Discussion of the Month – August/2016

Welcome to the sixth installment of a new feature on the MayDay Group website: Discussion of the Month. For the next several months, this feature of the website will reprint the collection of short articles that first appeared 10 years ago in Ecclectica. The collection was edited by Wayne Bowman, and published online by Brandon University; this particular issue explored the topic, “The Future of Music Study in Canada.”  Contributing authors to this collection represent a diverse range of music scholarship and interests. The MayDay Group obtained permission to reprint these articles from Ecclectica and the various authors for the purpose of discussing the ways music in higher ed has changed since these articles were written ten years ago. The original publication may be viewed at http://ecclectica.brandonu.ca/issues/2006/2/Roberts.ecc.asp

Our hope is that as you read, you will think about what has changed in the past ten years, what may not have changed at all or very much, and where there are signs of shifts in both thinking and practice. While the Ecclectica issue dealt primarily with music in higher education in Canada, the issues, we believe are common to higher music studies in other parts of the world, and this reprint seems timely given the 2014 report from the College Music Society calling for sweeping changes in the approach to undergraduate education in music. Please take a moment after you read to share your thoughts, so that we may generate the kinds of discussions that will lead to the kinds of changes the original Ecclectica authors call for.


A Sociological Divination

Dr. Brian A. Roberts, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Certain aspects of institutional life can be illuminated through a sociological lens in ways that seem to elude other academic disciplines. So when I, as a sociologist, am asked to predict the future of music on a university campus I am immediately drawn into a literature that speaks to the questions of institutional realities, curriculum and personal identity construction.

Since space is more than a little limited in this essay, I will jump in by saying that we generally understand a music school (or department or faculty) to be a closed society or community. In fact, the best sociological model comes from Cohen (1985) who talks about the symbolic community. This is what he has to say about it.

[…] reality and efficacy of the community’s boundary – and, therefore, of the community itself – [is dependent] upon its symbolic construction and embellishment … Community is that entity to which one belongs, greater than kinship but more immediately than the abstraction we call ‘society’. It is the arena in which people acquire their most fundamental and most substantial experience of social life outside the confines of the home (Cohen 1985: 15).

Why is this an important place to start this brief discussion? The answer, I think, is because, in order to understand what goes on in a music school, it is first of paramount importance that one accept the sociological observation that the “community” is “closed” and is one having very substantial boundaries. This, in itself, is important because it means that there is little influence that any outside agency or worldly “reality” can have on the community. To wit I offer the following observation. While most university music schools are considered to be “professional” schools on campus: The music profession which absorbs the graduates is singularly disinterested in the graduation status of the individual. When, for example, one attends an audition for the open third horn chair in an orchestra, the auditioning candidate is typically seated behind a screen and asked to play. The best player is awarded the chair without usually so much as a single word about what music school one attended, if indeed the nominee even did attend one. In other words, one does not apply to the profession with one’s diploma but with skill. No one is suggesting that the music schools do not provide an education that gives graduates these skills, only that the actual professional status is not in any way derived from simply being a graduate.

This means that the music school is free to work in isolation from a controlling professional body behind the social boundaries that it constructs. The result of this isolation is that any change that may happen to what goes on in a music school is more likely to be driven from within rather than from pressure beyond the boundaries of the social system.

We turn our attention now to the identity construction of the participants in this little social drama we call a music school. I belong to the school of thought that suggests that identity is a socially constructed action. It is not just the “presentation” (Goffman 1959) nor the “announcements” (Stone 1970) but, in no small measure, the “ratification by significant others” (Foote 1951: 484) that forms the basis of identity construction.

So who are playing parts in this drama: Who are the actors and who the audience? First I must remind the reader that within the boundaries of this community, the drama is played out as if it were real. In other words the recital hall stage is real and those who tread onto its surface are expected to perform in a manner consistent with the socially defined norms of the community. Those in the audience are expected to conform to community standards as well, including but not limited to the critique of the performance. This drama is the same for both members of the student population and for faculty who may perform in the school.

One can therefore expect certain institutional norms to apply and to be met if a person is to successfully construct an acceptable musician identity within the boundaries of the community.

What are some of these standards and how are they constructed?

The first most obvious thing is the kind of music that is performed. Many studies from around the world have concluded that classical music is the sine qua non of the music school. How does the institution protect (or project) this reality? In the first instance the entrance audition to the school makes certain demands that are in keeping with that expectation. The entrance syllabus of most music schools is much more likely to require Bach, Schubert and Brahms than music by the Beatles, Queen or a few Blue Grass highlights. In fact, even the acceptable list of instruments is defined by the music. There are not many banjo or bagpipe majors floating about in North American university music schools.

Once a student is admitted, the applied teacher will present a list of repertoire that is to be included in the curriculum for a particular student. While this may have all the attributes of good teaching, with selections made that are best balanced against the skill level of the student, the music selections themselves will still likely be defined from within the boundaries of the classical music genre. Faculty members are constrained by jury requirements where other members of faculty will judge these students on an acceptable program of literature. So even where an individual faculty member may have more liberal literature tendencies, these are kept in check by the institutional demands made on both the student and the faculty member.

Now this may sound like an Orwellian Big Brother scenario, but we must acknowledge that these requirements are there for the protection and use of faculty just as significantly as for the students. The members of faculty have all proven themselves expert in this literature. Since faculty members desire (or need) to validate that for which they have given up so much, they will support a literature that does exactly that. The classical literature is the musical genre that the collective faculty know and play the best, and it is the literature that defines their identity – both individually and collectively. In fact, the hiring as well as the tenure and promotion procedures at most institutions provide substantial checks on the acceptance of this literature as the defining musical genre in a faculty member’s life. This means that even if a member of faculty is a super jazz player or even (dare I say) rock musician, this is more than likely to be kept way back in the distance from the officially projected (or announced) identity. Faculty use students to secure this identity by making them pawns in the drama both as applied students with assigned literature, and also as audience members, where the expected level of criticism is focused on the norms of classical traditions.

Don’t feel too badly for the students in all of this since they, too, are seeking ratification of their own “musician” identities. By applying to the music school they already signal an acceptance of the domination of classical music. Once inside, they seek out the “best” applied teachers (even where two groups who study the very same instrument with different applied teachers can both have the very “best” teacher), they assign Goffmanian ‘points’ to social actions such as having the right scores in their hands, playing in the best groups, playing the best chairs in the best groups, studying with the best teachers, and the list goes on and on. In summary it is important to say that students need the professors to construct their successful musician identity every bit as much as the professors need the students. It is this interdependency that socially rules the community.

Musicians tend to try to replicate themselves. This is the goal of applied study particularly. Generally, applied teachers teach the kind of musicianship skills they themselves have. Teachers who cannot improvise at all tend not to stress the importance of improvisation. Those who cannot play “by ear” tend not to encourage that skill either. Those who sight-read music well tend to make that a high priority for their students. In our university system the outcome of applied study is even announced in terms of access to graduate study.

In broad terms, then, the point is to have students learn to play the classical genre to the best of their individual ability because that is what I do as a member of faculty. Since this was and remains a valid way for me to have spent my life and since I define myself professionally around this kind of music, students will be successful to the degree that they can replicate my projection of worth and need. Students need to take my music seriously because if they don’t, then they don’t take me seriously. So the community is structured in a way that provides opportunities to make both the professors and the students successful in their quest for the construction of a satisfactory “musician” identity.

So how does all of this inform a sociological divination about the future of music studies on Canadian university campuses? First, music schools will continue to hire and support faculty who seek the ratification of an identity consistent with the current reality. The school’s audition process will continue to perform a crucial gate keeping function, weeding out students who might have a disruptive or negative impact on the musical realities of the community. And nothing short of a Thomas Kuhn (1970) revolution will spark a new face to the current reality. It is not that the participants in the community don’t individually recognize other sorts of music, but rather that self-replication as a classical musician cannot be successful if other, competing musics are allowed a valued place within the boundaries of the community.

Will we see no change in the realities of the university music school in the future? During the last quarter of a century there has been a modest intrusion of jazz into the otherwise classical haven. But even where jazz has made an appearance, it is still generally kept apart from a full integration with the real musicians.

Perhaps the inclusion of jazz (and other musics outside the canon) is even society’s way of sponsoring classical music. In the days of Mozart this role was assumed by the aristocracy. Perhaps today our own governments take on this role through their support of the university system. Christopher Small (1987), for example, defines classical music as “subsidized music”. Maybe our role at the university is to be curator for this heritage; and maybe we are abrogating our responsibility to society in general if we dilute our focus in favor of a more eclectic musical offering.

The sociologist would project little change from the self-replicating ideal that currently populates our university music schools.

But then, I may be wrong.

Reference list

Cohen, A. (1985). The symbolic construction of community. London: Tavistock.

Foote, N. (1951). “Identification as the basis for a theory of motivation”. In Stone, G. & Farberman (Eds.) (1970) Social psychology through symbolic interaction. Waltham, MA: Ginn-Blaisdell.

Goffman, E. (1959, 1969). The presentation of self in everyday life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Stone, G. P. (1970). “Appearance and self”, in Stone, G. P. & Farberman, H. A. (Eds.) Social psychology through symbolic interaction. Waltham, MA: Ginn-Blaisdell.

Small, C. (1987) Music of the common tongue. London: Calder.


One thought on “Discussion of the Month – August/2016

  1. Brian, good thoughts as always. Here’s one that might deserve some revision: “This means that the music school is free to work in isolation from a controlling professional body behind the social boundaries that it constructs.” There is a sense, in the US anyway, that the music school is not only free to work in isolation, but is expected to work in isolation. The internal scholarly professional rewards (tenure, promotion, pay raises) go to those whose membership in the idealogical communities you describe so well is uniquely concretized by the often-arcane language of the specialist, what some science educators call “inscriptions” (in contrast with “border objects”–communications with the public at large). As Peter Schikele once quipped about one of PDQ Bach’s pieces, something like: “It was the longest, hardest-to-reach, most complicated, annoying and, therefore, greatest of PDQ Bach’s compositions.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.