A&HM 5026 Composing a Democratic Classroom ☆

| January 20, 2016


How we began

A&HM 5025, the prerequisite to this course, began with sound experiments designed to free our ears (and minds and hearts) from the internalized judgments that come with years of training, with all their collateral rights and wrongs.  At first, perhaps, it was hard to make sense of a music class where the words “yes” and “no” sprung from inside and not from the teacher, where that which was “right” was determined by the good it provided your group as you composed and performed together.  In our quest for openness, we went on sound searches, explored the unlimited sonic possibilities of New York City, created instruments out of common objects, shared them and played them.

Inspired by John Cage, John Dewey, and Maxine Greene, and anticipating this semester’s focus on democracy and education, we placed experience above Apollonian intellect, cultivating a posture of purposeful non-judgment, “for the sake of increasing life’s enjoyment,” as Cage would say. Throughout the semester, we debated important questions. What is the purpose of notation? Why, when, and under what conditions should school performances take place? Can we talk about musical repertoire as open or as closed? How many ways can musical literacy be demonstrated?

What are the social ends of musical schooling?  What’s the difference between struggle and fear? Why and when does a person willingly undertake change, especially if one is safe or comfortable? What does a person stand to gain from examining cherished beliefs?

How does one design an environment that supports risk, vulnerability, and mistake-making in today’s climate of standardization and accountability? There were, of course, many other questions.

My role as gadfly diminished as the class began increasingly to assert its collective independence, engaging in a more critical and nuanced form of judgment by posing problems that emerged from the unique needs present at that time and that place.

Thoughts turned to the structure of schooling, the purpose of education, and the administration of creativity. We examined the large –sometimes overlarge –role that tradition plays in shaping our personhood, as musicians, music teachers, and colleagues.

Along the way, we performed, recorded, and analyzed projects, each of which built upon the other. We ended the class with song-writing.


What comes next?

A&HM 5026 extends and amplifies last semester’s work by calling greater attention to the social arrangements of learning. The Master-apprentice relationship, the director/ensemble setting, the teacher vs. student dualism–these hierarchy-based settings are so utterly familiar to trained musicians that we may be forgiven for treating them as the only commonsense options for the arrangement of public music education. But we know that there are more ways to make and perform music, as demonstrated in 5025 and as demonstrated by countless kids working together in garage bands and church basements: young musicians – fiddlers, rockers, computer geeks, hackers, and musical ecologists –folks who are writing and performing music that is uniquely matched to the abilities and aesthetic needs of who they are and who they wish to be. These students may or may not be served by public schooling. The students we do serve in schools may want more–additional (not solely alternative) ways to write and perform music. This course, 5026, is designed to fill in an educational gap. Would you argue that most university-trained musicians have focused their performance practice on solos and sonatas on the one hand, and large ensemble playing on the other?