Musical Literacy and Inclusion

Version 2On September 15-16, 2017 I attended “Tanglewood Conversation” at Boston University. It was a meeting of music educators from within the Boston University music education community to discuss issues of importance to music education in 2017 and to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Tanglewood Symposium held in 1967. What follows are a few of my take aways from the sessions I attended. 

Though by now many or perhaps most arts educators are familiar with and are using the National Core Arts Standards, the conceptual foundations upon which they were written are perhaps less well known. This foundation is essential to understanding not only the intent of the standards, but indeed to clarifying or even formulating a philosophy of music education that represents the needs and contexts of all students, regardless of race, socioeconomic standing, or cultural background. Though much scholarly work has been done to advocate for promoting social justice, and ending the systematic privileging of one culture over another, these worthy goals have been and continue to be frequently unmet in the everyday common practices of arts educators.

The authors of the National Core Arts Standards made what I consider to be strides in the right direction by managing to come up with an explanation of literacy in the arts that is not dependent on any particular tradition or culture nor on reading and writing or even the existence of a system for writing and reading music. While some of this is due to the generality necessary for statements to apply to all of the fine and performing arts, the result can be construed as a basis for planning and teaching the arts in a way that does not exclude any racial or cultural constituency. Because this blog is devoted to music education, I shall limit myself to addressing this issue as it pertains to music, but educators in visual art, theater, and dance may also find application in what I have to say.

The overriding goal of the National Core Arts Standards is to make a path toward developing artistic literacy. Any type of literacy demands that at least two things be present: a text with which a person interacts, and the ability of that person to exercise certain cognitive and creative actions either in response to or creation or recreation of the text. With this focus on artistic literacy, we begin to see that music education must include the developing  through teaching and learning in the music classroom musically literate students. As we shall soon see, evidence of musical literacy is not and cannot be limited to ensemble rehearsals and performances, because both limit the musical cultures represented, and typically includes at most only a third of most school’s populations. To suggest that only students who can play a band or orchestral instrument or sing in a choir are musically literate is to deny the existence of excellent musicians around the world who have neither bands, orchestras or choirs to sing in but who never the less are masters of their art. On the contrary, we must view the entire population of our schools as being capable of and entitled to becoming musically literate. Music teachers at all levels must be the musical leaders of their entire school communities.

In presenting artistic literacy, the writers of the standards stated that, “artistic literacy requires that [students] engage in artistic creation processes directly through the use of appropriate materials (such as charcoal or paint or clay, musical instruments and scores, digital and mechanical apparatuses, light boards, and the actual human body) and in appropriate spaces (concert halls, stages, dance rehearsal spaces, arts studios and computer labs). For authentic practice to occur in arts classrooms, teachers and students must participate fully and jointly in activities where they can exercise the creative practices of imagine, investigate, construct, and reflect as unique beings committed to giving meaning to their experiences.”

Notice that the first quality of an artistically literate person is that they are capable of 3042301creating artistic works, and that the actions of imagining, investigating, constructing and reflecting in a highly personal and personalized way are involved in the act of creating. The writers went on to write that “throughout history the arts have provided essential means for individuals and communities to generate experiences, construct knowledge, and express their ideas, feelings, and beliefs.” This suggests that community and relationships between people who make up those communities are built and held together in part by experiences with the arts, knowledge shared through the arts, and ideas, feelings and beliefs that both give birth to artistic works and the ways in which people interact with those works once they have been created.

The authors go on to say that, “in addition to–indeed, as a result of–students’ creating and performing, careful study of their own and others’ art involves them in exploring and making sense of the broad human condition across time and cultures.” In other words, as people exercise their artistic literacy by engaging in creative activities to make and interact with artistic works, they are connecting with each other at a deep, somewhat spiritual level, as their creative work gives voice and life to aspects of our humanness not otherwise expressible or knowable.

We can begin to see that the expansive capacity and reach of the arts, when allowed to include all traditions and cultures represented in a given student population, puts all of these traditions and cultures on an equal standing. Music cannot build connections between people of diverse backgrounds if, for example, a musical genre students prefer is only used as a gateway to teach another musical genre the teacher prefers. This long-standing practice is privileging one musical culture (the teacher’s) over another (the student’s). Objectively examining, investigating, imagining, and constructing both musical cultures equally promotes replacing cultural animosity and obstructions with cultural understandings and relationships. The standards authors addressed this by writing, “The arts provide means for individuals to collaborate and connect with others in an inclusive environment as they create, prepare, and share artwork that bring communities together.”

Every type of music was and is created by a specific person or persons who are (is) a byproduct of a heritage which influenced the creator to create, express, share, and communicate a cultural truth and experience. To privilege one musical culture over another is to privilege the people of that culture over the people of another. To do so would be contrary to creating an “inclusive environment” and bringing “communities together.”

It should be apparent by now that when developing musical literacy is the goal of music education, there is no need to separate students into “performer” and “non-performer” categories. This binary construction is absent from much of the world’s music making environments. While some present at a place where music is being sung or played on instruments may be the focus of attention by others present, those others, as David Elliott argued in Music Matters, are also engaged in music making as they move, clap, sing, audiate, reflect on, and/or emotionally experience, to name but a few possibilities, the music they are hearing. All of these actions that those often described as non-performing listeners are doing are in fact creative actions that are evidence of musical literacy at work. The more we can blur or even eliminate the distinctions between performer and listeners or audience, the more we will acknowledge the importance of what the latter group is doing, and the more we will understand the need to direct instruction toward those activities as well as those of presenting in the traditional sense. There is much more to say on this subject, and I am sure I will return to it in the coming months.

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