Sometimes things align serendipitously, and one finds oneself needing to write. In this Presidential season in the United States and the media focus on political affairs, I think particularly of the aspirational State of the Union address in Congress by Barak Obama earlier this week replete with regret for what he has been unable to accomplish, with its background screen shot featuring Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, by his own admission, attempting to maintain an impassive demeanor as he dissented with the speech. I also think of the spectacle of recent Presidential debates with their parade of rudeness, pomposity, demagoguery, bigotry, fear-mongering, and ignorance, or worse, lack of concern for the truth. I asked myself a host of interrelated questions: When would politicians and the media—the fourth pillar of the American republic—and the public insist on articulating and unmasking what passes for truth, and critically navigating the terrain between angry outburst, persuasive rhetoric, and defensible position, in measured and generous ways? How have our public spaces shrunk, and how might we forge spaces that are inclusive of differences? Has public education in this country failed to transmit to the young humane values of intellectual acuity, sensitivity, care, and carefulness for all of those who call this country and this planet home, or are the sources of this pervasive incivility beyond the powers of education to solve? How might music educators more powerfully resist the economic, political, religious, cultural, and familial forces that foster hard-heartedness, exclusivity, anti-intellectualism, violence, and crassness in culture and society? Closer to home, what might I do to more strongly articulate and resist the darkness and lack of transparency too rampant in Western society and help to provide voice for music educators to lead the way toward a more transparent, humane, and decent society?
Yesterday, Iris Yob and I met with the presidents of the Sarasota Concert Association and Friends of the Sarasota Concert Association, a well-established, not-for-profit volunteer organization that sponsors performances of classical music in this Florida city. What might be done, we were asked, to foster a greater love of and participation in Western classical music among the rich tapestry of musical traditions in Sarasota and beyond? As we talked about the important role of music education in musical and civic life, I thought back to the early nineteenth century when musicians realized that for the good of the republic, a concerted and national program of music education was needed to inspire youngsters to sing and play the best of music artfully. Musicians and educators of that time realized that if the United States was to meet the mounting and rampant industrialization and inhumanity of that age, and if this country aspired to be a civilized and cultured nation, it needed to sponsor and preserve the arts. To these ends, musicians, educators, and the public at large mounted a grass-roots campaign with national reach to foster publicly supported education for all children, irrespective of their economic or social status, and to extol music as a means of humanizing society and offering artistic expression for all children. If we remain serious about these objectives as musicians, teachers, and policy makers, it is essential to mount another campaign to meet the incivility of our time, and in a differently mediated environment, to press, yet again, and with renewed effort, for a humane and art-filled education for young and old. As an educator, I cannot relinquish hope that we can and must improve not only music education, but education and society more generally. Our challenges may be different today, but the imperatives for a humane education remain just as compelling as they were in another time.
Support for the need to rethink the big educational questions of our day comes from different quarters. I think of last year’s UNESCO Report entitled, “Rethinking Education: Towards a Common Good?” (2015) as a call for dialogue and a starting point for thinking about what our present aims might be. The subtitle, “Towards a Common Good?” addresses the question of whether or how shared values might unite the world’s people and what this good or these goods might be? Among other things, the report stresses the need for reaffirming humanism and humane values. Some will doubtless lament the figure of the human tree on the cover of this report with its evocation of monolithic and arborescent thinking, and long, instead, for the pluralistic and rhizomatic possibilities that might include what Plato would think of, dialectically, as the “one and the many.” Still, the substance of the material between the report’s covers provides rich philosophical ground to mine and critique for music education.
Cultural commentators have also pointed to the importance of the arts in fostering humanity. For example, writing in the New York Times (Op Ed, Friday, January 15, 2016, A27), in a piece entitled, “When Beauty Strikes,” David Brooks describes the scene in a large empty space with floor-to-ceiling windows in a building across the street from his apartment that has been taken over by a ballet school. Caught by the beauty of the dancing he could now witness, he was moved to write about the power of the arts in evoking spiritual experience that is transformative toward the good, elevates the prosaic to the transcendent, and provides a vision of a better self. In music education, writers such as Deanne Bogdan, June Boyce-Tillman, David Carr, Anthony Palmer, and Iris Yob, and the Spirituality and Music Education group (SAME) have advocated for the spiritual values of music education in their published pieces in the Philosophy of Music Education Review, Music Educators Journal, and other music educational venues. Still, in all of the philosophical talk of technique, musical theory and practice, and unmasking of modernity in music education, it is easy to overlook the power that music education represents as a potential force for good in education and society.
In an effort to focus on the big philosophical questions relating to music education and its goods, an international call for papers has been issued on the PMER website at http://pmer.iu.edu. This special issue will take as its touchstone the UNESCO Report, Rethinking Education, and engage critically with the big questions of how music education needs to be rethought and what needs to be done to engender a humane music education that can contribute, in turn, to an education for the good of humanity.
Reading Andrew Tommasini’s essay, “The Concert Hall as Refuge in a Restless, Web-driven Era” (The Arts, New York Times, Monday, September 14, 2015, C1+), I was struck by his musical reflection on Michael Harris’s argument in The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, that the Internet may be eroding our attention spans. Thommasini suggests that the concert hall with its demands on long attention spans not only relies on our memories but it also provides opportunities to disconnect from the web and the constant distractions that it brings. In so doing, it offers us spiritual reprieve and solace. Reading him generously, I suppose we might think of the concert hall figuratively, including all of the places where live music making happens, or even more broadly, where the arts happen and we turn off our electronic devices and focus on whatever is before us, be it dance, drama, film, or visual art.
Yet there is an irony here. This summer, I was able to “attend” the Tchaikovsky Competition, the Verbier Festival, and the Salzburg Festival courtesy of my subscription to Medici TV that I streamed from smart phone to TV. I watched complete performances replete with applause and encores in high definition close-up videos of singers and instrumentalists and I heard them in wonderful fidelity. I was caught up in the sometimes live events that were occurring. Whether it be the young Mongolian singer, Ganbaatar Ariunbaatar, who won the Grand Prize at the 15th Tchaikovsky Festival, the youthful Daniil Trifonov who has burst onto the world scene as a superb pianist and chamber musician, or the 90 year old Menahem Pressler who played a piano recital in his inimitable way at Verbier, although I could not go to Moscow, Verbier, or Salzburg this summer, I could witness these performers from afar. Seeing and hearing these concerts, I had a sense of what was going on but I wanted to be there! Nevertheless, in the comfort of our music room, there was an intimacy that my seat in the concert hall could not have given me.
Much hangs on the use that is made of the inventions of our age. As a matter of public policy, it is imperative to educate people to use them wisely. In music, as the other arts, new technologies offer a remarkable opportunity to widen audiences and offer virtual experiences of performances through live streaming and archiving of performances. These virtual experiences bridge to live face-to-face music making and taking, and afford opportunities for audiences to closely attend to the music. They also constitute a refuge in today’s world.
The following is the text of a letter dated December 31, 2013, read on my behalf by Randall Allsup at the memorial celebration of the life of Bennett Reimer held at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA. My letter was addressed to Beth (Bennett's wife), family, and colleagues of Bennett.
Although I am unable to be present on the occasion of this memorial celebration of Bennett's life, I wanted to share some thoughts with you.
I met Bennett through his writings after I had met Susanne Langer through hers, and I immediately saw the influence that she had had on him. As a young doctoral student, my mentor gave me a worn copy of Langer's Philosophy in a New Key, telling me that it was one of the most important books he had ever read. As philosophers, everything we write is wrong, yet, there may still be ideas worth salvaging. Within Langer's and Bennett's writings lay kernels of truth. I wrote in my dissertation that music education can be thought of as a form of aesthetic education, and I haven't changed my mind. It is, at least, partly that. In that early writing, I also disagreed with and critiqued their ideas as I mined them. For me, then as now, philosophy is about clarifying our ideas as we agree and disagree with others in a conversation among friends in search of truth. In that search, I am thankful to have had Bennett's counsel and support for over 20 years as an editorial board member of the Philosophy of Music Education Review and contributor to the Philosophy Special Research Interest Group of the National Association for Music Education and the International Society for the Philosophy of Music Education. There are very few old scholars in music education. Last June, when we welcomed Bennett and Beth to the Ninth International Symposium on the Philosophy of Music Education at Columbia University, New York City, it was a joy to see him still at work, responding graciously to Randall Allsup's paper (a dialogue that we will publish in PMER), and holding onto crucial ideas while having grown over the years.
We have lost a wonderful person who lived life richly and made an outstanding contribution to the field of music education and beyond. In honor of his work as a philosopher of music education, among the many facets of his professional life, the Philosophy of Music Education Review will carry an In Memoriam to Bennett's life and work contributed by fellow philosopher Forest Hansen, and a special issue devoted to the ideas that he left us contributed by prominent music educational leaders and writers. Such moments of professional loss leave a rent in our midst that can never quite be patched. We grieve for this terrible and final loss. As the distinguished American poet, Maya Angelou put it in her eloquent poem to Nelson Mandele, "His work is done." Along with our sorrow at his loss is our memory of the joy, idealism, and hope that characterized his lived life. We cling collectively to the memories of the blessings he brought us in simply being Bennett.
[Since I was unable to be at the Ninth International Research in Music Education Conference in Exeter, I asked Liz Mellor to read this statement, “In Praise of RIME,” on my behalf.]
Among the values that characterize the academy is that of service—service to one’s subject field, department, school, university, profession, and beyond the academy’s walls, to the community, nation, and world. With their roots in monastic institutions, from the first, academics were sworn to help, cooperate with, and serve their colleagues in pursuit of the greater good. As they labored to preserve and enhance learning, to foster discourse, and to share their knowledge with others who sought it, they sensed an obligation that went far beyond their own personal interests and extended to the communities of which they were a part. Service to, for, and with others was a primary motivation for their work. As academic fellows, teaching was seen as a part of this obligation to serve, as were the host of other duties that facilitated, supported, and enhanced it.
In our own time, this ideal of service has faded. In its place, personal academic and research productivity are stressed, and the assessment of one’s outputs are constantly monitored. Service is too often relegated to women and more junior members of the academy. Among the academic ranks, the greatest rewards go to those who publish their research, and the work of those who labor to create the spaces and forums in which this research is discussed and debated often goes unsung and unnoticed. At a time of internationalized and globalized academic discourse, conferences are arguably more necessary, now, than they ever were. Yet, notwithstanding their importance, and the happiness of those for whom these conferences offer a necessary forum for presenting our recent scholarship, disseminating our research, and meeting together with others, the time-consuming process of organizing these meetings too often goes unheralded in the academy. I know of few academics who have made their way to its highest ranks on the basis of their service.
Today, I praise Sarah Hennessey who, with the assistance especially of Hilary Olek and Lis McCullough, has organized and run nine international conferences on research in music education over a span of the better part of two decades. Sarah has also fostered an international board of the Music Education Research, and members have come from around the world to be present at these conferences. When, due to illness, Mary Stakelum was unable to organize the 2015 conference at the University of Reading, Sarah stepped in and ensured that this ninth conference was held at the University of Exeter. To organize one such conference is an achievement in and of itself. To organize nine is monumental. Look at their achievements. I mention just two. First, these conferences have spawned and continued to feed an international refereed journal in music education, Music Education Research, and contributed to a genuinely cross-disciplinary and global discourse in music education scholarship. One finds within the journal’s pages a broad array of research studies, including some that, too often, have been regarded as marginal or “soft.” I applaud this wide and inclusive sense of music educational scholarship that helps to bridge the worlds of music teaching practice and academic discourse.
Second, these conferences have nurtured an inclusive, friendly, supportive, and humane community of music education researchers and teachers. On the occasions that I have been privileged to attend, the warm and welcoming atmosphere has contributed to and cemented friendships among music educators from various parts of the world. Nothing could be more important to music education research than the friendships, collegiality, and sense of mutuality that these conferences have prompted. The program for this conference again features individual papers and symposia in which groups of scholars can talk together about their work. Its social events have underpinned and supported these conversations. In focusing on matters of personal productivity, it is easy to forget how important the collegiality fostered in the RIME conferences is to our spiritual wellbeing as academics. These meetings have been inspirational as well as informative, sometimes unsettling as they have confirmed the importance of our work. As the ties that bind music education researchers around the world have been strengthened, it has become easier to look beyond the too-often narrow and strictured demands of national and regional imperatives, and see the larger world of music making and taking. Our obligations as music educators to foster better understanding, peace, and tranquility among the earth’s people have been highlighted. Without RIME, we would have been much the poorer as an international community of music educators. Collectively, we owe Sarah and her colleagues a profound debt of gratitude. These meetings have greatly enriched our professional lives and watered our souls.
In a just world, Sarah would be promoted to full professor at Exeter on the strength alone of the importance to scholarship of what she has wrought in these symposia and as editor of Music Education Research. The collective impact of this work on music education research internationally would be recognized at the University of Exeter and by the British and international community of scholars of music education as a signal achievement. Yet justice is yet to come. This moment affords an opportunity to reflect on our individual and collective duty to serve in the academy. It prompts us to determine to use every opportunity to band together, rescue and recuperate service as an ideal in our field even if this also means actively resisting and subverting the present academic preoccupation with minutiae and “bean counting” that passes for estimates of academic productivity. Sarah has chosen a better path—even if it is less valued in the academy. Her work will continue to live on as a blessing to the many who have contributed to and benefitted from these RIME conferences and who have, as I have been, privileged to be a part of them. It is to be hoped that others—both men and women—will carry on where she has left off.
Sarah’s contributions have been rightly recognized by others in earlier conferences. At the 2013 conference, a presentation of a glass bowl was made to Sarah in the expectation that this would be the final conference she would lead at Exeter. Still, the conference is again at Exeter this year! On this occasion, I have asked Liz Mellor to present a bouquet of flowers to Sarah and her colleagues on my behalf to mark my appreciation for what these conferences have meant to me, personally and professionally, and to wish them all of life’s good things in the future.
In this blog, I will be posting my reflections on aspects of music education. Some are public presentations, and others are short writings about themes that catch my interest.