How convention prevents us from becoming better teachers
This week I had a lively and challenging discussion about race in music education with a dear friend and colleague. We're both white, middle-class educators who have been brought up so deep in the framework of Western Art music that we're in the tiny, obscure corner of the musical map called 'band music'.
After that discussion, he sent me to this article, about how we conceptualise race within music education. I started digging through the publishers, The May Day Group, and their publication "Action Criticism and Theory in Music Education". Their ideals sound awesome - make our music teaching more culturally relevant, understand our place within the bigger picture, learn from other traditions.
I wanted to know more. It sounded exciting.
But the second I started clicking on their open-access (bravo for that) journal I slumped in my chair. What I found was a problem that extends far beyond this publication across the entire landscape of musical research.
Even to me, with more years of university education than I care to count, these articles are unreadable. Completely impenetrable. They may as well be written in another language. If we were playing bingo for 4+ syllable words these authors would be winners, baby.
I've read my share of academic papers and journal articles. And the more I read, the more I think: WHAT IS THE POINT OF THESE CONVENTIONS?
All this effort, all this emotional labour, all this care into the learning and research - and for what? Who is going to read this? Who is going to wade through the jargon soup, to dig up something, wash off the meaningless theory and actually find something they can use in their teaching?
I'm not intellectually lazy. Yet even I skipped to the conclusions, hoping to find something relatable, meaningful, that I could actually apply. Still then, I had to push through paragraphs of gnarly language to maybe uncover a small gem.
The deep irony here is that the awesome people of MayDay (and I don't doubt they're awesome) are committed to being: "critically reflexive towards concepts of music pedagogy and curriculum as well as those practices represented in local, national, and global paradigms in education".
Yet the way they present their criticism? The same way it's always been done. That isn't accessible, or readable by anyone without an armful of degrees.
To be clear, this is by no means just a problem of this journal. It's systemic. The ACT Journal itself is in fact really interesting and forward thinking, challenging many conventions of traditional western music education.
It's not the ideas that are the problem, it's the packaging.
The packaging that renders good work useless.
And voices that don't use that packaging - they're often not heard, respected or valued. (Usually the only place you find real voices is in quotes from study participants.)
And so the work is lost.
How many hundreds of passionate educators out there are slaving away in the university system, wrestling to bury the true value of their work in the conventions thrust upon them? How many Masters, PhD theses and journal articles have great stuff to say that no one is ever going to hear, much less apply, because they can't get through the noise surrounding the message?
(Don't even get me started on the thousands of theses, research topics and papers that aren't even about anything useful to others. So much human endeavour is wasted on research that doesn't serve or help anyone. Why are students allowed to spend years writing about the use of the mute in the french horn in the 1800s? Pointless research is a whole different topic)
How is this work translated into the real world? Who is communicating this to people on the ground, in the classrooms and rehearsal rooms (and on Zoom) who are actually teaching and making art and want to be better?
Surely this should be mandatory for all people in universities producing evidence-based, well-rounded, critical thinking.
Don't write an abstract. Write a summary, in plain language, FOR the people you're talking about.
Writing about teaching? Give me the dot point, dummies guide version of what I need to know and how I can apply it. I'm not saying the detail isn't important - but don't drown us with it. Write it, then send it out into those communities - the Facebook groups, the professional associations.
Change can't happen till it gets off the page.
PS. Someone who is doing a GREAT job of this in the world of performance is The Bulletproof Musician - thanks for your work, Noa.
A simple approach to instantly approach every piece with more musicianship, storytelling and emotion - for us, and our ensembles!
Being told to play louder or softer is okay. Being told why is better.
The path to musical nirvana starts with a single question. And the path to musical hell starts with telling the ensemble what to do.