International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 5 Review 3

July 1, 2004

Leong, Sam. (Ed.). (2003). Musicianship in the 21st century: Issues, trends & possibilities. (2003) Sydney: Australian Music Centre.

335 pp.
RRP: AU $60 (Paper)     ISBN: 0-909168-50-4

Joan Russell
McGill University

Sam Leong has stitched together an extraordinary smorgasbord of papers focusing on the elusive and culturally loaded concept of musicianship. The mandate to contributors was broad: comment on musicianship as it would pertain to the “music education of children and youths in tomorrow’s schools, conservatoria and universities” (p. 7). The book’s subheading, Issues, Trends and Possibilities offers contributors an equally wide-open field for comment. As time and space continue to collapse in a shrinking world, the nature and value of music and musicianship are questions that are increasingly central to discourse in the field of music education. This book stimulates that discourse through the thoughts of 25 authors as they discuss, advocate, speculate and predict on the concept of musicianship and its development as we enter the 21st century.

Like ‘music’, musicianship is a conceptual term that we all use and whose meaning we think we have a sense of. Yet our understanding of musicianship both as a concept and perhaps as a set of skills, or attitudes that can be displayed and evaluated is shaped by our values and our experiences, our theoretical, philosophical and practical orientations, and where we are situated, culturally.

Articulating the meaning of the term is fraught with difficulty. Influential ethnomusicologist Blacking (1973) notes that to be human is to be musical, a belief that, if we subscribe to, is fundamental to the way we envision ourselves as teachers. But what about musicianship? What is meant by musicianship, and how may one “get” it? How does one know if and when one “has” it? Who decides? Blacking notes that tests of musicality are culture-bound and culture-specific. Their results have to be suspect because good musicians could very well score low on tests of musicality that are designed around values and musical concepts that are different from those taking the test. Tests designed by Edwin Gordon, and the Seashore tests of musical ability come to mind as examples of aural tests requiring, a priori, “western” cultural knowledge for successful results. The Gordon tests, in particular, assume not only western cultural knowledge but also some formal schooling in the foundations of western music. On the question of value, who would be considered to display ‘good’ musicianship? Would a drummer who has mastered rhythm patterns and is a brilliant soloist, but does not drum in polyphonic “conversation” with other drummers be considered to have good musicianship in an African traditional drumming context where drumming is only meaningful when it occurs as part of a larger ensemble? (Badu, 2002; Chernoff, 1997). In Fijian communities the ability to sing loudly is an important measure of good singing (Russell, 2002).

Responses to editor Leong’s challenge vary, according to authors’ cultural and educational backgrounds, musical and life experience, social position, beliefs and values. Twenty-five authors from 13 countries ponder the nature of musicianship, offer definitions, propose pathways to developing musicianship, describe how they teach it, present their conclusions and offer predictions about its future development in educational, professional and commercial contexts. Most of the contributors teach or have taught, music. All are passionate about it.

The authors differ in their conceptualizations of how musicianship develops. For some, the development of musicianship is an educational process, while for others it is conceptualized as training. I see a distinction between the two concepts, the former being more dialogic, an ongoing process of negotiation between teachers and students, between and among students, and extending beyond classroom walls into the communities. The latter, in my view, refers to the acquisition of skills – an apprenticeship model that is most likely found in studios and classrooms. There is a place for both, but it seems important to understand that each serves a purpose. These differences in conceptualization influence the way that musicianship develops in terms of outlook, attitude, and preparation for students to take their place in the world.

For some authors, the development of musicianship is a sociocultural process; for others, it is more intellectual. Some authors offer what might be called a “practical guide to teaching musicianship.” Others assume an ethnographic posture, describing how young people in their various communities assimilate repertoires, skills and practices. Some contributors look to the expanding horizons opening up for musicians in the future with eager anticipation, filled with possibility, while others have a more pessimistic outlook. These different approaches offer readers opportunities to contemplate, and possibly refine, their own definitions of musicianship, and to consider the implications for music education in their own spheres of activity.

Writing from theoretical, philosophical, practical/applied, and socio-cultural perspectives, authors present views from the worlds of jazz, popular/commercial, folk/traditional, and, for want of a better term, “art” music. Teaching traditions represented here include those of formal educational institutions, with their articulated visions, public images, and their standards, goals, practices and assessment systems, and non-formal teaching and learning environments that present themselves in socio-cultural activities that take place beyond the walls of institutions. In all of these ‘spaces’ young people are exposed to, or immersed in the expectations, repertoires, traditions and values specific to that type of community; it is expected that they will assimilate those values and attitudes, carry on the traditions to the next generation, perhaps modifying them along the way insofar as social constraints permit.

Pathways to musicianship, according to authors, are varied. Development may be facilitated by means of engagement with traditional and/or innovative practices, or through manipulation of the building blocks of music. It may be enhanced through the use of technology as a tool of access to, and manipulation of, musical structures, or it may occur through experience with improvisation, seen as both an expressive and exploratory tool for musical, social and personal ends.

Some of the chapters are written in a scholarly style, framed conceptually, and argued with supporting evidence, while others are more informal, expressing opinion, favourite practices, generalizations and unsupported claims for the preference of one approach over another. One chapter (Bresler) is organized in modified sonata form, while in another (Nzewi), the author’s ideas are presented in the form of a dramatic, in-your-face play script designed to awaken the reader’s consciousness of the threats of technological wizardry to the hearts and souls of musical mankind. The length of the papers ranges from five pages to twenty-one, and the degree of intensity and attention to detail varies greatly. The book speaks to a variety of audiences – lay, professional and academic, and appeals to a range of orientations, values, experiences and interests.

If there were a single thread that is capable of tying the chapters of this book, it would be the thread of ‘culture.’ Therefore, rather than review each chapter separately, I use Chapter Four, “Thinking About Music: For a Construction of Meaning,” as an organizing tool for discussion. In it, Nicole Carignan, professor of ethnomusicology at the Université de Montréal examines the role of culture and the limits of ethnocentricity as they pertain to the meanings of music and musicianship. Here, culture is proposed as the medium in which tools are used, interactions occur, meanings are constructed and learning takes place.

Carignan explains that what is seen to be musical is a function of culture. To illustrate her point, she presents 2 vignettes through which we are invited to test our perceptions and our assumptions about music and musicianship. In the first vignette we see a formal European-style orchestra beginning a performance of a Brahms symphony. A male conductor leads the all-male orchestra. The musicians are dressed in black suits, and read scores placed on stands in front of them. The second scene we are invited to observe is a Balinese gamelan. We see an all-women ensemble, performing on metallophones, flutes and drums and other instruments. No music stands, scores or conductor are in sight. There are dancers but their relationship to the musicians is not clear. Carignan asks: What do we see? What does it mean? What are the purposes of these two performances? What traditions do they represent? What may we take for granted if we see such scenes? What, she asks, is music? What is a musician? The meanings that are constructed, Carignan explains, depend upon the respective cultural settings of the event.

Bringing her ethnomusicologist’s lens to bear on these questions, Carignan provides a theoretical framework for understanding why it is important, when engaging in discussions about music and musicianship, to be conscious of how one is situating oneself, culturally. She challenges us to question our assumptions about what music is, and what it means to be a musician. One useful way to do this is to begin by acknowledging that what one advocates as a norm, or standard, or ideal, is, in fact, both a reflection and expression of a particular set of traditions, values and practices. Carignan warns against ethnocentric bias, which is revealed when we pose our own values and ways of thinking about musicianship as the norm. An ethnocentric approach “understands and interprets the world through its own vision,” (p. 47) and, key to understanding ethnocentricity, it is unaware that it is doing so. Without answering, or at least, questioning our assumptions about what is the norm, we are liable to reveal our ethnocentricity and, in so doing, we miss an opportunity to position our discussion in a particular cultural frame. Noting that the term “music” does not exist in all cultures, Carignan reminds us that the very concept of music – what it is, and what it is for, varies from one culture to another. She points out that while music is a universal phenomenon, it is not a universal language, an important distinction that, if we deconstruct her argument, points out that claims for the universality of music as a language are often made but rarely supported with evidence. As a phenomenon, music possesses “different meanings in different societies and in different given times” p.44). Carignan provides a useful set of guidelines for interpreting the meanings and significance of the ideas set forth in this book. For this reason, it would have been effective as an introductory chapter.

Whether the issue of culture is central or peripheral to the discussions in these chapters, careful reading will uncover each author’s cultural positioning and can be used as an interpretive frame for the critical reader. If we, as readers, engage in such an exercise we can better understand how the writer’s conscious (or unconscious, or unarticulated) cultural stance has shaped their (and our) interpretations of what musicianship means and how it may be developed. If, as authors, we aim to achieve consciousness of our own cultural positioning, the exercise will enrich our understanding of where our ideas come from and where they fit relative to the rest of the world. If we, as music educators, ponder the nature and value of music and musicianship as a cultural construct, we will better understand how our immersion in a particular culture (or, if we are fortunate, our distance from it) shapes what we think is important to do, think, and be, and why any of it matters.

If we think of culture – as Carignan notes - as the medium in which tools are used, interactions occur, meanings are constructed and learning takes place, we find that a cultural thread has an implied or explicit presence throughout the chapters in this book. A few examples will suffice to illustrate this point. In Bresler’s (Chapter 2) overview and exposition of border-crossing and hybridization of styles and genres, a movement which has already arrived in the fields of performance and composition, we see the richness that results when musicians from one tradition reach over into another, adapting and fusing patterns, sounds and practices to create new forms. When Dairanathan (Chapter 5) explains that his work in improvisation with teachers aims to impart to them a cross-cultural perspective we understand that he is attempting to define musical experience as a socio-cultural activity “that is concerned with people in ‘their’ given society, in ‘their’ space, and in ‘their’ given time” (p. 49). On the other hand, when MacMillan (Chapter14) talks about improvisation as a vehicle for personal expression, we note that she is expressing implicitly a cultural value. While there is no official music curriculum in Brazilian secondary schools, Hentschke & Souza (Chapter 9) point out that the cultural diversity of Brazil produces a variety of musical styles and practices of such richness, that is so pervasive in the social life of Brazilians, that one begins to wonder if the development of a formal curriculum is necessary, given that a watering-down, or sanitization can happen when music education gets into the hands of pedagogues and bureaucrats.

Nzewi’s (Chapter 17) brilliant play in which four characters - ‘Kemi’ (Meki), Jes Chab (J.S. Bach), Lost Sol (Lost Soul) and Compuheart (irony: a computer has no heart) engage in a futuristic battle between the forces of passion and the forces of techno-culture to reclaim for all humanity the ‘soul’ of music, we can read this as a clash of two cultures: one grounded in human values and the other grounded in worship of the “God” of technology.

In their discussions of musical training in Asian societies authors Leung (Chapter 13), Roh (Chapter 20) and Taniguchi (Chapter 24) remind us of Western colonialism’s cultural legacy that influenced the course of music education in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. This influence lives on in the conservatories, music schools and orchestras of the region. Taniguchi, of Japan explains how musical training proceeds in countries that follow the precepts of Buddhism:

“The essence of accomplishment exists in the route of becoming skillful and ‘complete’ through daily exercise or practice. It employs self-discipline through tough personal training and the mental practices of Buddhist thought, transferred to the world of art. Self-discipline aimed at self-perfection through a contribution to the harmonious development of sensitivity and reason develops one’s artistic capability. It is considered that the range of capability of one’s artistic expression becomes settled by the degree of self-fulfillment. And it calls for perfection as a performer by carrying out self-discipline in the quest for the highest performance” (p. 314).

The notion that to be a true musician one must strive for self-perfection and a “harmonious development of sensitivity and reason” stimulates our thoughts about the value of such an approach and the consequences of music education that emphasizes the acquisition of technique and formal knowledge but ignores the development of the self. (Endnote: A colleague, commenting on a student having difficulty with performance anxiety, declared his belief that the limits of his responsibility did not include attending to students’ personal development, when he said “I’m not a psychologist.) The border crossings that Bresler describes in Chapter Two focus on hybridization and cross-fertilization of genres and styles; a reading of Taniguchi suggests that we have much to learn from one another about pedagogies and what they can contribute to the process of cross-fertilization as well.

In their brief descriptions of their experiences as musician-teachers in two remote regions of northern Australia Smith (Chapter 21) and Trendwith (Chapter 25) offer glimpses of how young people learn repertoires and skills through immersion in community practices. Here, young folk absorb the musical culture of their communities, by participating with significant community members in musical activities that are seen to have value (Russell, 2002).

The push for educators to respond to the multicultural realities of many contemporary (especially, urban) classrooms leads Stephens (Chapter 22) to ask important questions about whose traditions should be taught. He asks how it is possible to avoid watering down any one tradition in the quest to engage with many traditions. For music educators and curriculum designers who grapple with this multicultural issue there appear no simple answers, although Ognenska-Stoyanova (Chapter 19) suggests that it is possible to experience a range of cultural practices in some depth by focusing, for instance, solely on the rhythms of a variety of cultures.

All authors’ advocacies reveal values and beliefs about what they believe is important to know, do, or be in order to develop musically. All ideas, of course, have merit. The challenge for educators in a postmodern world is to acknowledge that our ideas about what is right and good to do to achieve our musical ends are culturally situated ideas.

We are fortunate that at this time in the history of man in the world we are able to celebrate multiple definitions of musicianship and that there are many ways of developing it. As Carignan reminds us, the very concept of music and musicianship varies according to who is presenting the case, and according to the norms and expectations of the society in which a particular set of skills and knowledge are deemed to have value. Those of us who work with students in classrooms of cultural and linguistic diversity have the responsibility of choosing culturally responsive curriculum – both materials and pedagogies. Consciousness that our practices are not ‘normal’ but are grounded in a particular set of values in particular contexts of place and time help us to make, and justify these decisions.

A reading of the chapters in this book reveals the complexity of the issue of musicianship and the variety of orientations that exist within the field of music education. It reveals the importance, or even the necessity, of crossing borders, of cross-fertilization of styles and ways of thinking about musicianship, ways of teaching and learning, of opening up to the various ways of being in the world, musically speaking, and the values and beliefs that inform how we think about musicianship. After reading this book, one concludes that there is no agreement on definitions of either music or musicianship; it seems that precise definition is not possible. Nor is it desirable, for to contain a concept such as musicianship within a single definition might create an exclusive club. We are left, in the end, with intriguing questions. Whose view would prevail? Who would be admitted to such a club? Who would be refused entry? Who gets to decide? The potential value of this book is that it can be used to interrogate the very notion of what music is, what it means to be a musical person, and where the responsibilities of educators lie.

As a final comment on some of the questions raised in this review, I want to refer to a personal experience arising from my work in music in the Canadian Arctic. First, I will address the question: what is music? Next, I will address a pragmatic issue. What happens when, in creating something new, cherished cultural traditions are trampled?

Just as ‘music’ and musicianship, as Carignan points out, are cultural constructs, so are ‘songs’ and ‘singing.’ In the Canadian northern territory of Nunavut, for instance, Inuit women engage in a traditional activity known, in Inuktitut as katajjait. There is no strict English word for this activity because no equivalent activity exists. For want of a better term, we call katajjait ‘throat singing’. The purpose of katajjait is amusement and is traditionally practiced with two women, facing one another. Manipulating the breathing system and the vocal chords, they create sounds, on both the expiration and the inspiration in strictly organized patterns of duration which they may change at will. An impeccable sense of timing is required by the singers, for, like a round, the inspired and expired sounds must sound simultaneously to create the effect of two different sounds at the same time. Failure to observe the timing strictly causes the singing to break down and the singers to collapse in laughter. Skilled throat singers develop a wide range of throat sounds, that they call songs. These songs are usually sounds derived from the environment, and may be evocative, for instance, of the cries of gulls, or of a chain saw, or of the sound of sled dogs running on the snow. If we had a term other than ‘singing’ to describe this activity, we might use it; but we do not. Is throat singing music? Are the singers displaying musicianship? If the terms do not exist in Inuktitut, how can we answer such questions? And who would decide? These are not questions that Inuit would ask; are they even valid questions, given the cultural context? The point is, as Carignan points out, such encounters with other cultures have the value of testing our perceptions and our assumptions about what is considered to be music, and who is considered a musician.

While crossing borders to produce new forms and genres is an exciting prospect for development of musicianship in the 21st century, it also may elicit resistance if this activity threatens treasured cultural practices. As music educators, wishing to broaden our students’ experience, we need to balance pushing the boundaries of the familiar with a respect for the traditions of others. Whether it is Beethoven’s late works, Stravinsky’s ballet music, or young artists in traditional communities pushing the boundaries of forms and practices to create something new, the artist (and teacher) risks resistance from community members.

A young Inuit woman of my acquaintance is a skilled throat singer. Tagaq has presented her skills as both traditional practice and as innovative art, on world stages. Having mastered the techniques and engaged in throat singing in the traditional way, Tagaq has gone on to create a new genre of throat singing. However, in creating a new genre, she has elicited disapproval from elders in her community by breaking three rules of traditional practice and: she performs as a soloist, she expresses a range of strong emotions through her ‘songs’, and she moves her body in ways that support the powerful personal feelings she conveys through these ‘songs’. The genre she has created as she pushes the boundaries of tradition is unique, and it is difficult to remain detached in the presence of its power. Students and invited visitors to her presentation in my class had mixed responses. Some students, especially younger ones, found the emotional content overwhelming and disturbing, while others, especially the older students, were overwhelmed, but profoundly moved. Some elders, however, do not see her work as artistry. They see it as evidence of disrespect towards a cultural practice that was almost extinguished during the period of systemic colonial repression (some missionaries banned its practice on the ground that it was ‘orgiastic’). Tagaq’s challenge is to achieve a balance between the needs of her art and the need to be accepted in her community.

There are many musical worlds, many musical realities, both nested and overlapping, and we are suspended in these multiple “webs of significance” (Geertz, 1973). The underlying, unstated message of Musicianship in the 21st Century: Issues, Trends & Possibilities seems to be, if we wish to grow as musicians, and to improve ourselves as music educators, we will seek to negotiate the borders of our many worlds and remain open to alternative definitions of music and musicianship.


Badu, Z. (2002). Ewe culture as expressed in Ghana, West Africa through Adzogbo Dance Ceremony: A foundation for the development of interactive multimedia educational materials. Doctoral Dissertation, McGill University.

Blacking, J. (1973). How musical is man. (The John Danz lectures). Seattle: The University of Washington Press.

Chernoff, J.M. (1997). African music. In T.D. Goldblatt & L.B. Brown (Eds.) Aesthetics: A reader in philosophy of art. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, pp 265-269.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays by Clifford Geertz. Basic Books.

Russell, J. (2002). Sites of learning: Communities of musical practice in the Fiji Islands. SAMSPEL-ISME2002 :Focus Area Report. Bergen: International Society for Music Education. Pp 33-39.

About the Reviewer

Joan Russell is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Education, McGill University, where she is Director of Music Education. Her research interests include music teacher discourse and practice, the development of music teacher identity, the socio-cultural contexts of music teaching, and ethnography in musical communities.


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