International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 5 Review 4

December 27, 2004

Aróstegui, José Luis. (Ed.). (2004). The Social Context of Music Education. Champaign, IL: Center for Instructional Research and Curriculum Evaluation.

236 pp.

Richard Colwell
New England Conservatory
Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois

Learning from a Publication

Forty years ago I initiated the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education and served as its editor for some twenty-six years. A primary purpose of the Bulletin was to critique research in music education and to encourage professional (not personal) dialogue within the research community. The critiques and the dialogue were to improve thinking about teaching and learning in music education. More recently, (1989), I initiated The Quarterly in music teaching and learning to facilitate extended, critical, reports of accomplishments in the field, and have edited the first handbook of research of music teaching and learning and co-edited the New Research Handbook of Music Teaching and Learning. Critiquing has been my life-blood, but writing reviews has not been my practice—except for the red-pen on students’ dissertations. I volunteered to comment on José Aróstegui’s The Social Context of Music Education, published (2004) by the Center for Instructional Research and Curriculum Evaluation at the University of Illinois because I believe it to be a critical work in the field. In research, it is important to recognize one’s bias and I confess to not being a strong believer in doctoral students’ ability to conduct qualitative research. Robert Stake’s work (1991, 1995) is my model; he skillfully follows up on unexpected leads that occur during any observation; his comments from interviews are both insightful and interpretive; and he scrutinizes the “big picture”. Almost all dissertations in music education employing exclusively qualitative techniques are greatly flawed because the authors lack the necessary course-work or experience in intelligent observing.

The Social Context of Music Education contains four case studies, each by a different author, (three of them by doctoral students) offering a variety of strengths. The two concluding chapters are authored by the respected British scholar Saville Kushner; these are a castigation of curriculum ventures and their relationship to the previous case studies is tenuous indeed.

In this one publication, the reader is offered not only “hidden” information about the content of music and music education but, in the four case studies, a plethora of ideas and examples illustrating the positive potential of qualitative research. A general weakness, with the exception of the Aróstegui and Kushner chapters, is a lack of in-depth knowledge of the cited related research and a heavy reliance on one or two views on music education. Professor Kushner advocates less traditional structure in our thinking; nevertheless I shall follow a conventional approach in commenting on individual chapters and hope that the five parts will constitute a pattern that readers can understand and appreciate.

The first case study, “Getting Over a Music Room: A Teacher’s Efforts to Create Integration in Elementary Classrooms”, by Koji Matsunobu, (a doctoral student in aesthetic education) portrays an elementary general music teacher who believes that she can teach the concepts of music in six weeks of instruction plus whatever sporadic integration that may occur. Matsunobo describes, with limited interpretation, the teacher’s philosophy and verifies it by interviewing other teachers in the building. The limited interpretation is appropriate: the observed instruction brilliantly depicts what is currently wrong with music education, justifying Kushner’s most vituperative comments about today’s music education curriculum. The teacher lives (mentally) in another world from that of her classroom. There is no evidence that her “concepts” contribute to a musical experience but there is ample evidence that the teacher does not understand what constitutes a musical concept, focusing on the elements (not concepts) of music and in another place defining concepts as “where, instruments, words, melody, rhythm, and beat”. The instructor claims to be focused on process but the examples of her “integration” efforts are centered solely on performance (a product). The reader is assured that any quality musical performance by students in her music classes would not be a high priority for her. We have here an example of a teacher who has learned some of the code-words about desirable music education experiences without the accompanying understanding. She claims to believe in Bennett Reimer’s approach, yet she has the students draw pictures in music class, an activity that Reimer specifically warns against. She also fails to understand the distinction between the humanities and the arts. She believes that, with only six weeks of music instruction in the school year, she can not only teach concepts but can also integrate animals, civil war, community, Illinois history, Italy, Japan, oceans, patterns and westward movement into her instruction. (Chaos theory, recommended by Kushner, is likely present). Motsunobo is much too kind in searching for the good in this instructor and in her teaching; in reading the report one sheds more than one tear for the students in her classes. This research is an example of “basic” observation lacking the expected interpretation and critical delineation. It also typifies a danger in qualitative research. The naïve reader might believe this class to be average or typical and continue to expect mediocrity in general music education.

“Keeping on the Sunny Side: A Case Study on Teaching and Learning Music in an American Old-Time String Band Ensemble” by Walenia Marilia Silva ( a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction) offers a stunning contrast of what music is all about. The study is an excellent example of participant observation. Silva, with a bit of clairvoyance, describes and interprets her three pre-ordained questions as a participant observer in an ethnomusicology class designed for learning that is fun and profitable. Where Motsunobo had to “dodge” his initial questions in the interest of diplomacy, Silva uses her knowledge of music and people to competently characterize the instructor, the students, and the classroom interactions. When she sees a possible dissonance between learning through oral transmission and from the book, she explains any differences that would occur in a formal class and in street-wise learning. She sees value in Keith Swanwick’s sequential approach to learning where Kushner does not, a difference I’ll attempt to explain later. The classroom engagements that occur through imitation, oral transmission, repetitions, memorization, and idiomatic characteristics of a musical style inspire the reader to sign-up for this class at the first opportunity as we are given an in-depth understanding of not only the purpose of each experience but how this purpose (musical learning that is also fun) can be realized, based upon one’s musical background and experience. This is a model participant-observer research report and graphically portrays what is meant by a “participant” in music education observations.

Philip Silvey’s chapter offers an intensive interview of one student in “Ingrid and Her Music: An Adolescent Choral Singer Comes to Know Musical Works”. Ingrid is a member of a select out-of-school chorus directed by a doctoral student in choral music. We are not given the questions that Silvey sought to address when he began this project but one assumes that his interest was in what music means for Ingrid. If this were the question, it makes this research project more demanding that the two already described. Silvey, a music education student, takes a stab at meaning, however, only in the final pages when he asks Ingrid her favorite song and attempts to draw a few parallels between the words of the song and selected nonmusical experiences Ingrid has described. He is here taking a sizeable leap that has only a slight connection with the accumulated interview data. (Anyone who attempts to discern musical meaning in others is more than ambitious.) Silvey is apparently a choral director, for he is as interested in understanding the ensemble conductor’s words and actions as he is in Ingrid’s experiences. Seizing the opportunity to include the conductor adds considerable richness and depth to the study. The conductor’s impressions of Ingrid in relation to his musical objectives for the ensemble and the students become an important component. The message we receive is that Ingrid’s musical satisfaction (and that of other members of the ensemble) comes from being confident in one’s performance abilities, from believing that the other members of the ensemble are equally competent, and recognizing that the music is worthwhile and appropriately challenging. Ingrid would suggest that mistakes are not cool. Silvey describes and describes well. He observes that the meaning of participation in music is more than musical, with technical competence most obvious. What makes this portrayal commendable is his perception, early in the study, that one could not understand Ingrid without a musical and cultural understanding of the conductor, the select group, and a contextual understanding of Ingrid’s family and non-choir peer associations. Using Silvey as an example of the student authors having only a “light” understanding of their related research, he suggests that Harry Broudy does not advocate performance skills in his model for aesthetic appreciation. Broudy, however, in his argument for sensory, formal, expressive, and technical qualities of an art work suggests that one must have sufficient performance competence in music (or other art) to appreciate the “technical” performance and compositional requirements of a piece of an art work (Broudy, 1972, 82). It is true that Broudy was unsure of how much instruction that might take. He expressed to me that he hoped it could be accomplished in about four years of instruction.

The fourth and most substantive study is that of the editor, José Aróstegui in “Much More than Music: Music Education Instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign”. Aróstegui organizes his material in four sections, an overview of the School of Music, issues involved with conducting qualitative research, information about the three instrumental music education students he observed, and his comments on the research process. Where the reader can identify a few missed opportunities for various follow-up questions in the reports of Silvey and Matsunobu, Aróstegui is on top of the research at every step of the way, leading one to understand each curricular experience from the viewpoint of the student. We are provided with his sense of the differences in the instructional priorities of instructors and students. Kusher has a concern for “authenticity”. The lack of “authenticity” of student teaching and pre-student teaching as they are described by Aróstegui is a painful reading experience for one in teacher education. The limited value of these practicum experiences is clearly portrayed. Multiple students observing and helping in a single classroom, no full responsibility for teaching a class or instructional unit, are only two of the “inauthentic” experiences. One can hypothesize that the public school personnel involved wish to be cooperative but are unwilling to assume any ownership in music teacher education. Thus, they “use” the pre-service students to teach those students who play the same instrument, providing the least needed experience for the student teacher. Any feedback to the student teacher is on the mechanics of teaching. Music student teaching, with its emphasis on getting the notes right, is in opposition to Kushner’s ideas about a valid music education curriculum and expected musical competencies. Aróstegui allows us into the student’s world where we learn that courses in the college of education are perceived to be of limited value and interest, as are courses (when taken) in liberal arts. Even the non-performing courses offered in the School of Music (music history) do not readily connect with teacher preparation. The entire curriculum is narrow and restrictive.

Every indication is that these observed students are at least of average ability in a selective university. There is no encouragement for them to be risk takers and their experiences in and out of the university do not appear to be exciting or inspiring. Despite probes from the researcher, he could find no interest in philosophy, no vision, but a faulty education similar to the inadequacies of teacher education recently described by David Steiner, the education director of the National Endowment of the Arts (Steiner 2004).

Many music education doctoral dissertations that fit the “qualitative” model consist of a single observation of a music class from which the researcher attempts (with limited “deep thinking”) to make sense of what has occurred and apply it to all of music education, obviously an impossibility. One recent researcher at the University of Michigan observed two situations to determine whether boys or girls received more attention. One situation consisted of two traditional music classes, where in the second situation a different teacher combined her two classes and devoted her instructional time to preparation for the spring musical. This schema held no possibility of the study’s meeting any intellectual or research standard; it should not have been initiated when preliminary checking revealed the two teaching situations. Contrastingly, Aróstegui observes all classes (except private lessons and jazz which, without explanation, he was not allowed to observe) and is able to draw intelligent conclusions about the curriculum—a curriculum devoted primarily to developing skills without standards for those skills. Each student is to progress as much as he or she is able on a major instrument, a host of minor instruments including voice, and conducting. It is no wonder that some music philosophers jeer at the concept of aesthetic education, as teaching for aesthetic education is not a concern of music education as portrayed in this research study.

The fourth component that Aróstegui promises, that of research, is thin. The research value, for us, is in the context. He does describe the research issues that arose and argues that the conclusions need a historical perspective. One example of the need for perspective is that of gender and one’s major instrument. Females, within the last decade, have come more and more to select brass and percussion instruments for their major and now constitute the majority of the members in most bands and wind ensembles. Aróstegui suggests that his gender might have been limiting in his research with three female college students. While in my judgment this is not a major issue, it does raise the question why no male band/orchestra student was willing to participate in this research and, if gender could be a factor as the author suggests, we do have an unresolved issue as observation studies designed to discern student perceptions could have different results from those that interview only female students.

Saville Kushner’s two concluding chapters come as a bit of a shock after the comfort of reading about semi-familiar situations. Kushner’s ideas on curriculum are similar to those of Michael Apple (1996) and William Pinar (2000) in that we are required to think beyond a sequence of courses in constructing curricula. Kushner correctly identifies music as a subject where experimentation is possible—rules don’t have to be followed, there are no “standardized” outcomes expected, and few public school administrators have any cogent ideas about what constitutes a valid music program. Administrators, parents, and apparently prospective teachers think of music education solely in terms of performance. Kushner is apparently not opposed completely to top-down ideas as he has a “satisfactory” program in mind, a program consisting of lots of improvising, creating, exploring, and experiencing, with these activities student initiated. Music, however, is too grand a subject to be limited to Kushner’s curriculum. Kushner believes that experiences should be related to life-knowledge, that pupils should be involved with discovery and with setting their own goals, that a considerable degree of Surrealism should be included in the curriculum, that the teacher should be liberated from curriculum suggestions such as Keith Swanwick’s (1999) spiral organization because these remove too much of the surprise in music, and that the outcomes of instruction are not the responsibility of the teacher but of the students, their peers and families. I can agree that music is capable of helping all of us to better understand the human condition, but it does it in many ways. The case studies have clearly demonstrated that competence in performance is satisfying to students of all ages.

In the United States we have at present at least two distinct curricula, one in required music and one in elective music. These are unique and share few common objectives. The band-orchestra curriculum described by Aróstegui prepares students for the elective curriculum, one that is successful when there are high performance standards and music of quality is used. The Swanwick spiral curriculum is often appropriate for the development of musical skills. There are many ways to organize musical materials in a curriculum, with skills simple to complex may make sense, in listening it might be obvious to subtle, and effective instruction can be organized chronologically. Music is the richest subject in the school curriculum; in presenting it to students some type of organization seems imperative. Some of us have spent a life-time in music and have barely touched its potential. We should not criticize sequencing where that sequencing is based on research and or experience in an appropriate context and towards agreed upon goals. In Kushner’s home country, Great Britain, performance experiences in music are after-school and generally of mediocre quality. In New Hampshire, where I live, we have frequent exchange concerts with British performance groups such as the Hampshire County Youth Band of Great Britain. I dutifully attend these concerts and find the performing level to be equivalent to a good U.S. middle school ensemble, and the music unchallenging. On the other hand, the olla podria that is the general music program in the U.S. makes having any accountability and standardized testing a bit far-fetched, and complicates teacher education for this area. Certainly, considerable thought does need to be given to priorities in music education. For example, if learning to play an instrument is an elective in elementary school, there is no reason why learning to compose or improvise should not also be an elective if the purpose is to develop life-skills such as the ability to read music and sing well. I hope that Kushner is not suggesting that music might be organized like other subjects in the school where there are serious curriculum issues. A major problem with music education in 2004 is the effort of music educators and well-meaning advocates to have music treated like the “academic” subjects. To have objectives in common with math or language arts would destroy the uniqueness of music that is so powerful and necessary. Silva pointed up that where one has interest, knowledge, and skills, learning to be more musical is fun. Ingrid would agree. In exploring Kushner’s ideas on curriculum construction, we will likely find that music need not be required, K-12; the student needs, however, sufficient competence and knowledge from a variety of experiences, including skill development, to make the intelligent decisions required of a musically educated society. Individuals in the arts and in research should read this publication. For one who believes strongly in the potential of music education, I have become convinced, through this research, that we weigh Kushner’s ideas carefully as the lack of teaching competence and vision is not evident with the doctoral students in ethnomusicology or choral music but with the certified public school music educator.


Apple, M. W. (1996). Cultural Politics and Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Aróstegui, J. L. (Ed.). (2004). The Social Context of Music Education. Champaign, IL: Center for Instructional Research and Curriculum Evaluation.

Broudy, H. (1972). Enlightened Cherishing: An Essay on Aesthetic Education. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Colwell, R. (1992). Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning. New York: Schirmer Books.

Colwell, R. and Richardson, C. (Eds.). (2002). The New Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pinar, W. F., Reynolds, W. M., Slattery, P. and Taubman, P. M. (2000). Understanding Curriculum. New York: Peter Lang.

Stake, R., Bresler, L., and Mabry, L. (1991). Custom and Cherishing: The Arts in Elementary Schools. Urbana, IL: Council for Research in Music Education.

Stake, R. (1995). The Art of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Steiner, D. M. with Rozen, S. D. (2004). “Preparing tomorrow’s teachers: An analysis of syllabi from a sample of America’s schools of education. In F. M. Hess, A. J. Rotherham and K. Walsh, A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom? Appraising Old Answers and New Ideas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 119-148.

Swanwick, K. (1999). Teaching Music Musically. London: Routledge. pp 81-83.

About the reviewer

Richard Colwell, a Guggenheim and Fulbright scholar, is a member of MENC’s Hall of Fame. He edited the Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning and co-edited, with Carol Richardson, The New Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning. He founded the Bulletin of the Council of Research in Music Education and the Quarterly. He has published tests with both Follett and Silver Burdett. He authored the arts section of ASCD's Curriculum Handbook, the arts section for Education Research Services as well as the music entries for the Encyclopedia of Education and the Groves and Harvard Dictionaries of Music. He has been on the faculties of Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Georgia State, Boston, and the New England Conservatory of Music, of which, he was chair of music education at three and distinguished faculty member at the others.

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