Subverting music education

Kratus, J. (2015). The Role of Subversion in Changing Music Education. In C. Randles (Ed.), Music Education: Navigating the Future (pp. 340–346). New York & London: Routledge.

Music Education: Navigating the Future

Here’s a horrifying story from John Kratus:

In 2009 I gave a presentation on collegiate curricular change in music for the Society for Music Teacher Education in Greensboro, North Carolina. One of the first slides in my presentation was an outline of Michigan State University’s degree requirements for the Bachelor of Music in Music Education. The outline included certain numbers of semesters for applied lessons, large ensembles, theory and ear training, and history and literature, as well as music education requirements including three tracks (instrumental, string, choral/general), introduction to music education, conducting, instrument and voice classes dependent on student teaching. I asked the audience members how many of them taught in a college program similar to that. Nearly every hand went up. Then I revealed that the program I described was taken from the Michigan State University Academic Programs book from 1959. The course descriptions, the performance repertoire, even the delivery of instruction were, for all, practical purposes, nearly unchanged in 50 years.

Kratus goes on to say that music education is way more than fifty years out of date.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the type of music education provided to contemporary collegiate music majors has deep roots in the conservatories of European capitols of the 19th century. In fact more than its roots are located there–21st-century collegiate music has retained the stems, branches, leaves, flowers, seeds, and pollen of its 200-year-old predecessors.

Kratus traces the mainstream American music education to the boom in professional orchestras fueled by the growth of the European middle class in the 19th century. The conservatories arose because the old apprenticeship model of music teaching wasn’t producing enough musicians to fill all the new orchestra and opera jobs. We’re maintaining the pedagogical traditions of vocational schools that existed to fill a market demand on another continent a couple of centuries ago. Our curriculum is very well suited to producing performers of the music that the eighteenth century European bourgeoisie enjoyed. What does this curriculum have to say about the needs of the kids in twenty-first century music classrooms? Not a whole lot. No wonder most kids abandon formal music education as soon as they’re able.

Kratus is sympathetic to the music academy’s resistance to change. If you’ve devoted your Gladwellian ten thousand hours to mastery of classical oboe, you are naturally going to see the rationale for preserving the oboe’s ecosystem as self-evident. It’s not hard to see the strong institutional incentives behind the music academy’s sense of responsibility to its past. The rest of the world isn’t creating a whole lot of pressure to change, either. Most of us agree that European orchestral music is a beautiful tradition, one that deserves to be studied and preserved. That consensus is exaggerated by the lingering white supremacy behind our ideas of cultural prestige.

Kratus is pessimistic about the prospects of reformers like me effecting large-scale change. The culture of school orchestra contests and festivals is not going anywhere anytime soon. Music educators lack the institutional clout of performers and conductors. Direct insurrection is going to be met by heated opposition. Instead, Kratus recommends small acts of subversion, for example, by starting a songwriting class in the shadow of the orchestra rather than trying to replace it. My own attempts to use music tech as a transmission vector for Afrodiasporic dance music into the academy fall under that category as well. Is there a tenure-track job waiting for me along this path? Or am I dooming myself to blogging from the margins of lowly adjunct status? I guess we’ll see.

4 thoughts on “Subverting music education

  1. If you get tired of being an adjunct, and you have music ed certification, you can try teaching abroad at an international school. I think the best way to change the field is on the ground, not in the academy.

  2. This is sad but very true. I think even though some teachers, such as myself want to incorporate technology into my lessons but unfortunately the only technology that is available at our school are two desktop computers and my laptop. Not to mention lack of technology PD sessions for music teachers in the County. Any suggestions to incorporate 21st century teaching into general music classes in an Elementary school?

      • Thanks for some great tech ideas with iPads but unfortunately our kids at school does not have ipads. Our school is a Title I school and about 80% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. But I can plan and make an effort to take the class to the computer lab with thorough planning ahead of time.

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