In years past, I would have read this in the following way:
- Great! Let’s introduce students to the classics
- Wow, now I know what pieces my classes will be focusing on.
- They are sending people out, that rocks. I wish I was in the UK to get this wonderful help.
- A movie, rad! My students will eat up a movie… maybe I can get a copy to leave with subs in the future.
- It is so great that the BBC (like the Doctor Who BBC) is putting money and time into this.
- Catch them while they’re young!
1) Canonization: When we make a list that is to represent something like an educational program, what we leave out is nearly more important than what is actually put in. In the BBC’s “Ten Pieces” project, we see ten works work created by Western (Euro-American), Caucasian composers. We do, happily, see a female voice represented here. This particular–if impressive–choice should not come as a surprise. The composer in question, Anna Meredith (whose works I like a great deal), is a composer in residence for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Still, where is the wider diversity of musical backgrounds (even in the classical world)? Also, why were these specific pieces selected? Do they have some specific significance in the current and/or future lives of the students?
In addition, what about the meanings and/or social contexts of these works? Shouldn’t they be questioned? Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” is a coronation piece. Should that be accepted without questioning the very use of the work and the political structure that it represents? To be truthful, if this was in the U.S. and it included the “Star Spangled Banner” or “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” I would still be critical if the pieces were introduced without a discussion and exploration of the cultural meanings and issues associated with those works. However, the news post and the BBC’s website for the project don’t seem to suggest critical discussion of the works, just consumption and “creative response.”
2) Delivery of Content: The BBC’s learning/education branch has developed this curricular program in conjunction with numerous arts advocacy groups including the Association of British Orchestras and some arts education groups (many identified as “hub”). What about the other “stakeholder” groups like community groups of students, families, and/or schools? These are the important stakeholders, after all. To these stakeholders, content (decided from above, drawn from elite tastes) is being delivered because, as a BBC spokesperson notes “While millions of people already enjoy classical music, it’s right that we light the classical music spark as early as possible.”
Also, “Lord Hall said that, while classical music was ‘in good health’, its future popularity was not guaranteed ‘unless children are given the opportunity to learn and experience’ it.” The content is being delivered to supposedly foster within students a love for classical music, though it reads more as a grab for future consumers and ticket buyers. What if these classical pieces are of no importance to students’ everyday lives and/or uninteresting based on their own sophisticated musical tastes? Exposure to different musical styles is important, but it is also necessary to know when a specific tradition is being prioritized over the lived experiences of students in an educational setting.
3) Advocacy Assumption: In this rhetoric, we see, again, the “music makes you smarter” argument. The article notes: “[a] BBC spokesperson said: ‘Classical music is great for children. Not only is it good for their creativity, it can help with other subjects like maths, and even have a positive impact on behaviour.”‘ Though there may be research grounding some of the possible intellectual “side effects,” so to speak, of music education, I cannot help but call this advocacy angle into question. Can we agree that music is one of the myriad ways that humans understand their world? Is it not another way to perceive, think, and create in the world? Yet, the new post seems sidestep this by, again, suggesting that the importance of music is that it helps students become better students in other curricular areas and makes them better behaved (submissive?) members of society. I know many folks who are great at performing, creating, and/or interpreting music who are terrible at other areas of schooling (not all these skills are easily transferable from music to other subjects). Many of these same musically-slanted (rather than inclined) folks are quite rebellious and subversive. We don’t see math curricula advertised as a way to improve reading scores, so, I find it weak that the BBC is latching on to this the advocacy angle, with all of its assumptions.
4) Creative Development or Classical Consumption?: The BBC program’s rationale notes that: “Ten Pieces aims to open up the world of classical music to children – and inspire them to develop their own creative responses to the pieces through music, dance or digital art. The repertoire will include a range of music from baroque to contemporary.” The website notes that phase 2 of the project hinges upon the idea of having students creatively respond to the works, yet the “leaflet” seems to show more the true interests of the project which do not appear to be the creative development through music of students. This document notes that:
“[t]he pilot of this project . . . showed a dramatic impact on children’s interests in and enjoyment of classical music. Before taking parts, 70% of the primary-aged children had never been to a classical music concert. Afterwards, 78% were keen to go, and there was a 100% increase in the number of children who ‘really liked’ classical music.”
Research issues not withstanding, the leaflet leaves the creative development focus of the rationale by the wayside in favor of promoting interest in classical music. This interest seems to be based upon whether students liked the music and if they would want to go to a concert, both of which seem very consumeristic at heart. Also, the resources provided by the BBC for students and teachers focus around knowing the works and/or performing them, not on creatively responding to the music.
5) For Whose Interest? I have discussed and alluded to this throughout, yet, it bares more unpacking. Whose interests does this project represent? The students? The teachers? The communities? The country’s artistic well-being? Or, are the interests only in the supporting and expanding the consumption of products of classical music industry? I am always leery of education projects developed and completely funded by people with financial gains at stake in the outcome of the project and “Ten Pieces” is no different. It brings back an important question that needs to be discussed: Should education (or even democracy) be left in the hands of businesses?
Conclusion: First of all, I want to make it known that I applaud efforts of supporting arts education and the creative/participatory intent that appears to be at least alluded to in this campaign. I also must make it known that I am not a citizen of the U.K., and thus, do not know the complexities of their arts education structures. That being said, I suggest that we must constantly question projects like this, no matter their direct impact upon us, however benevolent though they may be in nature. We must become more critical of things presented to us and question the assumptions and interests that they serve. I encourage you to do your own critical reading of this concept, let me know what you find, and fill me in (kindly, hopefully) about areas that you feel are misunderstandings. Let’s discuss.