are most meaningful to them.

For some it may be playing; but not necessarily for everyone. Seen from that perspective, the stress in music teacher training on the 'artistry' of the music teacher is not fundamental but rather a cultural bias to be overcome. A cultural bias connected to the idea that the summum of musicking is playing an instrument loud, fast and high (and beautiful, yes yes) on a stage in front of an audience. A cultural bias connected to the fact that many music teachers are trained within conservatoires, the place where 'musicking' is synonym with 'playing an instrument as a professional'. And a cultural bias connected to the fact that the ideals of music teaching reflect the favorite forms of musicking of the music teachers: they are playing an instrument and loving it, so everybody has to play an instrument and love it.

From that perspective the recently revised ideals of the Mayday Group - a sympathetic international bunch of music teachers aiming at reforming music education - remain unsatisfactory. "Formal education in music must help students become independent music makers who are culturally adaptive and critically reflective", the Mayday Group writes.

Music makers?


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