Transcript of Key Note Address to the KMEIA National Conference by Richard Gill OAM2 Comments
The following is the transcript of my keynote address at the recent Kodaly Music Education Conference, held in Adelaide from Tuesday, October 2nd to Friday, October 5th
In presenting this address I amplified certain aspects of my content, which can be found in the body of the text with the word EXPLAIN in parenthesis. I have tried to explain the context as succinctly as possible.
I also preceded this address, expressing the notion that nobody has the corner on truth. I also explained that I speak without fear or favour in presenting my views on the curriculum or any aspect of music education, indicating that I operate as an individual having no allegiance to any association or organization and thus express these views as an individual.
Key Note Address to Kodaly Conference, Adelaide
First, many congratulations to the Kodaly sorority and fraternity on this conference, and the timeliness of the theme, ‘The Importance of Music Education.’
I am well aware that I am talking to the converted but want you to be fully aware of the notion that you all have a mission to fulfill and a job to do outside of your teaching. I also want you to be well aware that nobody has the corner on truth and nobody knows all the answers, least of all, me.
However, after fifty years of teaching, amongst other things, I have come to know and understand a few things including an appreciation of the work of people such as yourselves, working, as you do, at the forefront of music education.
Let me leave you in no doubt that it is my considered view that as music teachers or teachers of music, you are amongst the most important people a child will ever meet. You have it in your power to change children’s lives, to influence the thinking of children and to have a profound impact on the emotional, spiritual, physical and cognitive development of children. Teaching music is not for the faint-hearted.
As teachers, we are, by definition, seekers of wisdom and truth, qualities we hope we can instill into our charges. By virtue of our profession, the heart of which lies in our capacity to ask the right sorts of questions and not rest until we find the right sorts of answers or at least answers which might encourage us to ask more questions, we are constantly questing and seeking new ideas, new materials, new ways, new methods.
This sort of activity undertaken by teachers is essential to the psychological and intellectual well-being of a teacher, particularly if the quest reveals that a new idea is not always associated with good, or better than what we already have, and that the old idea is certainly not always bad. I know of no better musical instrument than the voice, for example, and it’s been around for a while; you could say with conviction that the voice is the oldest musical instrument.
On the eve of a National Curriculum we all have had a chance to react to what the Commonwealth perceives as new aspects of wisdom and truth, and by now, will have had opportunities to address the unfortunate circumstance which is the Arts curriculum, about which much more tomorrow.
I will speak frankly and fully about my involvement in this curriculum, and my relationship with ACARA, in the spirit of trying to sort out the ineffective, incompetent and illiterate documents you may possibly have read. This curriculum in my view is a classic example of the new neither being good nor better.
Placing that aside for later, in this address I intend to talk about:
(i) music’s place in the arts and in an arts curriculum, based on historical evidence;
(ii) the nature of music;
(iii) reasons for teaching music;
(iv) what do we teach in music;
(iv) the benefits of teaching music and, finally;
(v) who should teach music.
(i) Music’s place in the arts and in an arts curriculum, based on historical evidence;
Given that the arts now comprise Music, Dance, Drama, Visual Arts and Media Arts, whatever that or they, might be, it is patently clear to me where Music sits in that collection and it sits fairly and squarely at the top of this group. Obviously, all the Dance, Drama and Visual Arts people would disagree and they may; it is, a free world, more or less.
Why does Music sit at the top?
It is generally agreed that in week eighteen of a pregnancy, the baby begins to hear. It would make sense that the baby doesn’t yet discriminate sounds as far as we know, although there may be differing reactions to a variety of stimuli, but it is, nonetheless capable of hearing speech, music and other sounds.
Given that the aural faculty is so prevalent in the unborn child, together with what we now know as the power of music education on brain development and cognitive functions, there would seem to be a persuasive argument for introducing music to the children as soon as possible in their young lives.
Given that music depends almost entirely on aural perception for comprehension, and that once the child is born it relies almost exclusively on its ability to hear and be heard for survival, there is a further strong case for music to be made as being a fundamentally essential tool in developing a child’s ability to function fully as a human being.
Historically, the church relied on having its messages communicated and understood through song. Medieval Miracle Plays used music, essentially songs, to teach morality, values and the Catholic faith, relying exclusively on the ears of the congregation and the congregation’s subsequent aural capacity and capabilities to memorize and understand the messages. I refer to the early 13th century, well before the period of standardized testing and NAPLAN and well before any concept of universal compulsory education.
While compelling arguments can be made, no doubt, for all the other arts the aural argument in music is very strong, especially in the ways in which memory and recognition are affected.
It is also important to remember that music has been, again historically, the last of all the arts to arrive at what we now generally accept as broad classifications of historical period and style. (EXPLAIN: Here I discussed how Music reaches its Classical period, for example, well after say Poetry, Literature and Painting).
I make this point because there is a movement which advocates the integration of the arts seeking common language and terminologies. Connections among the arts should only be made when we have explored the uniqueness of our own art so thoroughly that there is nothing more to discover about it. Then, and only then, might we seek some relationships with our artist colleagues. Music, while being used for dance or drama is not intrinsically dance or drama (EXPLAIN WAGNER: Here I explained the idea of the Leitmotif, or the leading motif in some of Wagner’s music, which, unless you know beforehand what the tune is supposed to represent, hearing the music alone will know convey the information is meant to represent.)
There is historical evidence of music in the earliest of civilizations indicating its importance and value to those societies. While it remains a source of endless research as to how this music sounded, its existence cannot be disputed.
It should also be remembered, from the historical point of view, that people were painting, drawing, writing poetry and plays using sophisticated technologies to record this work well before music notation was employed even though we do have evidence of notation from around 2000 BC from Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece, again, notwithstanding the contentions surrounding these concepts as presented by scholars and researchers. (EXPLAIN: Here I spoke about the difficulty of notating music in any way which conveys all the musical ideas accurately and with perfect clarity and that musicologists often disagree strongly on how ancient notation might be interpreted.)
Musical notation is quite imprecise in so many ways, especially when considering the notions of interpretation, so it is even a greater argument for children to have as potent an aural experience as early as they are able in order to build a bank of aural memory to aid later perception, apprehension and comprehension. (EXPLAIN: Here I spoke about the notion that that children hear a song, for example which can be described as perception; they learn the song extending perception into apprehension and then as they continue to learn about the song and its material, comprehension can be said to take place, especially as they analyze how the music works.)
(ii) the nature of music;
I will define Music as aurally perceived, organized sound passing through time, occurring as a result of a conscious or deliberate act. (EXPLAIN: The definition is of course less than perfect but I made the point that making music is a conscious and intended act.)
(a) abstract; [in the sense that it is an aural phenomenon, perceived aurally and is different from the spoken word, the painting and movement –dance, e.g.]
(b) meaningless; [it has no intrinsic meaning but may evoke, imply and suggest ideas to listeners]
(c) incapable of description; [ again, music does not describe but may evoke, suggest or imply as many things as the listener wishes to have evoked, suggested or implied]
(d) to be found in a variety of forms and styles including; folk music and composed music specific to all ethnic societies; historical styles as found in the Western art music canon; historical, Asian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern classical styles; popular music cultures and styles; historical evidence points to its existence in the earliest of civilizations;
(e) capable of evoking, implying, suggesting and causing an infinite number of reactions in an equally infinite number of people;
(f) apprehended aurally and can only be truly comprehended aurally;
(g) requires a highly evolved an ever-increasing capacity to memorize
information for true comprehension;
(h) relies on some aspects of notation for comprehension involving a visual component, but ultimately notation is a transcription of an aural perception;
(i) best understood when composition is undertaken.
(EXPLAIN THESE IN TURN: Which I have done and would add that, prior to explaining reasons for teaching music, the principal reason we teach music is for children to make their own music.)
(iii) reasons for teaching music;
We teach music:
(i) because it is good;
(ii) because it is unique;
(iii) because singing, playing instruments, moving to music and composing music enable children to acquire musical skills and knowledge that can be developed in no other way – paraphrased from the National Standards for Arts Education United States of America, 1996;
(iv) because it is capable of moving the heart, soul, mind and spirit of the child in a unique way, evoking reactions ranging from intense joy to the deepest sadness;
(v) because it has the capacity to unite people in a way different from all other art forms, especially through singing, with the capacity to instill values such as team-playing, independence, resilience and cooperation;
(vi) because performing, composing and responding to music are fundamental processes in which human beings engage.
(iii) what do we teach in music?
(i) all music instruction should start with singing – in other words we teach music from music;
(ii) a wide and comprehensive array of songs, games, nursery rhymes and associated materials should be taught simultaneously;
(iii) some music should be taught because it will be used for leading children towards an understanding of formal concepts, while other music will be taught simply because it’s fun;
(iv) singing allows universal participation;
(v) singing can be done while moving and playing simple percussion instruments;
(vi) singing can be done in unison or parts allowing for progression from the simplest songs to the most complex music known;
(vii) from singing, all musical concepts leading to notation (musical literacy) can be taught and is the most convenient way to teach the complexities of notation (rhythm and fixed pitch)with some guarantee of aural understanding (EXPLAIN PIANO INSTRUCTION ‘This is middle C’ Here I spoke about the number of times children are sat at a piano and have the notes pointed out to them without any real discussion or experience of the sound.)
(viii) becoming literate through singing assists all instrumental teaching, thus facilitating the task of the instrumental teacher and singing should take place in every instrumental lesson;
(ix) singing may encourage aural imagination and may heighten musical perception (EXPLAIN WITH EXAMPLE: Here I used the hand-open hand-shut technique for singing to develop aural imagination);
(x) analysis and observation of song material are the first steps towards improvisation and composition – given that composition is essentially about line and given further that songs are musical lines having evolved historically in a linear way, as single, unaccompanied lines;
(xi) singing rounds, canons, and part songs, provides a perfect introduction to the world of counterpoint and again historically counterpoint evolved vocally – furthermore, the word ‘cantabile’ in a singing style, can be found on most instrumental scores somewhere;
(xii) finally, listening to an equally wide range of music from all repertoires to balance the work undertaken in singing.
(iv) the benefits of teaching music;
(i) the benefits of teaching music are on one hand, priceless, immeasurable and intangible;
(ii) on the other hand music contains enough identifiable phenomena from which a child’s musical progress can be assessed and measured;
(iii) because of its abstract nature, it admits all listeners, at some level, at any age and stage (EXPLAIN: Here I referred to the K-2 ORCHESTRAL CONCERTS WITH MUSIC BY SCHOENBERG, WEBERN AND MAHLER performed to several groups of Kindergarten children, forming the basis of questions about the music, which many would think children could not comprehend. My point was that the music was offered without bias or prejudice to minds which contain no biases or prejudices. Often, teachers believe that they have to ‘play down ‘ to children. A phrase I use ‘Junk in equals junk out’);
(iv) extrinsically, music has incredible benefits in assisting the cognitive development of a child, a reason principals, politicians and parents understand but not a reason for teaching music. (EXPLAIN ITS AURAL/ABSTRACT NATURE TO DEVELOP FOCUS CONCENTRATION AND MEMORY. Here I spoke about the fact that music requires such intense listening and such highly evolved powers of focus and concentration that these qualities have the potential to transfer to all other areas of learning. Classroom teachers who teach music would understand his transfer in learning.)
(v) who should teach music?
In Australian government schools the teaching of music is often left to the general classroom teacher. There is no doubt that in this room there are people who fit this description and who are doing a wonderful job. My hope is that they are being supported with regular in-service and help as frequently the classroom teacher will understand more about the business of teaching than a specialist. I will deal with this matter in addressing the National Curriculum tomorrow and develop these ideas further.
To you all I say ‘thank you’ on behalf of generations of children who may or may not know what you are doing for them. We must, as teachers of music, never give up the fight to see that every child in this country has access to music. In short, as Tennyson reminds us in the concluding lines of his poem, Ulysses: (EXPLAIN: Here I paraphrased the concluding lines of Tennyson’s poem, which finishes:
Come, my friends. ?
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. ?
Push off, and sitting well in order
Smite?the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
?To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
?Of all the western stars, until I die. ?
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down; ?
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles, ?
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. ?
Though much is taken, much abides; and though ?
We are not now that strength which in old days ?
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are— ?
One equal temper of heroic hearts, ?
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will ?
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Alfred Lord Tennyson1842
I chose this poem, because of the way in which Ulysses demonstrates his grip on reality and his hope for the future. Ulysses realizes that things have changed in his world, but in spite of his age and the ravages of time and fate he can still encourage his team who are ‘…strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.’
In short, all we have is hope.