Promoting Music Education: A Primer

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

11 thoughts on “Promoting Music Education: A Primer

  1. Jonathan, would you apply the same reasoning to the political sphere? Would you say to strong critics of Trump: “This is not a productive way to advance any discussion. There is a middle ground.”? Would you argue that journalists should stop investigating Trump’s ties to Russia and his business dealings and instead “challenge in a positive, constructive and supportive way”?

    And how does your claim that “Sistema has been overwhelmed and damaged by sloppy advocacy, rooted primarily in emotional appeals, grossly deficient “research” and cheap attempts at moral elevation” illustrate your appeal to “challenge in a positive, constructive and supportive way”? It goes without saying that I think the first part of your sentence is correct, but your own writing has become increasing acerbic over the years, and is all the better – and yes, productive – for it.

    Or do you think that Richard Hallam’s “we’ve made progress” has absolutely zero to do with robust challenges to fantasy thinking by you, me, and others?

    1. Geoff, I most certainly would apply the same reasoning to the political sphere. Not a day goes by without the criticism of the current US administration growing in intensity – but to what real effect or outcome? Polarization has paralyzed this nation, and the only bipartisan act of Congress in the last 9 years seems to be the sanctions against Russia. Nothing like a common enemy to bring parties together.

      Keeping with the political analogy, there’s plenty of research to substantiate the suggestion that extreme negativity either reinforces existing bias, or simply fosters disengagement. We respond more strongly to vision: Trump won the election by essentially promising a return to the 1970s, which is a very appealing prospect for white males over the age of 50. Prospering white America, the blacks still kept down, women still in the kitchen, jobs in coal and manufacturing. It’s total nonsense, but it played well enough for him to win.

      I would venture that the progress of which Hallam spoke was achieved by building, not tearing town, and that much was achieved before your book (essentially the only major Sistema critique) was published. What measurable impact do you think you have personally had on Sistema? In what ways have you shaped outcomes in Britain or the US? That’s not a rhetorical question, nor am I suggesting you’ve failed to do either – but I’m hard pressed to tell.

  2. Your first point makes good sense in theory, but I’m interested to know whether you practise it. (My sense from reading you on here and Facebook is that you don’t hold back from strong criticism of things that you think need to be criticised, whether political or educational.)

    And to repeat my original question, since it’s (by analogy) rather germane to your post and your blog as a whole: would you argue that journalists should stop investigating Trump’s ties to Russia and his business dealings – on the grounds that the more they dig, the more dirt they’re likely to find, the more division that will cause, and the more bogged down government will become? Do you think that such inquiry should be constrained because it’s not straightforwardly “productive”?

    On your second point, goodness knows. I was just reading an essay that made a simple, and possibly simplistic, but also useful point about definitions of “good research.” Within the research world, good research is research that is valid and original; in the practice world, it is research that is useful; and in the policy world, it is research that is helpful. I come from the first of those worlds, and so was not thinking much about impact, and I don’t assess the value of my work in those terms. The main thing that concerns me is validity, and the feedback I’ve had over the last three years from Venezuelan musicians has been very reassuring. (The recent IDB report helps too, providing quantitative evidence for some of my tentative, qualitative conclusions.) It’s a good thing that I wasn’t too focused on impact, given that the Sistema Global crowd dismissed my book before they even read it. It didn’t matter what the book actually contained.

    The impact of ideas is very hard to measure, and the last place you’re likely to find it – at least on the surface – is within an industry that depends on denying those ideas. The place you’re most likely to find impact is within a sphere where people are generally interested in new ideas, i.e. the academic world. And there I think you’ll find that the Sistema fantasy has declined in a big way. It takes two to impact, and ultimately you can’t have an impact on people who are resolutely against being impacted on. (Take the sugar vs. fat debate, which saw the sugar argument buried by the more powerful fat industry for nearly half a century.)

    Richard Hallam is a good example of someone who has recognised publicly that my book is not nearly as black-and-white as it has been made out to be, and is full of openings and suggestions and alternatives. He has clearly read it carefully, so I don’t think it’s a major stretch to suggest that it has had some impact on his thinking, though you could ask him!

    Other participants in the Sistema world, including a bunch of former Abreu/Sistema fellows, have also very much engaged with my work, though more privately. And this is the point, in a way – a lot of engagement with ideas is a private matter, and therefore invisible, even to me.

    I recently had a chance encounter with someone who had worked at a Sistema-esque project, and she told me: when I arrived on Day 1, the first thing they did was hand me your book and say “this is what we’re trying NOT to do.” My book had profoundly shaped that program, yet I would never have known this without this chance encounter.

  3. One more thing (!!): your reading of the situation as two extremes and a middle way isn’t as obviously correct as you suggest. I doubt that many people at the Take A Stand Festival regard the advocacy wing as extreme – and they might well find you to be extreme. (Exhibit A: your demonstration at the Baltimore Sistema conference, which was too much for some even at the progressive end of the field.)

    And my book is only regarded as extreme by people with a dog in the Sistema race. There have been lots of academic reviews, and none of the reviewers regard the book in that way. Nor is my book extreme for the many Venezuelans I interviewed or the many more who have got in touch since its publication – they regard it simply as an account of what El Sistema is really like.

  4. My various and frequent indulgences in Facebook snark, which are nothing more than slacktivism/clicktivism at its best/worst, are very different from my activist practices as an educator and researcher, so I’m not sure why you would conflate the two. You saw on stage in Baltimore how my concept of pedagogical social activism manifests in practice, and here’s a recent link to performative social activism.

    In both instances, critique must be inferred, since it is scarcely implied. In both instances, the intention was to illuminate possibility. There was an element of challenging the status quo but it was achieved without having to refer to it directly or denigrate it.

    I’m not sure the reference to journalism is apt. Good journalism simply reports and enables other agencies to take appropriate action (or refuse to take action, thus highlighting the problem with the agency.) This is *precisely* how good journalism is productive. Good journalism trades on its impartiality (“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday never said.) Issues arise when journalism becomes editorialized: the inflection of fact with opinion enables accusations of bias and undermines the content, providing dissenters with a reason to ignore it. I would say if you have been deemed an extremist, it’s not because of your facts, but because of your editorial framework. It makes for lively reading, but only for those who choose to read it.

    The more pressing question is whether by making the analogy you essentially consider yourself a journalist, albeit one with an editorial bent. No question, your book was researched with a rigor that far exceeded any effort of the press to date, but then what is the difference between academic and journalistic research? Is our role as public servants exclusively to the tell the tale, or is to illuminate possibility for the betterment of society, to recycle a phrase? I’m straying into philosophical territory, but that is precisely where I think we differ.

    1. I don’t believe that there is a simple distinction between reporting and editorializing, fact and opinion. Every decision you and I make – to write about this topic rather than that, to cite this anecdote rather than that, to choose this wording rather than that – is an editorializing one. When you write: “Sistema has been overwhelmed and damaged by sloppy advocacy, rooted primarily in emotional appeals, grossly deficient “research” and cheap attempts at moral elevation” – this is not factual reporting, it’s drenched in opinion, and could only have been written by Jonathan Govias. And as I’ve said before, it’s all the better for that. You could have written it in much more neutral language, but that too would have been an editorializing decision.

      More of an issue is how apparent the editorializing is. The first wave of journalism and documentaries about El Sistema appeared simply to be reporting on the program. It was only when some of us started travelling to Venezuela and seeing the reality with our own eyes that it became apparent how much editorializing was in fact taking place. In that sense, the more overt the editorializing, the more honest the account. I said upfront in the introduction to my book that it was not a balanced account – how many others have done the same?

      I don’t consider myself a journalist, though due to the failure of journalists to investigate El Sistema properly, I’ve ended up straying somewhat into that territory. For example, I would say that “where has the $150 million of IDB funding gone?” is a journalistic question that an investigative journalist might be able to answer if they put their mind to it. I can’t answer it, but I can at least ask the question. But I don’t see that as an academic question, and I would much rather someone else tackled it (and many other such questions relating to El Sistema in Venezuela). My interests are more to do with interpretation and analysis.

      Finally, there is the question of how one “illuminates possibility for the betterment of society.” Your argument in this blog post is that the way forward is to “challenge in a positive, constructive and supportive way.” I think that’s a very reasonable argument, though I don’t think your blog posts over the last couple of years illustrate it (you’ve been much more combative than that, aiming barbs at Sistema in Venezuela and around the world, academia, collective improvisation, and so on). But it’s far from the only reasonable argument.

      I’m more interested in Ranciere’s dissensus or Mouffe’s agonistic politics. The latter writes: “According to the accepted view, the public space is the terrain where one aims at creating consensus. For the agonistic approach, on the contrary, the public space is where conflicting points of view are confronted without any possibility of a final reconciliation.” For her, consensus without exclusion is impossible, so the purpose of politics and art – and, I would say, writing – is to challenge and unsettle dominant paradigms, to create agonistic public spaces rather than consensus.

      And I would say that the debate we’re having here is a perfect illustration. I’m not writing all this stuff in the expectation or even hope that we’re going to come to a consensus. If all these words we’ve both written have any value, it lies in the tension between them. For me, that tension – rather than simple agreement – is productive.

  5. Jonathan:

    Yes, Sistema has been deficient in research. That is changing rapidly, and will continue to change.

    It’s unfortunate that you did not attend the Take a Stand Symposium and Festival in Los Angeles in July, where four rigorous research initiatives, conducted by independent institutions and assessing the effectiveness of Sistema programs from various perspectives, presented their research. Some of these studies are still in progress, but in general, the results of all four studies thus far are positive, roundly supporting the claims of Sistema-inspired programs in the U.S.

    There was exactly no “sloppy advocacy” going on at the symposium. There were serious, thoughtful conversations grounded in accumulated experience. There was much critical reflection. There was a strong intentionality about grounding El Sistema-inspired programs within the larger landscape of music education and social change.

    And there were no “emotional appeals.” There was certainly emotion. The twenty-five advanced YOLA students who were full participants in the symposium spoke eloquently, and often emotionally, about their experiences in the program and their opinions and advice to the field.

    Finally, Jonathan, it’s unfortunate that you have deliberately misrepresented the position of Richard Hallam on Sistema. I know firsthand from him that he is still a strong Sistema advocate, still strongly involved in Sistema England, and looking forward to helping shape the next Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra residency in his country next year. You took his words “We’ve made progress” and falsely inferred that they meant he had “moved on” away from Sistema. That is not what he meant. There is no moral superiority in misrepresentation, especially in reference to someone of such integrity.

    I would suggest that Richard’s words “We’ve made progress” mean exactly what they say. The Sistema field has made progress – and will continue to, despite unfounded accusations and misrepresentations.

    1. Tricia,

      Nice to hear from you.

      For a more detailed discussion of sloppy advocacy, emotional appeals, deficient research and cheap attempts at moral elevation, I might refer you to this:

      For an informed perspective on the conference (including the research that you mention) – a perspective that aligns with everything I’ve heard about it from other educated sources, see this:

      Concerning your extended mock indignation on Richard’s behalf, you could have saved yourself some embarrassment (there being no moral superiority in ignorance) had you taken a minute to consult with him first. Shortly after I published the blog he sent me an email thanking me for having written it. I’ve known him long enough that were he to feel I had misrepresented him in any serious way, he would have asked for a correction. He has, in the past, when I’ve made an error.

      The very nature of the problem in Sistema is that those most closely involved are those who seem least informed about the issues. I was not at Take a Stand because it has zero credibility within music education circles. It’s unfortunate you haven’t attended the ISME, ICMPC, or Guildhall conferences because you might have some understanding of what state-of-the-art research and practice look like, and what the evidentiary threshold is for legitimate evaluation. When you or the Ensemble tout the “maturation” or progress of the sector, anyone sufficiently informed to make a comparison to current best practices in music education would reasonably wonder just how painfully immature the sector was previously.

      Thanks for dropping by. Stop by *anytime.*

    2. A group that Richard has been closely involved in, the El Sistema Special Interest Group at ISME, has made progress. It started with a distinct advocacy slant, but has become increasingly agnostic. Its centre of gravity has shifted along with the research base. It welcomes research of all stripes, including research that Richard disagrees with. It doesn’t determine the validity of research by its usefulness to the Sistema industry.

      Until other organizations face up honestly to events in Venezuela and their implications for El Sistema and the whole Sistema field, and acknowledge and respond to research – including from the Inter-American Development Bank – that questions some of their basic assumptions, it is too early to be talking about maturation or progress. A mature research field does not rely on ignoring current events and counter-evidence.

  6. I get you in the last paragraph. As someone who knew Dr. Suzuki and studied under him first hand for 3 years, I struggle with the constant effort by capitalist forces who are copywriting and patterning his knowledge or name. It is an inhibiting influence on my own creative efforts as a teacher.

    I am contaminated by Sensei but could never come close to replicating what he did. He told us himself that we should give him credit by hyphenating his name, as we are also contaminated by other influences from our own environments, education, and development as teachers. By virtue of his own research habits, I am obligated to keep searching for something better that goes beyond to the next destination.

    Any technique, method, philosophy or movement rings hollow as soon as we try to patent it or replicate it in frozen form. It can only generate it power and influence by the way it causes us to continue evolving, searching, progressing and moving forward into better forms and discoveries.

    1. Cynthia, It’s an interesting point to make, that most practices are evolutions of prior practices. I don’t know enough of the history of Suzuki to be able to identify the sources (Perhaps Vygotsky?) from which he drew, but I imagine he viewed himself only has having formalized certain concepts, rather than having initiated them himself.

      I can’t see that happening with Sistema, mainly because the practices have either been largely deprecated in recent years or are taken directly from the Conservatory playbook – or both, frankly. After 10 years of activity, it looks like Sistema is in its sunset, while Suzuki continues to grow. Hard to compare the two.

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