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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Erik Scherder, Mischa Spel, and why the New Lobby for Music Education desperately needs some opposition

Interesting times for music education in the Netherlands. A New Lobby for Music Education seems to be forming. It consists of journalists, researchers, opinion leaders, performing musicians, culture hotshots. They (claim they) base themselves on research showing why music is important in education. And they equate 'music' with 'playing an instrument', and 'music education' with 'learning to play an instrument'.

A possible - and rather black - interpretation of this New Lobby could be the one in which the argument runs thus: the guild of professional performing musicians, traditionally mainly classical musicians but today also jazz and even pop, were mainly found in government-sponsored orchestras and ensembles, they performed on government-sponsored stages and taught music lessons in government-sponsored music schools. Now that the gusto in governmental circles to keep on sponsoring seems to diminish, professional performing musicians and the enormous fringe of organisational professionals around them look into other governemnt-sponsored areas where they might work, and have cast their eye on schools. Hence the attention for the benefits of 'music' (read: playing an instrument) for 'the brain', 'creativity', and 'social skills' (all very important in educational discourse these days). And hence the call for money for music education, and for specialists in the classroom; a call with the mixed origins of wanting the best for our kids and wanting to secure work for professional musicians.

Such an interpretation asks for a sharp look into discourse; for a precise look on which actors act when and where, and an equally precise analysis of power relations; for a Foucauldian view on language use; for critical ethnography; and for an armor and an iron umbrella for the persons doing it because the (un)popularity of their analyses in the decision-making cultural and political circles is predictable (although I must say that when I presented a snippet of such an interpretation recently in a German conference on culture education, I met mostly understanding and confirmation; but then again, most present were researchers, not musicians or politicians).

But I would here like to take a quick look at two recent pleas in favor of music education. One is by the now nationally famous neuro-psychologist professor Erik Scherder. In a recent interview in the national newspaper Parool (which was happily embraced by the music education world), he argues that music - and especially music making - is good for empathy because the orbitofrontal bridging in the corpus callosum is stronger in musicians. Or something like that; I am not a neuropsychologist and have no intention whatsoever to become one in this life. The journalist concludes that "music making is life advancing in all imaginable manners" and therefore, the interview states, there must be much more music in education.

Two things come to my mind here. One: if it is true that playing an instrument enhances empathy, one would expect that professional musicians are, at the same time, professional empathicians. I am not aware if any psychological research has be done in this domain - I should check - but what I can share with you is that my 30+ years of experience of working in all kinds of settings in which professional musicians are (very) present has not led me to suppose that professional musicians are more empathic than the average Dutch person. At all. The best I could say is that some - but not all - musicians are able to be empathic in their playing; but transfer to other domains should be proven first, and the more interesting hypothesis might be that the social functioning of professional musicking in the Netherlands here and now in most cases stands in the way of empathy rather than fostering it.

Two: the reasoning in neuro-psychological circles embracing music education and in music education circles embracing neuro-psychology is heavily relying on the evidence-based model; on the idea that music may be an 'intervention', that you can show a difference by pre- and post-tests, preferably, I guess, in randomized controlled trials. Music is a pill. Apart from the question whether the insane complexity of human social life can ever be caught in terms of interventions in cause-and-effect-chains, I wonder if the pill-idea is really helpful when thinking about playing an instrument. A pill is swallowed once a day, or 12 times a day if necessary; it requires mostly little social or emotional investment apart from the ability to keep to a strict schedule of pill-taking and to cope with the idea of pill-taking. Playing an instrument is a different kind of pill; a pill requiring an investment of much more time and energy, but above all: a pill that is loaded with huge emotional and social meanings. It is precisely the reason why so many people who play an instrument are so adamant about it, and why the 90 percent of the population who do not actively play an instrument or sing (or at least, who say so; one should consider such figures coming from large-scale survey research at best as rough indications about the realities of everyday life) are so hard to convince to start or maintain doing it.

If it would be the case that one could take one pill a day to become a more empathic person or keep one's brain in a fitter state and thus keep the doctor or pscho-therapist away, many people would take the pill (though even then not all, if only because some people rightfully would ask: "Whose empathy? Whose brain fitness? May I - rather than the State - please remain the owner of my own life?"). But playing an instrument is quite something else, and I would suggest here that the idea that fostering playing an instrument through investing in music education in school because of brain benefits unwisely ignores the emotional an social meanings of playing an instrument in our society; it ignores the fact that music is musicking, and playing an instrument is one of the many forms of musicking. It is, and never will be, a neutral pill, nor is it an individual act; it is intensely social behaviour from the beginning to the end.

Then there is Mischa Spel. She writes about classical music for another highly respected national journal, NRC Handelsblad. And she argued currently that the current efforts to foster music education in schools are laudable but not enough to learn as many children as possible in a serious way to learn to play an instrument. So she calls for a sort of national action plan for all children from 4-18, including the investment of money from the Ministry of Social Affairs in youth orchestras.

Again, a couple of things spring to mind. One: the fact that Spel comes from the classical music scene - the dominant, or even hegemonic music scene in formalized music life in the Netherlands - and writes about music education in general may be considered as another impulse to carefully look into the current New Lobby for Music Education from a political, discourse-based, power-relation angle (this is not an ad hominem, I must stress, but rather a necessary attempt to consider actors in the music education world - including journalists and, of course, researchers - not as neutral and unworldly abstractions but as actors with a habitus and a position in a field, to use some Bourdieusian terms). Two: the easiness with which the goal of music education in primary and secondary schools is formulated as learning to play an instrument is a product of hegemonic discourse rather than a straightforward obviousness. Three: the plea to invest money in youth orchestras and the 'Leerorkest' (a recent Venezuelan El Sistema-derived system of school youth orchestras) might benifit from some critical thinking rather than characterising them solely as 'sympathetic initiatives' (check my blog entry about Baker's critical ethnography for some more thoughts). Four: the contention that 'music education in secondary schools is still in its infancy' seems a gross misapprehension by an outsider - yes, things might be better there but the statement completely ignores the fantastic work of many secondary school music teachers and the huge tradition their work stands in.

All this leads eventually to my feeling that the fact that the importance of music is hotly debated at a national level these days is great; but that the debate currently is rather unreflective and one-sided, and could gain in strenght when other voices are heard than the usuals suspects claiming that music education is, in essence, a pill miraculousy solving a problem if enough people swallow it. And - as stated before - what I miss especially is input from the music educators themselves. Things are mainly said about them and for them - but too little by them.


  1. Hi Evert,

    I've read your article with much interest and hopefully in an open minded state. I'm a piano teacher by profession and cultural entrepeneur, mainly online. My main focus in daily life is to design ways to create the maximum impact of music teaching on students. My area of expertise so to say, is instrumental lessons within private practices and music schools.

    I too look at this national (and international) debate on the function and purpose of music education for all children. I can mostly agree with your reasoning on the strong bias that’s come to the table by the music educational lobby. Music professionals are struggling and since the cabinet Rutte I has cut a huge part of cultural subsidies (due to the stronghold of Wilders and his PVV) the music sector has been under a huge amount of stress. However, this specificly struck the music performers, not the educational area.
    In the domain of music education there’s been a long tradition of decay, starting with the poor level of music making at the PABO (teachers academy for primary schools in NL) as is the case with sports… Besides that, music schools, mostly funded by city councils have had series of budget cuts which has had its effect on the level of education. In terms of money: a music school isn’t competitive anymore when it comes to tuition fees. If you want private lessons in a music school, even with this institute being subsidised, a private music practice will be cheaper (on average 10%-20%).

    Regarding music schools I’d argue that they should focus on group activities and lessons, general music education, interdisciplinary forms of art and being a portal with referral and consulting tasks for local primary and highschools. This latest setup has already been implemented in many cities, at least in the Randstad. Why not leave purely instrumental education to independant instrumental teaching professionals? They’re already quite well organised and know how to interact, keep the level of teaching high, et cetera. I wouldn’t necessarily argue for much governmental intervention in this matter. There’re small subsidies for families well below the average family income (modaal)

    Anyway, back to the case presented by Misha Spel: we could discuss the reasoning by Erik Scherder but we’re both not adequately equiped to dive into the neuro specifics…

  2. However, as a music teacher having discussed the effects of private one on one music lessons with many of my colleagues, I’d like to state the following:
    During thousands of encounters with music students from all ages, I’ve seen the effect of learning music. I highlight learning because I feel the perception of music itself is highly subjective and is very difficult to generalise and uniform it so it can be absorbed in group processes. It’s the learning of music that enables many many parallels between the actual playing of an instrument and subjects/qualities in life such as reasoning, analysing, expressing your thoughts and emotions verbally and in writing, enabling problem-solving attitudes, learning to give feedback, mastering the technique of breaking down problems in smaller chuncks that are comprehensible. I could go on but I think you get where I’m going for:

    All these qualities and subjects are essential in becoming a part of a society that desperately needs organised thinking processes, clear reasoning (rhetorics in the classical sense) and reflectiveness. This has nothing to do with the emotional attachment to music.
    Another huge benefit for learning an instrument OR simply getting in touch with music making on any level, is the fact that it creates affinity with (classical) music in all its forms and shapes. It’s these early encounters that make future audiences for concert halls and other venues. Audiences that in some areas of art that are in desperate need for viewers. Some forms of art or in general entertainment are an “acquired taste” or ask for more focus from the audience. They’re doomed to be ignored and forgotten when society isn’t educated in such principles. It’s about becoming sensitive (again) for multiple layers of thinking and perceiving, audible, visible, or any other way of perception for that manner.

    So instead of trying to “reinvent the wheel” the industry’s focus should be on getting clear goals fort he role of music education in our society. The context and history should be clear and with regard to what other countries, especially in Scandinavia and Germany have established in recent years. Simply quoting things like (disproven) Mozart effects is not very helpful. Getting clear on attributions to music and our society is.

    Alexander Buskermolen
    Lexo Music Productions & www.childrenscorner.nl

  3. Alexander, thank you. I am very late in replying, my apologies for that. I feel with your questioning of what the exact roles of the municipal music school may be; I kind of support your ideas, and feel that many of them need to think more fundamental then they do at present. I want however also to mention that the fact that music schools are now just as expensive as private tuition is also due to the fact that private music lessons, due to the way that market works, are impossibly cheap - compare the fee for an instrumental music lesson to the fee you pay when you have your car repaired and you'll know what I mean.

    The second part of your reaction is interesting. I see, of course, that playing an instrument is a complex skill, and that people embarking on that journey will indeed learn lots of things (which they may also learn by other activities, by the way - the generic effects of music making are in no way unique to music making; the musical skills are, of course). I also see that listening concentrated to classical music may lead to specific skills which may be worthwhile (but again, not unique to listening to classical music). But I think all these kind of arguments miss the general point of music: that the reason that people like music is because music is extremely meaningful to them in many different ways, and that using music education as a vehicle to foster all kinds of generic skills ('music as a pill') does not take the individual meaningfulness of music in account and therefore runs the risk of staying irrelevant for many of the individuals concerned.

    And one thing I am not impressed with: the idea that music education should provide struggling music institutions with an audience. To say some strong words: as long as the institutionalization of our musical world keeps reproducing the existing power relations, I do not consider that a task of music education, which should be much more democratizing. If orchestras need more audience, let them take care of that; let them become aware of the audience they want to attract and let them try to make out how they can becoe meaningful to them. It's not so difficult, the only thing you need to do is become interested in people who differ from you. And let music education show their pupils that witnessing live orchestral music is one of the thousand of fantastic possibilities to lead a meaningful musical life; and let music education also, and in an equal amount, show the other 999 possibilities.