The Online Guitar Group – ‘Pay What You Want’

The Online Guitar Group started during lockdown and fast became an international community, it’s now a permanent fixture. Every Tuesday on ZOOM at 7pm for one hour. To join get in touch now.  Have a listen to just some of the artists and songs that have inspired the sessions.

 

 

Teaching Music History – Without the Lies

Every year I teach the history of music at a school in the UK. It’s a subject that comes with some serious responsibility.

Students are now more ‘global’ than ever and us musicians and music educators who grew up in a far less global land, are providing information and ideas that may shape the views of these truly international citizens. So, we best bloody get it right…

In this blog, I’m going to share my thoughts and experiences on this quite frankly serious subject, they’ve evolved over some time to get here…

I will let you know why I think the bias towards western classical music, in teaching the history of music, is basically a massive porkie pie and needs to go. How our obsession with that familiar western classical historical timeline is actually just silly – and how now is the time to move on and get it ruddy right. If, of course, you haven’t already.

I’m gonna show you my approach and offer some tools for you to use, if you like it of course – you might hate it, you might love it – who knows, you might want to offer me your tools, I’d be happy to consider adding it in. At the very least I hope it starts a debate between us. This is an opinion piece and Im open to changing it.

What’s wrong with how things are?

Lets lay the cards on the table…

Music history is not a linear development. It is a multifaceted and global collection of individual and unique puzzles. (woh there!)

Some schools Ive had the pleasure of working with are developing and adjusting to this idea in a big way, offering an enriched mix, working with hubs and more to bring an inspiring curriculum and context alongside those ‘wig wearing, rather good at music, dead chaps from Europe’. They, against the odds, are vibrant and provide music with context in their day to day running.

However…

Sadly some are not so lucky, many schools still suffer from a stale music department, devoid of vision, and still offers music history completely at odds with the global and abstract reality (blimey that’s a bit heavy! Sorry).

Often completely biased to ‘western classical’ and presenting this in a linear timeline, whilst occasionally referencing a token Paul McCartney…

You know…like ‘today’s lesson is the history of music’ followed by ‘Renaissance (1400–1600)’ then boom ‘Mozart blah blah’…oh and ‘here’s the Beatles’.

Ultimately the end result of offering a western classical timeline without global, or indeed wider context, teaches children an understanding of musical culture and heritage that is in principal not truthful, and one that is unintentionally contributing to negative attitudes towards culture, class and even race. So, this stuff is important!

Of course, teaching about western classical is fantastic and crucial, and please don’t mistake this as an attack on the music or teaching about it. If you teach the western classical musical era’s, I think its’ wonderful (how could you not!?), but my question would be, have you provided context? If not, why should it be aired more than something else? Context in history, is everything.

I’m currently of the belief that music history in schools when biased towards western classical, holding it in higher regard or prioritising it, is wrong and contributes to building a world view that is unintentionally imperialistic and can help prop up misguided and racist viewpoints, and we haven’t even begun to talk about gender… Are you angry yet?…

Sorry, before anyone gets too excited, I did say unintentionally. I don’t believe any are doing this intentionally, as I’ll mention later, us music educators are products of our own education. But its time to step back and to break the mould.

If you leave school only learning about western classical music for your historical knowledge, would you unintentionally hold a belief that western classical music is of higher value than another type of music?… What about Asian musicians or African musicians?… did they get music from the europeans?…weird how those country folk in europe didn’t ever do any music too? did Africans need to be brutally dragged to the US to create the blues? Is a kora a type of fruit?

I know these are extremes, and please if you are a teacher who currently delivers ‘that’ timeline without a global context insight, please be assured I’m not accusing you of ‘racism’, or indeed ‘being’ anything. But I think its an amazing time to change approach, now is an opportunity to provide a truly global approach to music history, for your truly global students.

Our social media accounts, our newspapers, our TV, quite frankly all media is throwing biased information at our busy brains, and the arts are a last bastion of truth.

We live in a world of mis-information, educators lay the foundations, on which future information will sit. I think it is important they are ones of global context and not ones of unintentional bias – they can be fertile ground for some pretty nasty outlooks. In other words, we have a grave responsibility now more than ever.

The music curriculum in the UK is actually helpfully vague, so to purely blame the curriculum here would be silly, even though in GCSE’S for example the bias is still hugely obvious. This is often a cultural choice amongst us educators, again sometimes by accident. Many of us, in fact, anyone who went to school, were most likely brought up on a staple diet of ‘Renaissance to Romantic’ an obsession with ‘ the composers’ and western classical music, so its logical that it would still be endemic in schools as we are now the teachers.

But why is it a problem? Surely Beethoven trumps Bob Dylan? Or the Romantic Era trumps Flamenco? (does anyone use the term ‘trumps’ anymore?… has Donald ruined it?)

I imagine everyone’s answers to be different. But really any comparison is, well, pointless. What’s important is why we learn about these musicians in the first place. In fact why we feel it’s important to teach students about music history at all.

Most agree its undoubtedly good for children of all ages to learn about the history of music; to be introduced to new sounds, to have an understanding of music from around the world and how it developed, how it symbiotically developed alongside cultural, technological and personal developments.

But WHY!!!??? well music history has a wider benefit for all of us. For me the aim in teaching it is to help make sense of the world, to nurture an enquiring and empathetic mind, and to help present old ideas to new minds in the hope they might reach new conclusions.

So, I think I can safely summarise and say…

The purpose of learning the history of music is to understand the world we live in.’

The ‘world we live in’, is a crucial statement. Not Western Europe, or the United Kingdom. ‘The world’.

So when we learn about ‘the world’ its probably safe to suggest we might need to explore beyond the walls of the EU. Actually, ladies and gentlemen, there is a whole world of culturally rich musical heritages which have enriched our own personal musical lives far more directly than Handel or Bach, and its a teachers responsibility to ensure that is explained.

So to sign things off before I get stuck into in my humble offerings of approaches. I want to say this…

Of course Western Classical Music is relevant. Its a fantastically crucial piece of the puzzle. In a puzzle the pieces come in different shapes and sizes. They are interlocking, they are a part of a whole.

In music education giving children one piece of the puzzle, without demonstrating equal value to the other pieces, or in fact informing them there are other pieces out there, is a massive failure to culture and children.

We can not present every part and piece, nor should we, but we can offer a variety of pieces, show them how they fit together and encourage enquiry to find more.

If we do this we help students to continue a life long approach to enquiry, we show them that culture is intertwined and not hierarchical. We crucially have the opportunity to show them they too are a piece of a puzzle.

How do we fix it?

Here’s several key points I think are really helpful in explaining musical history to all ages, some are completely original some have been inspired by many of the amazing teachers I have had the pleasure of working with. You can obviously use your initiative on whats suitable for what age, but the principals will remain the same. At the very least it might be good brain food.

‘Smash the linear timeline into a chaotic and abstract explosion.’

yup, even for the little ones. Because music didn’t develop in a straight line, anything other than that is a lie. Of course when looking at one specific culture you will find a relatively linear development. But when we present musical history its likely in a school you will have to do so i a short timeframe, you’ll want to give an overview and make it simple… the danger is in your attempt to simplify it, you will completely miscommunicate the idea of how music developed.

Instead focus on small elements within music. And of course offer specific timelines within that. For example a lesson on a specific instrument. Looking at the guitar for example, we can see it develop in various different countries simultaneously and at different times. Or in fact looking at one genre of music, or one specific technology that developed music.

‘Look at four points of investigation and explore musical history.’

The Person
The Society
The Technology
The Art

These four points or aspects of study are fantastic lines of enquiry to offer to older students, or in fact use to underpin or choose the area you are teaching for all ages. These four categories are the most obvious umbrella terms of development in musical history. For example you could look at the personal/emotional life of a specific musician. The affects of recording technology on folk music. The scales in Hungarian folk.

‘Examine your own musical history.’

Its a tried and tested technique of history teachers. History is all around us. It makes us what we are today. My first lesson is to examine our own personal musical histories. Getting students to speak to parents, grandparents, examine their own musical experiences, if technology, politics, personal circumstances and feelings etc played a roll in who they are today, musically.

‘Understand that your musical knowledge is limited’

I can’t say for sure, but it’s very very likely that like me and everyone I have ever met, you are purely a product of your limited experience. You have your own musical history which informs what you believe should be taught as ‘important’. Don’t listen to yourself. Try to offer inspiration to enquire for the older children and inspiration to experience for the younger, rather than facts which you think are key.

So that’s all from me. It’s just ideas. Offerings. But whatever you’re opinion, the responsibility of teaching a cultural history is real and I hope somehow this blog at least made you question how you teach it as an educator or indeed how you respond to it as a student.

Thanks for listening.

C