Music, The “Magical Mystery Skill?”: 4 Reasons Elitism Exists in Music Education

Why is it that musical ability is seen by “non-musicians” as an innate, seemingly magical set of skills that either you have or you don’t? “Non-musicians” throughout this article, will refer to people who do not engage in musical activities outside of listening and may have, for a number of reasons, been turned off from active music making. Music is an innately human activity and every human culture in the world has some type of music. Music is “…essential … to being fully human” [i]. Also, Community Music, a relatively new field of study in the world of music education has as one of its tenets that “…everyone has the right and ability to make, create and enjoy their own music” regardless of age [ii].

DISCLAIMER: I was born in PEI and I’ve lived here all my life. I love it here, but just like anywhere, it isn’t perfect. There are still societal and systemic hang-overs in music education that exist here not unlike in many other parts of the world. The tone of this post may seem rather negative but I assure you that this is only here to point out where flaws exist and to get people thinking. PEI does have a strong history of music education in schools and is the only province in Canada with a qualified music teacher in every school! I do not want to tarnish that reputation—just point out needs for improvement.

Why is it that musical ability is seen by "non-musicians" as an innate, seemingly magical set of skills that either you have or you don’t? "Non-musicians" throughout this article, will refer to people who do not engage in musical activities outside of listening and may have, for a number of reasons, been turned off from active music making. Music is an innately human activity and every human culture in the world has some type of music. Music is “...essential ... to being fully human" [i]. Also, Community Music, a relatively new field of study in the world of music education has as one of its tenets that “ Community Music’s vision states that everyone has the right and ability to make, create and enjoy their own music” regardless of age [ii].
Why does elitism exist in music education?
I am a music teacher at a K-6 school in Montague, Prince Edward Island. I have had conversations with fellow teachers, all of whom are very intelligent, well-educated, and self-described ‘non-musicians’ who seem to believe that music is for the select few. They think that musical ability cannot be taught and that it is either something that a person can either do from birth or not at all. If this were the case, what would be the point of us even trying to teach music in school? It would already be decided who was going to be successful and who was not. If we, as teachers, had this mindset about reading and math skills, what would be the point? Some people, are innately gifted with mathematical skill just as musical skill can be an innate ability for many. However, anyone can learn math just as anyone can learn to read even without innate ability barring any severe learning disabilities. The more they practice it and become familiar with its learning strategies, the better they become. Music learning works in the exact same way.

I’m Tone-Deaf

One of my pet peeves is when I hear somebody say “I’m tone-deaf” or “I have no musical bone in my body.” For one, tone-deafness does not exist as it is claimed to. It only truly affects 4% of the population [1]. If a person was truly tone-deaf they would not be able to distinguish between the different timbres of people’s voices, they would not be able to hear the difference between two different songbird’s songs, and they would not be able to hear the different inflections with the way that people ask a question or finish a sentence. For example, when listening to the news on the radio, have you ever noticed that when the announcer has finished a particular news story, the pitch of their voice goes down to signify the end of the news story? Not being able to hear the difference between these natural vocal inflections may signify true tone-deafness. This being said, I believe that there are some rare cases of true tone-deafness in the world akin to an auditory learning disability. It should be noted though, that tone-deafness is different from not being able to reproduce a sound with your voice. A person may be able to hear a pitch but cannot reproduce that sound yet because they haven’t practiced that skill enough to be able to do it well. If this is you, it does not mean that you are tone-deaf, it means that you just need to do it more!

Having no musical bone in your body is unrealistic and completely false. Music is a skill like any other skill and can be learned through practice–yes—some people are better at it than others, but that is the same with any skill. Many, if not all, of the people who I hear utter this are caught singing along (in-tune might I add) to their favourite song on the radio or keeping a steady beat along with another.

Why Does This Mindset About Music Exist?

I am not entirely sure where this mindset might have originated but on Prince Edward Island (PEI) there could be a few of reasons for it:

1. No Music Class After Grade 6

Firstly, students on PEI are only required to take music up until Grade 6. What happens after this is different depending on your family of schools but in all cases, everyone is not required to take music after Grade 6. In many of the bigger schools, in Charlottetown for example, students are required to take a challenging ear test and written component to be ‘accepted’ into band in Grade 7. As soon as this happens, students are instantly labelled as “musicians” and “non-musicians.” Those who did not do well enough on the test—the “non-musicians”—do not get to be in band in Grade 7 and therefore do not get to develop their musical ability any further unless they take lessons outside of school or learn an instrument on their own. To illustrate how difficult this test is, I took it during my first practicum and after being trained as a musician for many years and still didn’t get them all right.  These “non-musicians” as they are then called, grow up thinking that they have no musical ability and that music is only for the elite.

Once the “elite” are chosen in Grade 6, they are streamlined into academic courses if they choose music (band only) in high school where there are no music selections outside of academic courses. This only perpetuates the idea of music being an elitist program and furthering the mindset of “musician vs. non-musician.”

The fact that band is classically-based also furthers this. Classical has its place and I grew up learning the classical method for most of my life, but classical music, the way it has been traditionally taught, demands perfection but without necessarily taking into account the learning abilities of individual types of learners, learning disabilities, or even genres of music. Music in school has been so over-academicized to the point where it is only catered to the elite after elementary school.

2. Canaries vs. Crows

Secondly, and sadly, many people alive today went through school in an era where even music teachers thought that musical ability was only for the select few. Students at this time were labelled as either “canaries” or “crows” in front of their peers and asked to mouth along with the music if they were labelled as a “crow.” No wonder these people thought that they had no musical ability. I am shocked every time I hear a story like this. To the extent of my knowledge, this does not happen anymore.

3. Music is Hard?

Another reason could be that music does look difficult and something that most people wish they could do but were never given the opportunity or never made time to learn it. Instead of saying they will learn it and start picking away at it, it’s much easier to procrastinate and give an excuse for why you haven’t done it yet. Saying that a person actually cannot do something for some reason, gives many people the comfort they need to explain why they failed to learn it, when lack of practice, proper coaching, or opportunity is actually to blame.

4. The Gift

Also, music on PEI, not unlike most things on the Island, is deeply rooted in tradition. Fiddling is a common past-time here and it goes way back. Here is a quote about the attitudes on musical ability that has been ingrained into the Island psyche from the Bowing Down Home website:

Probably the most widespread notion about fiddling on Prince Edward Island is that the ability to play constitutes an inborn gift from God, a view often expressed by the local clergy. Most Islanders also see the gift of fiddling as an inheritable trait which then passes along family lines, and via ethnicity. Many Islanders believe that fiddling inheritance often skips a generation, and that players with the most potential gifts have fiddling grandfathers on both sides.

Conversely, there is the sense that it is pointless for individuals not possessed of the gift to even attempt the instrument. And when confronted with a successful first-generation fiddler, Islanders often feel the need to rack their brains for a suitable forbear.

Clearly not helpful for those wanting to learn to play an instrument who are deemed “not gifted.” These notions of “no musical bones” and “canaries vs. crows” has been learned and passed down by generations. It has been tradition to think this way and tradition is hard to break.

What Can We Do?

The best we can do is discourage the rhetoric that promotes music learning as being only for the elite. The problem unfortunately is systemic and societal. PEI is working toward a more inclusive idea of music learning that encompasses all learning types, musical styles, and genres but until that happens for real all we can do is encourage music as being for everyone and discouraging negative talk within our own classrooms.

Does your school community have any of these issues? Tell me about them.

Or maybe your community has overcome these? I would love to hear about how you did it!

 

Print References

i. Tupman, Dennis. The Canadian Music Educator; Edmonton Vol. 54, Iss. 1,  (Fall 2012): 44.

ii. Willingham, Lee. The Canadian Music Educator; Vol. 56, Iss. 1 (Fall 2014): 17


Digital References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1950825/
  2. https://www.bowingdownhome.ca
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