Sunday, February 6, 2011

Music Educators' Gated Community

Over the weekend I came across a post of Dave Wilken's from back last March which is a lacerating review of Jeff Smiley's The Balanced Embouchure. Before getting to the specifics of the disagreements, I want to do this post laying out what I think are the divergent world views which underlie them.

I think of music educators as a privileged elite living in a gated community. As children they were blessed by nature and/or nurture to have what it takes to pass the audition to get into their school's music program, which serves a minority of students and is often callous in its rejection of those viewed as unworthy. They benefited from a lot of money and attention spent on them the other students miss out on. 

As time went on, they excelled in the very Darwinian advancement process, which tends to favor technique (which is somewhat quantifiable) over musicality (which is much more subjective). By the time they reach the top of the heap, they've spent their entire career with folks just like themselves. They've never had to work with "regular" people. And sort of like the Harry Potter wizards, there's often an us versus them view of the "muggles."

For those admitted into the system it works very well, but I think it sets the members of that gated community up for not appreciating the issues associated with helping those outside it learn how to make music. Because they never think about those issues, my feeling is that certain biases creep into their framing of those issues.

I'm often reminded of the Victorians of the Industrial Revolution when reading music education materials. They're often based on Cartesian dualism, where the body is like a factory full of machines waiting for the brain to be the captain of industry laying out what has to be done. Apply industriousness and force of character to a correct understanding of the mechanisms involved and all can be achieved. 

The problem with that view is that it presumes the conscious mind is 100% in charge, but the new neuroscience suggests that's not the case at all, the work of Benjamin Libet being some of the earliest work on this subject.

As a side note I'd add that the "force of character" angle also helps those living outside the gated community understand the verbal abuse that educators veer into from time to time and that students (at least those not offended and quit) seem completely OK with. My guess is that students accept the verbal abuse as par for the course due to the combination of their agreeing with the notion that simply trying harder is often the answer to musical problems (they are an elite, after all), and the (perhaps unconscious) knowledge they can be expelled from the elite as easily as they were admitted.

As a therapist, the population I most want to serve are all those of us outside the gated community. As for Jeff Smiley, my sense is that years of mindfulness while teaching has led him to an approach very much at odds with that of most educators, and one that I find to be a great way to approach music making in general for "the rest of us". It really works for me, but I can see how someone who's spent a lifetime with another world view that has worked for them isn't going to appreciate how valuable it can be for someone with "beginners mind" when it comes to making music.

2/8/11 - When I put this post up I sent a note to Dave saying I'd be happy to put any response he had to it down at the bottom of it. Here's what he said down in the comment section (with slight editing):

Hi, Lyle. Interesting read and I look forward to reading more details. Thanks also for the link. I think Jonathan's summary of my opinions in his comment above is spot on.

The broad strokes you paint with in this post make it difficult for me to step back and objectively see how my teaching philosophy or review of BE mirror a "gated community." On the one hand, I do feel that the "ivory tower" culture of academia sometimes makes us miss where the metal meets the mouth. On the other, some people outside that culture could benefit from poking their head inside the tower and looking around once in a while. I think the idea of a lone genius with a personal lab of students revolutionizing brass pedagogy is largely a myth. Real progress is a collaborative effort, opposite a "gated community."

In the comment below Dave's I try to be more clear about what's meant by "gated community".

Dave has also done a second post on Jeff's work here

And as an example of what Jung would call synchronicity (and a skeptic mere coincidence), here is the latest post over on Scott (Mr. Dilbert) Adams' blog where he turns his "thinking out of the box" mind loose on education as we know it.

A few moments later - Here's a link that just popped up suggesting an effect of diet on education which I want to save for a future post on Dave's reservations about Jeff's talking about general health matters in his embouchure book.

2/9/11 - Here's another synchronous/coincidental link, this time from Pliable (another outside the box thinker). A snip from near the end of his post:

I looked in vain at last night's performance for any of the mainstream music journalists who repeatedly pronounce on the future of music education from nearby London.


  1. I've not read Jeff Smiley's book, so I'm not going to join in the debate as to whether he is right or wrong. In other (non-musical) debates I've participated in online, I've all too often come across people who criticise an author's views or ideas on the basis solely of having read reviews rather than the original book. I'm not going to fall into that trap.

    It seems that James' two major areas of criticism are first that Jeff's physiological descriptions of what is going on are inaccurate, and second that Jeff is unqualified to be offering quasi-medical advice.

    On the other hand, it appears that you have found BE helpful, particularly the exercises and the psychological insights which chime with your approach to music therapy.

    So, as far as I can tell, the bits that you like are different from the bits Dave Wilken doesn't like. So it may be that you are both right.

    This I have to say is extremely normal. Few books of this type are going to be right in all respects. Even such an august work as Farkas' "The art of French Horn playing" contains aspects I strongly disagree with. For instance his method of using clefs to transpose seems unnecessarily rigmarolish, and the length and complexity of his warmup routine seems excessive to me.

    As for your "gated community" comments, I'll pick them up another time.

  2. Jonathan - Thanks for that comment. The main reason I decided to get into this was to help me better understand the difference in approaches by educators and therapists in teaching music. Being a regular reader you'll recognize this as being something I've been trying to get a better grip on since beginning the blog.

    I think overall you've summed it up well with, "the bits that you like are different from the bits Dave Wilken doesn't like. So it may be that you are both right". Educators and therapists have different motivations for what they're doing, and work with different populations, so it makes perfect sense we're not going to be going about things in exactly the same way.

    Your point about the Farkas book reminded me of how astonished I was, back when I started the horn and read up on it, that even though brass instruments have been with us since at least the Gabriellis, how to go about playing them is still such a matter of debate.

    Ancillary to that is my often wondering how a student can know which teacher is the one for him/her. There are all those stories of years lost and dramatic embouchure changes needed due to a mismatch of teacher and student.

    I'm going to reread Jeff's book to see if what I think he's saying is really what he is saying, keeping Dave's critique close at hand. I know I've had the experience of reading a blog post and having my understanding of it colored more by what's in my head than what the blogger was trying to say, so want to check for that kind of bias on my part.

    If you do get back to commenting on the "gated community" notion, please click on the link "callous in its rejection" above, as having heard that story so many times has a lot to do with my feelings on the matter.

  3. If teaching children how to read still generates intense debate (and it does) then it is hardly surprising that the best approach to a more esoteric activity like playing a brass instrument is also not yet fully decided.

  4. Jonathan - What a terrific point - Thanks

  5. Hi, Lyle. Interesting read and I look forward to reading more details. Thanks also for the link. I think Jonathan's summary of my opinions in his comment above is spot on (although I think he temporarily confused me with James?).

    The broad strokes you paint with in this post make it difficult for me to step back and objectively see how my teaching philosophy or review of BE mirror a "gated community." On the one hand, I do feel that the "ivory tower" culture of academia sometimes makes us miss where the metal meets the mouth. On the other, some people outside that culture could benefit from poking their head inside the tower and looking around once in a while. I think the idea of a loan genius with a personal lab of students revolutionizing brass pedagogy is largely a myth. Real progress is a collaborative effort, opposite a "gated community."


  6. Dave - Thanks so much for the comment, and for that review that has got me rethinking all this. As I said in response to Jonathan's earlier comment, I'm getting into this discussion more to clarify my thinking than try to convince anyone else of anything. I find your willingness to say exactly what you think really refreshing and informative. Your posts on teaching have been some of the best I've come across.

    The phrase "gated community" is meant to convey that educators work with a restricted population - they had to get into a school music program (the first gate), do well, work hard and beat the competition to get into college (another gate) to get to be someone it's worth your time working with. I'm sure college level educators might take on beginners with no obvious "talent" from time to time, but I don't imagine that's a high percentage of the students.

    That you're working with people who've been at it for so long, and already pretty good, has, to my mind, got to affect how you teach them and they respond to your teaching. You're building on knowledge and concepts and muscle awarenesses that are already there, you're not starting from the ground up. And you don't have to worry about motivation, as there are plenty waiting to take the place of drop outs.

    Just as my "teaching philosophy" has no real need to account for your situation, yours has no real need to account for mine, and neither really needs to. I'm not saying yours is wrong, just suggesting that it might not be universally the best option.

    I went to Jeff's site and read that bit about how his approach came to him through working with the very people he was not reaching through regular means. They were people who would most probably been refused entry at the gate of music education institutions as simply being not very promising students. Surely you've seen comments by some educators that it's really a kindness to tell some students they just don't have it?

    I think it's really interesting that, as far as I've been able to tell, all the adults who have written in to Jeff and Valerie are those who have crashed and burned following other approaches and used BE to start all over. They are a small subset of brass players, but based on my personal experience, I really do think something pretty interesting is going on.

    As for "lone genius", I know all about the "lone" part having gone into music therapy back in the 80's and having a lot of people think I was nuts, but over time I'm finding validation. Still looking for the "genius" part though!

  7. Dave

    although I think he temporarily confused me with James?

    My apologies!

  8. Lyle, I think the music programs we've both been exposed are quite different from each other. For example, with the exception of some arts magnet schools I don't know of a single primary school music program that excludes a student for lack of "talent." Elementary through high school music programs are usually where most get their start with music. While there are often auditioned ensembles at larger high schools, there are usually groups that are open enrolled for any interested student.

    Admittance into a college music program is a different thing, but then we're talking about career-minded students. It's common for music faculty to debate the standards of acceptance and graduation, so it's certainly true that in this situation some students are encouraged to find another degree if they don't show enough potential for success.

    However, with the exception of conservatories, most college music programs also have many courses and ensembles that are open to all students without audition. As most of my teaching career has been spent at small schools, I'm quite accustomed to working with non-majors and in many cases needed to actively recruit students in order to fill missing parts.

    Western Carolina University's School of Music currently has around 200 majors in its program. The marching band last semester was about 400. The Concert Choir (another open enrolled ensemble) is around 100. Non-musicians are encouraged to take classes in Music Appreciation, Jazz Appreciation, World Music, etc. as electives towards their non-music degree program (I've taught courses like this almost every semester).

    Private lessons for college credit are a little different, and depend on the school. Most of the schools I've taught at allowed non-majors to take lessons, but there was an audition process. The major rational for excluding students is that a music course for credit means that a certain standard was reach (MUS 191 for 1st semester, 192 for 2nd, 291 for 3rd, etc.). If the student is a raw beginner, chances are not good that he or she will get through the 191 level in one semester. Would it be ethical to allow that student to enroll in a course that he or she would likely fail anyway? Would it be ethical to pass a student who is having fun and still works hard, even if their performance can't be held to the same standards as everyone else taking the same course?

    Some schools have piano and guitar class, for example, that are open enrolled and allow beginners to help this situation. Others don't. In my case, I've sometimes recommended the interested student take some lessons outside of college and reaudition in a semester or three if they still want to.

    I'm not saying students never get excluded from scholastic music programs, but in general I find that most schools have the reverse problem - they don't have enough students participating and need to work hard to fill their classes and ensembles.

    Regardless of whether the above is typical (as I see it) or not, it's also interesting to take your criticisms and look at how they might also apply to scholastic athletic programs, math programs, science programs, medical school, etc. Do those fields also practice a similar "gated community" mentality? Is the difference between graduating a bad engineer (whose bridge collapses) and graduating a poor musician (who just mangles the concert you paid to hear) such that the two programs require a different approach regarding admittance into a degree program?


  9. Dave - Thanks so much for that comment. Just a few quick points now, and then later will try to answer better in a post.

    It may be my age and the way things used to be, rather than how they are now in elementary and middle school and high school - hope you're right. In my 30+ years as a music therapist, all the people who told me of their rejections from the programs were adults reliving something of a childhood trauma. Will check out the current situation in the public schools in my area. If all your work was in North Carolina, that makes sense in that even back when I was an undergraduate NC seemed to have a much better arts program overall than VA.

    The point I'm not getting across has to do with my thinking music being what Jeffrey Agrell calls a "life skill" - not a just a professional skill. Every one needs exercise, ability to do basic math, familiarity with basic scientific principles, and to be aware of pluses and minuses of basic lifestyle choices, without needing to be pro athletes mathematicians, scientists or medical doctors. All the new neuroscience is suggesting making music is sort of a multi-level exercise, with multiple benefits. In "primitive" cultures everyone joins in the communal music making, it's not left to the pros in the spotlights and the audience in the dark.

    For all those open admission groups you mention, they're of value only to those who already have some experience. I just wish more people could have that experience and be able to enjoy the benefits of music without the pressures of having to compete with the ones thinking about moving on to higher levels of technique needed for advancement in the educational system.

    It's like that Scott Adams post I linked - there are more than one kind of student, so why not programs for each, rather than just one? And that means different ways of teaching to my mind. And the more people getting into adulthood as amateur music makers would probably be a plus for the pros because of increased interest in attending live shows.

    But back to the main point - I can't help feeling that teaching modalities that work for one group are not going to be exactly the same as those that work for another. Different populations, different motivations, different goals. An education devised for agronomists isn't going to be as helpful for the backyard gardener as it might be.

    Thanks again for taking the time to respond. Your push-back is making me have to figure out better what I think and how to express it in a way that makes sense to others.

  10. Hi Lyle

    I took a look at that link to the article on food and IQ. It included the following.

    The association between IQ and nutrition is a strongly debated issue because it can be skewed by many factors, including economic and social background.

    A middle-class family, for instance, may arguably be more keen (or more financially able) to put a healthier meal on the table, or be pushier about stimulating their child, compared to a poorer household.

    Emmett said the team took special care to filter out such confounders.

    As you know, I'm an outright skeptic in a lot of things, and this sets all sorts of alarm bells going.

    First of all, there is the question of whether IQ measures anything other than the ability to do IQ tests. In other words, whether it is a valid proxy for anything else.

    Second, there would be no reason to be very surprised about a small difference in IQ as a result of diet, if only because a good diet improves general health.

    Third, although the team say they took special care to rule out confounding factors, it would be necessary to examine the methodology very carefully to see the extent to which they had succeeded.

  11. Jonathan - Completely agree with all three points you make. As in this case, I try always to introduce these sorts of links saying something like the study "suggests" something. Lots of harm was done to music therapy back in the 70's and 80's by a lot of people making unsubstantiated claims, resulting in outsiders being turned off.

    Also, my aggregation pages turn up lots of articles without the protocols and the caveats of the study being mentioned. Those I simply don't link.

    Your second point reinforces my reason for including the link. It's pretty well established that malnutrition leads to all kinds of deficits in children and adults. In my experience there's usually a gradient between obvious effect and none. Individuals need to decide where they want to draw the line on whether or not to alter behavior.

    The other thing is your second point is like a that point Dave has made several times about how the main effect of practicing using a particular method is that you practice! The benefits that flow from that may have little to do with the "method".

    A cardinal rule for me as a therapist is to do everything I can to allow the client to focus as much as possible on making music - good light, seating, adjustable stands, non-stressing environment, etc. The health aspect, to me, is part of that, and will post on that chapter of Jeff's book sometime down the road. When I do, will include the link to where Jeff has posted the entire chapter online so that you might turn your skeptical eye to it if you'd like.

    As always, thanks for your comments. Our back and forths over the years have gotten me to be much more careful about how I put things, which also means my thinking has been cleared up a little as well.