POINT Professor Keith Swanwick: OF VIEW Why composing, why audience-listening?
Keith Swanwick is Professor of Music Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. His most recent book, Teaching Music Musically, is published by Routledge.
Many music educators believe that composing, performing and audience-listening are activities that reinforce one another. Accordingly, instrumental teachers are often urged to extend what they do beyond teaching performance skills to their students. Does it really matter that pupils’ musical experience should be moved beyond their instrumental or vocal performance and does the instrumental teacher have a role in this? In this short article I want to draw on some of our research at the Institute of Education, University of London, that illuminates the relationship of the major musical activities of composing, performing and audience-listening.
What do we think we are doing?
Before looking at some of the specific evidence I need to bring out onto the table some central ideas on music teaching and learning. For whatever the particular activity, there has to be a strong sense of what it is to engage in lively musical transactions. Where are we really trying to go and what guiding lights can we find? My answer is to suggest three working principles.
Care for music as discourse One aim of any music teacher is surely to bring music from the background into the foreground of awareness and to affirm that music is a vital part of human discourse, part of a great and evolving ‘conversation’. In several of my publications I have tried to show that three essential qualities infuse all significant musical communication. The first of these is that we hear and organise sound materials into expressive shapes. Tones become tunes. The second is that these expressive shapes form internal, new and often surprising relationships. Expressive gestures, (or ‘phrases’) become organically connected into form. Thirdly, the totality of these ‘sounding forms’ may at times speak to us of things previously unarticulated, evoking patterns of experience deep down inside us. Taken together these elements comprise what I think of as musical understanding, a concept I shall return to shortly. 1
The main implication here is that all music students should have the chance to produce and respond to music in all layers of musical discourse, whatever the activity. If students are not working at a level in which they can exercise truly musical judgements they are unlikely to be developing the quality of their musical thinking. This may sometimes mean, for example, drawing back from pushing into yet more technical work and instead making some space for expressive and structural musical decisions.
Care for the musical discourse of students Musical discourse – by definition – can never be a monologue. Each student brings a realm of 2
musical understanding into our classrooms and studios. We do not introduce them to music; they and music are already well acquainted. But each musical activity offers very different possibilities for decision-making, a crucial feature of student autonomy. Performing alone (so many piano students do this!) offers little in the way of exchanging and refining musical ideas. Conversely, playing or singing in very large groups offers very little scope for personal judgement. By contrast, composing (including improvising) offers greater scope for choosing not only how but also what to play or sing and in which temporal order.
Since composing gives more decision-making to the participant it allows more scope for cultural choice. Composing (including improvisation) is thus an educational necessity, not an optional activity to be indulged if time permits. It gives students an opportunity to bring their own ideas to the micro- culture of the teaching studio, infusing formal education with music from ‘out there’.
Both composing and performance taken as isolated educational activities limit us to what we can ourselves play or sing. Music education should offer more than this. Also in the world outside of classrooms is the ‘conversation’ of musical thinking from other times and places, recorded and in live performance. Access to this literature must also be part of the experience of music students in any form of education. Composing, performing and audience- listening each have their part to play. In this way individual differences of students can be respected – the second principle. The main avenue for some might be performance, for others listening and responding.
Care for fluency Music is in some ways analogous with language, though it is also very different. Literacy is not the ultimate aim of music education; it is a means to an end when we are working with some music. Musicians in jazz, Indian music, rock music, music for steel-pans, computer-assisted music and folk music are well aware of this. Notation of any kind has limited or no virtue for performers of Korean sanjo, or Texas-Mexican conjunto accordion music, or salsa, or Brazilian capoeira. 3
One of our research students, Philip Priest, identified at least nine ways of playing ‘by ear’. These include playing (or singing) a piece learned from notation from memory, specifically copying the playing of another performance, more generally imitating a style of playing heard some time before, improvising a variation on remembered music, inventing within a clear assimilated framework – such as a chord sequence, and free invention where the player (or singer) has maximum scope for choice and decision-making. Students having music lessons should surely be encouraged to engage in at least some of these very natural musical strategies.