A little less conversation, a little more…

Democracy inaction.

Of the many quotes of the eminently quotable British Statesman Sir Winston Churchill, the one that seems to have the most currency today is his statement that “Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried.”  This wry cynicism may be attributable to Churchill’s personal view of Democracy, which in his words manifested solely as “the little man” or equally demeaning, “the plain, humble, common man” making a cross on a bit of paper in an election. Make no mistake, the word “man” here was specific not just in gender but also sexual orientation and class, because Churchill further qualified his ideal voter as “the ordinary man who keeps a wife and family.”  No further service than the demarcation of a ballot was required of the figurative and legal head of this British nuclear family. God forbid he should be further involved: governing should be left to those fit to govern. Following the balloting, “then elected representatives together decide what government […] they wish to have in their country.” Churchill makes no mention of active intellectual and political engagement of the citizenry, or of the duties concomitant with citizenship, save his implication that only white property-owning males had the necessary educational qualifications to vote (and in the racist, sexist, elitist world of 1944 he was probably right), and that their activities should be restricted to a trip to the polls.

You’d think he had attended a Trump rally.

A kinder but no less accurate way to describe democracy might be as the “least imperfect form of Government.” Democracy is inherently imperfect, and throughout its long history its inherent imperfections have typically been addressed through attempts to limit or exclude the participation of the “unworthies.” Mere expansion of enfranchisement hasn’t been the answer to the system’s inadequacies: democracy is a process, not simply a right to vote, and the consequences of uninformed, emotion-based balloting can be catastrophic. The effort of the state of California to place same-sex marriage rights on a referendum ballot in 2008 placed the lives and dignity of a minority in the hands of majority that ultimately voted in direct opposition to the federal constitution. Thankfully, on some occasions the US is government of laws, not of men, and the Supreme Court prevailed.

Most everyone agrees democracy is good in theory. As the above examples show, in execution it has been a little more complicated – and the same holds true for democracy in education. The effective and meaningful integration of the participant voice is key within concepts of social justice (can there be any justice for the disenfranchised if justice does not start with franchisement?)  but there’s a deeper issue at stake. It’s a fundamental precept of the hidden curriculum that any discipline or subject taught in authoritarian fashion will ultimately teach authoritarianism.  The problem is particularly severe in music education, given the predominant Master/Apprentice model in private studies or within ensembles, in which typically unquestioning compliance is demanded, and deviation is ironically branded as anti-social.  Not only are new practices rarely forthcoming, although Lucy Green’s work stands out among others, most attempts to integrate democratic elements into traditional autocratic practices end up serving the conscience – or on occasion, the ego – of the teacher more than meaningfully involving the students. Don’t get me started on facilitated improvisation – that’s the next post.

To state the obvious irony as a starting point, compulsory education is, by vice of compulsion, entirely non-democratic, imposed on the most disempowered and disenfranchised segment of the population: children. And not only am I in complete and total favour of compulsory music education, I rarely take the typical first step of “democratization” by asking students what music they want to perform at any level below that of a University. There are three issues involved. Functionally, it’s mere window dressing if the practice of music making remains as authoritarian as ever, a Churchillian model of tokenism. Pragmatically, the students often simply aren’t acquainted with enough literature to make an informed contribution to this conversation (although I always welcome suggestions or requests from those interested enough to make them). Philosophically, I’m in complete agreement with Nicola Benedetti, who considers it ludicrous that only within music are children expected to love everything they play, when they are forced to study such despised horrors as foreign languages, trigonometry and Shakespeare in their other academic work.

The solution to the pragmatic element is simple: acquaint the students with more repertoire and then invite their input. What should (emphasis on the conditional) make compulsory education democratic is its potential to prepare its participants for more active engagement in later processes. The music majors at my institution who have completed the required music history sequence are much better able to contribute knowledgeably and intelligently to questions of programming. I asked for proposals in my first year at UNC Charlotte, the response that came back was that the orchestra felt it was important for them to play a Beethoven symphony. What I found interesting is that they agreed not on a specific work but a genre that was restricted in number but simultaneously broad in content, and they respected my role and specialized knowledge enough to leave the final decision of *which* symphony to me. These discussions took place entirely outside of rehearsal time. We convene to make music, not to talk.


How undemocratic, some might say. The problem with democracy in music education is that it always seems to revolve around talking. Talking is not just antithetical to music education, which should focus on music, but it’s also quite literally dangerous, especially to Sistema programs, when it strays from the musical overtly into social.  Social justice content is extremely controversial in America, and any suggestion that a curriculum is in any way politically inclined can have serious consequences. BeyonceFocusing efforts on music through music, and taking the easy step of avoiding repertoire that has overt social implications (like Beyoncé, whose Superbowl performance was the real social statement of the event) allows music educators to operate in a largely apolitical space. Yes, very knowledgeable practitioners understand that all the repertoire we perform is loaded with different meanings and implications – but that’s knowledge outside of the vast majority of the public, most of whom consider Le Nozze di Figaro to be a funny and charming opera, rather than an overt depiction of class warfare.

The other real problem with talking, even if it’s just about music and how to perform it, rather than what to perform, is that it’s such a waste of time. In  Leadership Ensemble, a book devoted to the functioning of the famed conductorless Orpheus Chamber  Orchestra, the authors determine that the rehearsal process for a typical Orpheus concert takes three times longer than it would with a conventional conductor, and that the outcomes are not necessarily more artistically cohesive, given that they are literally determined by a sub-committee appointed by the musicians. Our conception of participant voice has for too long been too narrow. If we consider the voice to be be musical, and frame processes in a way that invites negotiation, collaboration and dialogue between these voices through musical means alone, so much more can be achieved.

What I proposed on stage in Baltimore isn’t necessarily the answer, but it is an answer that allows participants the opportunity to offer their own creative insights through the inherent restrictions of the medium in a practical, effective and efficient way.  Do the loudest voices dominate? No – in my experience the orchestra always gravitates to the most musical solution, not the one most stridently presented. Merit, not decibel level, is the deciding factor. And there is a time and place for talk. At the conference, the orchestra for my session was publicly invited to give feedback on their impressions and reactions of my rehearsal, but that was specific to the nature of the event. Debate and dialogue were otherwise in full force on that stage. It just wasn’t all verbal, a fact that escaped more than a few.

During and after the Baltimore conference there were calls for higher level of participant voice in the event structure – unfairly, given that this event exceeded in inclusivity every single Sistema conference I’d attended in the past. The issue lay with the imperfections of the processes, as always, but there were multiple opportunities for attendees to participate, not just listen and observe. Some called for more stakeholder involvement, meaning people from the communities hosting or benefiting from Sistema programs. Also a good idea in theory, but then who and how? The person with resources to travel? That’s not democracy.  Was it only the responsibility of the conference organizers, or could Sistema programs have instituted their own internal processes, as befit their communities and operations and stakeholder needs and intent, to select and fund  a community representative to come and engage?  That would have been far more democratic and appropriate than the organizers selecting someone.

It’s cheap and easy to consider democratic inclusion the obligation of someone else, or worse, not even necessary. I’m reminded of Baker’s conference in London in April of last year, when at the evening reception a keynote speaker (not Baker) who had incessantly mocked what he perceived as the totalitarian nature of Venezuela’s Sistema in his speech took me to task on my use of the Churchill quote in my formal presentation earlier that day. “And where do you think the minorities get their rights?” he opined, with the implication that such rights are benevolently bestowed by the majority on demand. Never has the voice of white male hetero privilege proclaimed so loudly, falsely or obliviously. Brown vs. BoardObergefell v. HodgesLoving v. Virginia Unlike issues of race and sexual orientation, education has no Constitution to interpret, no Supreme Court for recourse, but that only heightens our collective responsibility of creating a more democratic practice of music that engages and involves in ways that are genuinely meaningful.




3 thoughts on “A little less conversation, a little more…

  1. Thank you Jonathan for your challenging thoughts! Always inspirational! 🙂
    Greetings from Peru

  2. Thanks for a stimulating post! Much as it challenges my own Liberal views about democracy, Ranciere agrees with Plato that democracy is, ‘characterized by the drawing of lots, or the complete absence of any entitlement to govern.’ Therefore, democracy is always a journey toward full inclusion of all of its constituent voices, not a simple destination. Democratic dialogue through music rather than words makes sense!

    1. Thanks for visiting David. I wish I’d been able to invite you to our quartet performance at ISME the day before the panel where we met: this was a dynamic demonstration of leadership by necessity and expediency, not by seniority, gender, or any other form of artificial primacy, and thus it might have come closest to the unattainable ideal of completely democratization in music education. Check out the video on the most recent posting for a sample of the work early in the rehearsal process – and ask yourself “who’s in charge?”.

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