Over its thirty-five year history, the Deal Festival of Music and the Arts on the coast of Kent has developed a reputation for presenting and celebrating diverse and multi-disciplinary artists. A quick glance at the activities this summer reveals a performance of Beethoven piano concertos, the screening of a Franco Zeffirelli film, a concert featuring a ukulele orchestra, and a photographic exhibition, all under the festival’s umbrella.
It’s surprising then that with this embarrassment of riches, the event currently making the most ripples internationally is not a performance, exhibition or artistic installation, but the speech delivered by Richard Hallam MBE for the inaugural Rosemary Dunn Memorial Lecture, entitled “Why music education is vital to humans.” A text of the speech (to be strongly differentiated from a transcript) has been made available by the festival organizers, and is linked on the main page. Full disclosure: I am a personal acquaintance of Richard, and I admire the integrity and humility of his work on behalf of music education, but even if I didn’t know him, I would still call attention to this lecture as a model of effective, intelligent, informed and evolved musical advocacy. For anyone involved in music education, the speech is worth reading in its entirety and can be found here. What follows are some personal observations of elements I found striking.
It balances the intrinsic and extrinsic value of music
Much of music advocacy focuses on what is called the “utilitarian” argument for music education: in short, all the non-musical things music can accomplish, like improving mathematics scores or developing cognitive skills. The risk this line of reasoning entails is that the moment something non-musical comes along that can achieve the same goals with greater time or cost-effectiveness, the need for music education is eliminated. Music education has value in and of itself, and it has value beyond music too. Both arguments must be advanced simultaneously, as Hallam consistently does here.
It doesn’t oversimplify
Just as the “utilitarian” argument is an oversimplification, Hallam notes repeatedly that music is not an unconditional good and that it can be a tool for abuse. “Good quality music education, sensitively and effectively delivered for all children and young people, can benefit areas beyond music, but we have to be aware of the detail.” It’s the final nine words that make the difference here, and that reinforce the complexity behind social action through music that many working in the sector prefer to ignore.
It constantly references research – but in a relatable way
From bovine milk and poultry egg production, to wine consumption, to the tendency of drivers to speed when listening to upbeat music, to cutting edge psychological and cognitive studies, the text betrays the breadth of the research behind it without overwhelming the listener/reader with the mundane. Rhetoric is not a substitute for substance, but substance can still be presented with rhetorical effect. The examples are memorable, easily verified through simple Google searches, and lend credibility to the speech without burdening the audience with unnecessary data. And for those who insist, there are even citations at the end.
It moves organically from the general to the highly specific
Some readers’ eyes might glaze over as Richard gets into the specifics of curricula – but the curricula and the National Plan for Music Education and guiding documentation from Arts Council England are extraordinary achievements, and are presented as promises to strive to meet, not as unattainable pipe dreams. There is a concrete, highly specific and still achievable benchmark to be met through music education in England, and the existence – and communication – of a clear definition of success is in itself a call to action.
It doesn’t mention el Sistema
No, there isn’t a single Spanish word in the text, which some might find shocking given Hallam’s close connection with Sistema England and his crucial role in the establishment of the In Harmony pilot programs. But there doesn’t need to be. There are Sistema ideals buried throughout (“it is morally indefensible if we provide experiences that expose a musical interest if we then deny children the opportunity to continue and progress”). When I asked, Richard justified the omission with two simple reasons. a) The audience may not have understood the reference, revealing that pretend though we like, the concept embodied in the word “Sistema” hasn’t penetrated popular consciousness and b) “We’ve made progress.” In other words, England has moved on, and has its own terminology and operating structures that are more relevant to audiences.
It calls out our complicity in the perpetuation of an unacceptable status quo – positively
“We can share what works and what doesn’t work so that we can learn from past experiences and avoid making the same mistakes or the musical equivalent of reinventing the wheel. We can make sure we know who is responsible and know how we hold them to account. We can challenge in a positive, constructive and supportive way, without compromising on access, quality and progression.” This sequence of bold statements is directed at everyone, without exception, including the most fervent Sistema advocates and the most recalcitrant deniers. It is a reminder of our responsibilities and our roles yet to be fulfilled, promises yet to be kept.
Sistema has been overwhelmed and damaged by sloppy advocacy, rooted primarily in emotional appeals, grossly deficient “research” and cheap attempts at moral elevation. The scholarly reaction to this has been an attempt to offer a counterweight, requiring positioning at the other extreme. This is not a productive way to advance any discussion. There is a middle ground, as Hallam clearly establishes. “We can challenge in a positive, constructive and supportive way, without compromising on access, quality and progression.” It doesn’t matter who you are: assume he was speaking to you. And because I know him, I know he was also speaking to himself. There is still work to be done.