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Sunday, November 8, 2015

On the School Orchestra

The school orchestra has become fashionable lately in Dutch primary education. A thorough genealogy of the resurrection has still to be written, but elements that would figure in such a genealogy would be: the impetus of the 'Jedem kind ein Instrument'-initiative in Germany (which would require a genealogy of its own, of course); the dwindling municipal music schools in the Netherlands who see a new market here, a market in which their instrumental teachers may earn a living teaching groups of children a classical music instrument; the also dwindling amateur brass orchestras in the Netherlands, who have trouble surviving and see new possibilities of recruiting members; policy makers in music education who seek for new justifications of music education and in school orchestras find a means to combine arguments about the benefits of the beautiful, the ad nauseam reported beneficial effects of playing an instrument on school achievements and that 21st-century fetish 'the brain', and the supposed sociability of playing in an orchestra as an antidote to our so individualized times; and also the tendency of primary school teachers to think about themselves as 'unmusical' and that therefor the best thing to do is to give music education away to external 'specialists' such as instrumental teachers and conductors.

My dear reader, you will understand that if I would write such a genealogy it would be a critical one. It should be a critical one, not because criticism is my hobby or because I hate orchestras (which I don't). It should be critical for more important reasons; for example, because the school orchestra revival is so much carried by the traditional hegemonic powers of our music society (music schools, symphony and brass orchestras, conservatoires - all centering around the Eurocentric classical music model) that one should suspiciously and earnestly investigate whether school orchestras are really the democratizing and beneficial means to humanizing pedagogical ends, or simply neo-colonial instruments of power.

Strong words, I know; strongly influenced by my current reading of Geoffrey Baker's recent critical ethnography of Venezuela's youth orchestra movement 'El Sistema'. A book worth reading, if only as an antidote to the largely uncritical reception of 'El Sistema' internationally (although the tide is turning) as well as an introduction to more critical research on the European-style orchestra.

But what I would like to write about here is just a small anecdote I heard some time ago from an acquaintance. At the school of her kids, since last year there is a school orchestra. Or: part of it. The model is simple: pupils from the 4th and 5th grade (approximately 7-9 years old) may choose an instrument they want to play. They receive an instrument they can take home, get weekly group lessons during regular school time, have to practice at home, there will be some general rehearsals on a Saturday, and a final presentation. I guess out of practical reason, the project is divided over several schools; in each school a limited range of instruments is offered, but together they make up for a nice orchestra.

And of course that is where trouble begins. Not for the son of my acquaintance, I must say: he plays the saxophone, and the saxophone is on offer on his school, together with the flute and the clarinet, so we only have to hope that the sax teacher will be able to take into account different levels of playing in her sax group teaching. But there are at least ten other pupils already playing an instrument, my acquaintance tells me: guitar, piano, cello, violin, accordion - and there might be a drummer, and a singer. What to do with these kids? For the time being, the answer of the organizers (which is a separate organization which offers this to the schools as a service) is simple: they ignore it and those kids should also choose between the flute, the sax or the clarinet.

Of course some of the parents then start asking questions to the school. Why can children not participate with the instrument they play and are motivated for? What if  kids have to divide their practice time over two instruments at home (which, by the way, is not per se a problem; I personally play a dozen of instruments, and it is doable; although of course some of my fellow musicians might say that my playing is on such a level that I had better specialized on only one) ? What - as one mother put it to my acquaintance - if this leads to the need of her convincing the child it really must also practice on the instrument for which the parents pay over 500 euros per year to have tuition in the municipal music school, simply because the kid may feel the social pressure to practice on the instrument it has to perform with in her group of peers?

Then other questions come in: for example, four rehearsals are planned on Saturday afternoons. The organization stresses it cannot force pupils to be there but it asks for cooperation - but I know by experience and from many stories from other parents how hard it is to run a family without having to take into account activities organized by the school outside regular school times. Last year we saw it with a fundraising campaign for third world children in our own school - the school gave room for an outside organization to do some quite aggressive emotionalized fundraising through working with school children towards a musical, in school time but also in rehearsals and presentations outside school time, thus putting pressure on us parents to phone music teachers and football trainers to tell them our kid could not come because of the fundraising musical in question. (I am happy to add here - just to stress that we value our school enormously, and that we understand that that valueing has to include elements one personally is less enthusiastic about - that the school itself afterwards also seemed to be a bit taken aback by this unforeseen aggression leading to the colonization of the life world by the system world (Habermas, indeed)).

What I would like to suggest here is not that working with school orchestras is a bad idea. What I suggest is that it is not a straightforward thing to transplant a traditional orchestra to a school setting. As with all education, some thorough thinking should be involved. Thinking about questions such as: what exactly are we teaching here, and why? I encounter too little of this thinking. What I see is that we adopt an existing, centuries-old discourse about the benefits of the orchestra and then attach that in a superficial way to current pedagogical concerns. But we need broader questions if we want to make this into a success. If we don't begin to ask and answer such questions I am convinced the school orchestra will end up in the same stories adults nowadays tell about having to learn to play the recorder in primary school, something that once was just as fashionable as the school orchestra seems to become nowadays.

So some questions:
- is it truly the case that learning to play an instrument should be one of the goals of general music education in primary schools, or is it simply an idea that rests on an unjustified and culturally biased privileging of the model of the instrumental performance as the essence of musicality in our culture?
- may there be problems lurking behind the positioning of the model of the European orchestra as a strong educational means, a model which may alternatively be described as an archetypical western organizational form based on autocratic leadership and de-individualized positioning of individuals?
- may one of the reasons that music education in our country in general holds such low esteem be the fact that it is uncommon to really take into account the existing individual ways of 'musicking' amongst our pupils, rather imposing predescribed 'forms of truly musical musicking' on our children? Or in other words: is education not about taking into account and start from the life world of the individual pupil rather than imposing models derived from the life worlds of other, educationally more powerful individuals?

Just to make the point clear: I imagine a kid who is intensely interested in DJ-ing. He does not play an instrument and does not want it; he does not know staff notation and is not interested in it; he does not want to to play in an orchestra or a band and is in essence not interested in those 'social' forms of music performance; the only sounds he uses are synthetic - there may be a complete musical life in sight for him without ever touching what we define as a 'musical instrument' or co-operating with someone who does.

I am not saying that he should not get the chance to at least become acquainted with what playing a traditional instrument in an ensemble may bring him, if only to give him more options for choice than his actual surroundings would give him - that is one of the great values of receiving education. All I am saying is that it should not be straigthforward that we offer all our kids an intensive introduction into playing in a traditional orchestral setting and not offer them the same introduction into what it means being musical in a highly individualized and mediated form such as DJ-ing.

The school orchestra is not 'the' solution. It is one of them; and privileging it in terms of allotting educational time, funding and press coverage over other solutions is a question of ideology rather than of sound pedagogical thinking.

Geoffrey Baker. El Sistema; Orchestrating Venezuela's Youth. Oxford University Press, 2014.

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