(Alternate title: Making the case for the “progressive ensemble”.)
The April 2011 MENC “Question of the Month” asks:
On average, what percentage of your total music curriculum incorporates the study and/or performance of music other than traditional Western classical music? (Emphasis added.)
Did you catch that? There is something very striking in the wording. The poll would have been just as clear if “traditional” was simply omitted:
On average, what percentage of your total music curriculum incorporates the study and/or performance of music other than Western classical music?
Okay. I get it. Music education in the United States traditionally utilizes only instruments and genres that would be considered “Western classical.” But, what impact does the categorization of classical music as “traditional” have on our profession?
I don’t want to be accused of picking on MENC, the traditional/non-traditional distinction is one that I hear constantly in everyday interactions with music teachers. In fact, I recently wrote a column for the Illinois Music Educators Association where I make five references to the “traditional ensemble”. Having said that (and taking my share of the responsibility), I find the categorization of band, choir, and orchestra as “traditional” music to be problematic for two reasons: it assumes (and re-writes) a lot about the musical tradition of the United States and it relegates the music that a vast majority of Americans listen to and create as “non-traditional” - a hegemonic practice designed to add status to “Western classical” music.
Before we can talk specifically about “traditional,” we have to take a moment to talk about how language is used.
(Allow me to make my case below the break.)
What’s in a word?
Language isn’t just about communicating feelings and ideas, it’s also about mobilizing resources and creating outcomes. People interested in communication often speak about how we use language as a way to accomplish tasks - to do things. For example, if I want to secure a loan, I will deliberately use language in a way that will make someone feel comfortable lending me money. In order for me to do this successfully, I have to read and understand the culture correctly and make assumptions about how specific language might portray me. You can see this phenomenon play out in any number of areas from job interviews (“here’s why you should hire me”) to online dating questionnaires (“here’s why you should date me”).
Additionally, language is often used to help identify and establish hierarchical relationships. This is most easily seen through the way that we use language (especially pronouns) to help create groups. In its most basic form, if you and I are talking and I want to show that we are part of the same group (sharing the same ideas, culture, or outlook), I might use the phrase, “our ideas.” If I want to show that we hold different ideas about the world, then I would say, “your ideas” and “my ideas.”
To use an example familiar to many teachers, at a staff meeting, a principal might attempt to create a sense of community and cooperation by using the phrase, “our work,” instead of “my work” or “your work” - even when the principal’s job looks very different from that of a classroom teacher. Obviously, this example is layered with a wide variety of power dynamics. Often times, teachers form their own groups through language that are resistant to many of the ideas of the administration or policy makers - which leads the faculty to say things like, “those in power”. So, you can see how language CAN be utilized to develop groupings and categories: us versus them, cool versus lame, and… traditional versus non-traditional.
Your tradition is (…wait for it…) your tradition.
As I write this, I find it difficult to not write the phrase, “traditional large ensembles,” which only points to how prevalent the term is. This helps leads me to my next point:
While it is true that music education in America has traditionally centered around the ensemble for much of the last century, it has been a long time since our large ensembles reflected anything closely related to the American musical tradition - if it ever did. This is an important distinction.
Often times, we like to think that there was a period of time when all Americans did was perform and listen to the “great” classical music. And while the 19th century brought a fair amount of interest in opera and Shakespeare, there has always been a large market for “popular” genres. The reality is that America’s major symphony orchestras have never been sustainable through only the interest of the public - they’ve been heavily subsidized through wealthy contributors since almost the very beginning. (I highly recommend Lawrence Levine’s book, “Highbrow, Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America,” if you’re interested in any of this.)
The fact is that classical music is not - and never has been - a part of the daily life of a vast majority of modern Americans. I often think that we, as music educators who learned how to perform and teach using the educational philosophies of the 20th century, are in a bad position to really reflect on our own musical culture. We were busy practicing our “traditional” instruments and participating in “traditional Western classical” ensembles. But our own personal tradition does not mean that our personal musical experiences are traditional.
So, what is traditional American music then? Take a moment to think about it. When people think of American music, what comes to mind? To me the answer is jazz and rock and roll. If I make myself think about it longer, I come up with hip-hop, Copland, and Sousa. I feel confident that very few people would disagree with my answers, but it should be remembered that the “average American” (notice how that phrase creates a group) is probably unlikely to name a composer that you would hear in an orchestra hall.
I’m hoping by this point that I’ve demonstrated how the idea that “Western classical music” can be branded as “traditional” is, at the very least, more complicated than the initial MENC poll would suggest.
The “traditional” instrument
If we move away from talking strictly about American music and focus on the instruments themselves, then we’re confronted with the reality that when we say “traditional”, we usually mean instruments that are used in European art music. In a member email that I received from MENC a couple of weeks ago, I ran across this passage under the headline, Spotlight on 2011 Music Education Week.
IN-Ovations Academy: Performing on Non-Traditional Instruments — Participants of the IN-Ovations Academy will learn techniques for performing on instruments as a basis for organizing ethnic music ensembles at the middle school level including West African, Korean, Latin, and more.
It should go without saying that West African, Korean, and Latin ensembles are traditional to a large number of people throughout the world. It should also go without saying that many of these ensembles pre-date the American band, which has its roots in the 18th century (but doesn’t really resemble what we recognize today as a band until the 19th century). Calling the instruments used in West African, Korean, and Latin ensembles “non-traditional,” should at least demonstrate how one word works to establish arbitrary norms.
What about the piano? Piano isn’t usually offered in public schools, however, people have been taking piano lessons and performing for their friends and family in their homes for centuries - a tradition that reaches back further than the ensemble in our public schools. So, how would we categorize the young piano student: traditional or non-traditional?
If we apply the definition I’ve been using for most of this post, then the piano student, and the piano itself, is non-traditional - since you are unlikely to find either in a school (outside the one needed for the choir teacher). This label puts both the djembe (a West African drum) and the piano in the same group, however, I think that most music teachers would feel uncomfortable with this classification. While I can only guess why, I believe it has something to do with the process of learning piano - a process that usually occurs through a master/apprentice approach, using written music, and utilizing little to no improvisation - along with the crossover in audiences (since much piano music is labeled as “art music”). Our acceptance of the piano as a traditional instrument, then, might simply come from the idea that the piano student reminds us of our own teaching and professional interests.
So, really all we’re saying when we talk about the “traditional music student” (the “we”, of course, working to establish a connection between you, me, and the rest of the profession), is that the piano student resembles our own experiences with music education in public schools.
Why is this a problem?
The categories created through words can be very powerful - just turn on cable news if you don’t believe me. The creation of “traditional” music isn’t necessarily bad, but the creation of ”non-traditional” music (which must exist in the presence of “traditional music”) is very problematic.
When we talk about the “non-traditional ensemble” or the “non-traditional music student”, it is hard not hear the idea of the “exotic other” - defined as something that is intriguing, but clearly different from “us” and “ours”. By labeling the band, choir, and orchestra as our “tradition,” there is an implicit assertion that those ensembles - and only these ensembles - belong as the centerpieces of our educational offerings.
My point is that there is no reason, outside of our limited notion of “traditional”, that the ensemble necessarily needs to be the focal point of our profession. As I’ve said elsewhere, the reality is that our country is becoming less and less interested in the classical ensemble. Twenty-one percent of our high school students participate in music in school, but only 6% of students listen to classical music. To attempt to fully understand why this is the case would require more effort and intellect than I possess, but I would like to suggest the idea that band, choir, and orchestra simply are not - and never have been - “traditional” for a vast majority of Americans. We do not engage with this music in the same way that we engage with the music that we consume everyday - both intentionally and unintentionally. I’m talking about the music accompanying that last dance at the prom, the rock anthem you sing with your friends at the top of your lungs while driving around aimlessly, or the song that came on the radio at just the right moment that helped you make sense of your predicament. We all have experiences like these with “non-traditional” music. I propose that there are valid educational reasons to support the idea that our students should learn to understand this music - our music - as well as learning how to cultivate, critique, and create their own.
In many ways, participating in a band, choir, or orchestra is just as relevant to American culture as any other “non-traditional” ensemble: none of these ensembles truly reflect our own collective culture. I don’t want anybody to accuse me of saying that we should eliminate our large ensembles - I have not said that. I think ensembles are great! I have spent a majority of my lifetime engaged in bands and orchestras in one way or another. For the record, I am in full support of any and all music being learned, studied, analyzed, and performed in schools, and that includes our large ensembles. I’m simply taking a step back to truly understand the categories that have been created and what they mean for both our profession and our students.
This discussion attempts to get at the root of the misguided justification for the exclusionary practice that many in our field seem to subscribe to. There is nothing inherently traditional about the large ensemble, except for the fact that we’ve focused so much of our attention on it. With state and federal dollars dwindling, perhaps we can move beyond our Kantian ideas of pure aesthetic quality and understand the role that music plays “on the ground” - in the daily lives of the “average” American.
The Progressive Ensemble
Maybe it’s time to simply re-brand our “non-traditional” ensembles and students. If we insist on calling our bands, choirs, and orchestras “traditional,” then I suggest that we should call any attempt to introduce a new kind of ensemble into the field of music education as progressive. This means that our West African drum ensemble would no longer be called a non-traditional ensemble, but would be called a progressive ensemble. To me, this simple change implies that a teacher who decides to start a progressive ensemble is really engaged in a new, forward-looking, endeavor that recognizes the limits of our current system.
What are other types of progressive ensembles and music classes?
Rock bands, hip-hop methods, bagpipe ensembles, African drumming groups, steel bands, studio production classes, record label management courses… basically, anything that is new to the world of music education.
By focusing on these ideas, I hope that we can start recognizing the opportunities our profession has in the coming century. It’s not so much that we need to change, it’s that we need to expand.
I can already imagine that some people will be offended by the assertion that there is such a thing as the “progressive ensemble,” and I hope that you take the time to leave your comments below (people leave such great comments around here!). But, if you’re troubled by the term “progressive ensemble,” then stop and consider what impact the term “non-traditional ensemble” might have on our profession.
There IS power in a simple word.
Do you teach a progressive ensemble? Do you have any thoughts on this?
As always, leave your thoughts below and share this with anybody who might care.