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What are we here and why are we doing? Musical choices in a time of transformation

| April 11, 2017 | 0 Comments


As a school music teacher, I was once told by a 13-year-old boy that he could confide in me about things that teachers were not supposed to know about, “because, Ma’am, you don’t count.”

Ifound this “out-of- the-mouth-of-babes” comment compelling. Whatever the boy’s intended meaning, the statement was a reflection of the values underpinning the school’s curriculum – both the explicit and the tacit – that are articulated in every aspect of daily routines.

The organisation of lesson content, timetables, syllabuses, staffing and spaces depends largely on values, some of which are conscious and some unconscious. Borrowing e.e. cummings’1 technique of mixing up words to make them more pertinent, I would like to ask: “What are we here?” “Why are we doing?” “What part do we have to play in transformation?” “What does it mean to decolonise a curriculum?” “How and what do we prioritise?” Basil Bernstein and educational boundaries British sociologist Basil Bernstein2 identified two aspects of curriculum.

He explained that the transmission of formal knowledge and skills (that might be contained in a syllabus) is always embedded in moral or ethical content that conveys how a pupil should feel about what and how they learn.3 These two aspects correlate with the curriculum and the hidden curriculum, each of which validates certain knowledge and behaviour and, by implication, censures, negates or ignores others. Using Bernstein’s theories to examine what counts in the work of a typical music department in an independent school provides a useful perspective in the consideration of what transformation might mean. Bernstein was concerned for social justice in education, and he explained how inequality is more often perpetuated by educational structures and practices than eliminated by them.

One of his central concepts considers the extent to which the various aspects of education (curricula, subjects, teachers, students, etc.) are put together or kept apart. Crucially, Bernstein argues that this results in boundaries which reveal underlying power struggles. Put simply, the underlying values of the curriculum (what counts or not) can be seen in its boundaries – what is included or excluded in both what is taught and how it is taught.

Playing musical chairs

Music as a field of study has been based on Western classical music. This began to change internationally from the 1970s, when other musical styles – for example, jazz and pop – were slowly introduced. In South Africa, African music, jazz and pop are included in both the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) and Department of Education curricula. However, as is the case with international curricula, this change of curriculum content has not brought a concurrent change to the way that music is taught.4 For the most part, the pedagogical formula stays the same, and diverse musical styles are treated as if they had the same aesthetic priorities as Western classical music.

If transformation is a part of the total education agenda, this would be a good place to direct attention. The boundaries of our inherited music curriculum design are clear. For example, music theory, and practical skills such as aural ability, improvisation and sight-reading, are all taught and tested discretely. This abstract approach, which separates these skills from learning instrumental pieces, ironically hinders the ultimate goal of musicianship: the integration of musical skills. This approach has developed in the Western classical tradition, but its influence in the formal teaching of other musical styles is evident in formal jazz pedagogy, for example. Jazz, a musical tradition based on aural/oral transmission and founded on creativity, has been squeezed into the straitjacket of conventional music pedagogy, designed for Western classical music.5 Similarly, pop music and African music, both relevant to South African learners, suffer an adjustment of priorities when formal pedagogy and assessment designed for Western music is applied. Sakhile Moleshe, vocalist for the acclaimed South African group Goldfish,6 has described his feelings of alienation when told by his preparatory school teacher that music was inaccessible to him unless he first succeeded in his study of the theory of music. Apart from feelings of exclusion, he found it difficult to correlate this view of musical learning to that of his home community, where theory was not a prerequisite for participation, and where all were welcome.

It is clear that the boundaries dividing up the formal music curriculum have different implications for different musical styles. Boundaries, however, go beyond the learning content, and can become fences to keep students in or out. For instance, music terminology includes value statements that communicate what counts. “Serious” and “light” music suggests a hierarchy, as does the term “art” in Western art music – a label not applied to jazz, pop or indigenous music. Timetables, too, indicate an underlying hierarchy – the amount of class time allocated to different genres, or rehearsal time and space for different ensembles, are indications of how each are valued. Music departments can value some kinds of musical knowledge above others.

While this is true of most subject areas, the boundaries maintained by music programmes might also show that students are differently valued – for instance, in the assessment of who is musical, or in who is included or excluded in programmes and ensembles. Gender stereotypes are insidious: a teacher’s belief that girls are more hardworking and boys are more creative can subtly perpetuate the current status quo that continues to produce jazz and pop scenes which are dominated by men. Such allocations are what make up the hidden curriculum. Although this might not be spelt out in a formal curriculum document, it is explicitly or tacitly articulated in the school, and contributes to students feeling either excluded or included.

Identity and music

The hidden curriculum has a particularly powerful role to play in music, because of its unique position among other school subjects. Unlike every other subject, music is something in which every pupil in our schools is deeply and personally invested. The music that fills their social world moves them emotionally, socially, physically. Importantly, it contributes to their sense of who they are, and they come to music lessons deeply familiar with the music of their social world. When faced with a page of exercises in a music theory lesson, or finding middle C on the piano, or listening to unfamiliar music, pupils are often bewildered by the lack of connection between the formal study of music and the music with which they engage out of school. Christopher Small7 explains this mismatch by suggesting that music is essentially about identity.

We are drawn to the music that we like, because it is a way of saying: “This is who we are” – it is one of the markers of our identity. As teachers identify and question the boundaries of what counts and what does not in the music department, taking the varied and complex identities of individual students seriously is the first step in the transformation project. Schools commonly promote a communal school identity into which students are expected to assimilate, but this shared identity is unlikely to be neutral. It will reflect the values of some, but not necessarily all, children in the school – as the 2016 furores over hairstyles indicated.8

Although these conflicts have been brought to the fore in a public way, they are more likely to be suppressed, with students unable to find a way to express their feelings of disaffection. In either case, students who find themselves on the wrong side of the boundary of what counts are unlikely to flourish. Bernstein saw the school as a mirror in which students should be able to see themselves reflected.9 He said that if they cannot recognise themselves in the image, they will struggle to feel included, and thus to succeed.

Take all cultural traditions into account Instead of feeling bewildered by the complexities of identity in our schools, music departments can offer constructive ways to address it. When students’ musical interests are acknowledged and enlisted as a crucial part of their induction into formal musical knowledge, their motivation to learn is multiplied.10 Music teachers can become agents for change by developing a musical programme that is built on equality, where all cultural traditions are gleaned for the particular knowledge they offer.

Celebrating cultural differences means taking diverse musical knowledge seriously, insisting on all voices being heard and given equal weight. In this way, school unity can be built without requiring that all identities are subsumed into one inherited, but unquestioned, idea of what counts. With respect to both the formal and the hidden curriculum, the following questions need to be asked: How do the boundaries inherent in music curricula and programmes include or exclude students? Whose identity is affirmed by the curriculum, and whose is not? Which music is valued and included, and which is excluded or invisible? And in the process of students being assimilated into the school’s musical culture, what messages are communicated about what counts and what does not? Do some children feel they need to hide parts of their musical identity to fit in?

Disassemble old boundaries Boundaries that separated were a quintessential part of South Africa’s past. The challenge for music educators lies in recognising the nature and potential power of these boundaries and, where they perpetuate inequality, challenging them. This is where the decolonisation of curriculum and transformation starts. 

Mandy Carver taught music for many years at the Diocesan School for Girls in Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape.

References: 1. See, for example: poets/detail/e-e-cummings. 2. See, for example: 3. Bernstein, B. (1973) Class, Codes and Control Volume 2: Applied Studies Towards a Sociology of Language. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 4. Green, L. (2008) Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy. Aldershot: Ashgate. 5. Gatien, G. (2009) “Categories and music transmission”, Action, Criticism and Theory for Music Education, 8(2). 6. See: 7. Small, C. (1998) Musicking: The Meaning of Performance and Listening. Hanover: University Press of New England. 8. Girls at various schools in South Africa protested against their schools’ hairstyle policies, which they claimed were discriminatory. This story made international news in August and September 2016. See, for example: row-2063256. 9. Bernstein, B. (2000) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control, and Identity (revised edition). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 10. This has been demonstrated by the Musical Futures organisation in the UK. See:


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