Redefining Literacy in Music Education

The longer I work in the field of music education, the more I have come to strongly feel that one word, one idea, is at the forefront of the battle for the heart and soul of the profession: literacy. The battle takes place in two arenas: the professional world of music education and the greater sphere of society and technology. Both arenas stand to play the leading role in the future conversation and direction of music literacy in our country.

Literacy has two definitions: 1. the ability to read and write, and 2. demonstrated competence or skill in a certain subject or area of expertise. The music profession combines these two definitions when it comes the the “literate musician” (at least it says so formally, more on that later). For a long time now the “literate” musician has been one who can understand music’s notation, vocabulary, and slew of unwritten historical and interpretive mores and translate them into performance “products” acceptable to their audience. Where the profession runs into trouble is not in disagreement over the above definition of literacy, but actually in the way that institutions, scholars, and educators approach it differently.

Institutional Potholes
The depth and degree of musical fluency of a given school program varies considerably based upon the cultural and historical values of its community, as well as the professional standards and expectations for music educators put forth by local, state, and national governing bodies. These standards are often a mix of formalized, fundamental standards and unwritten institutional expectations from parents, students, and administrators. Most of us can point to at least one example of a choral program where the product of classroom work is deemed acceptable to the community and administration but which, upon closer examination, contains very little (if any) evidence of the type of long-term student literacy that would prepare a student for study or participation in collegiate music. In other words, the students are considered literate by their community and institution but illiterate or not literate enough by the larger professional music academy. This shell game can occur at the state and regional level as well, with choral programs receiving equally excellent peer reviews at state-level competitions and festivals despite wide disparities in musical literacy. Occasionally, a choir that learns all of its music by rote receives a stronger evaluation than a program where students are more musically fluent but lack performance readiness.

Which brings yet another problem to the issue of music literacy, which is that musical fluency doesn’t necessarily translate into a better performance product. The ability to read music with immersive fluency, to understand musical vocabulary in three or four different languages, and to appreciate and interpret the technical, historical, and cultural characteristics of a single choral work is separate from a student’s ability to sing in tune, carry vibrato, sing with “round vowels”, blend with his/her section, and physically express emotional investment in the piece (In my first years of teaching a mentor told me that as long as the cadences were in tune and the dynamics varied a little bit, I was guaranteed a II or I rating at state festival). Oral-aural literacy constitutes a much more subjective, genre-specific set of norms and skills than its more literal counterparts. This fact does not go unnoticed by beginning music educators, who quickly learn where to focus their efforts to maintain the public appearance of quality and retain the respect of their peers, too often at the expense of their students’ education. This short-sighted approach, however, doesn’t endear them to the educators at the next level of learning. Any holes in literacy left in middle school must be plugged and smoothed over in high school before students can pass muster for college, and so on and so forth. In this way, the governing academy’s failure to demand literacy standards, benchmarks, and checkpoints at every level of music education has become a festering, self-inflicted wound for the profession. Blame is to be shared equally by institutions of higher learning as well as professional organizations, school administration, and individual music educators themselves.

Global Pictures in a Local-Sized Frame
Institutional disagreements about the definition of music literacy are one significant part of the changing nature of music literacy. The other is a much broader issue, which is the increasing influence of technology-driven music on  young people and society in general. As the technology shrinks the world and brings light to history, culture, and events that would never before have received a public viewing, students and communities are more aware of the diversity of their neighbors and the wider world. A generation of young people desirous of connectivity require common denominators upon which to build understanding and relationship with others across the cultural divide. Music has proven itself a useful tool in this capacity, where western popular music is increasingly coming to dominate the global discussion, often through deliberate effort on the part of the host culture to distribute its music to the farthest corners of the physical, and digital, globe.

Ironically, this form of musical evangelism used to be the dictatorial domain of the classical academy, where the existence of western symphonies, opera houses, and civic choruses indicated to the rest of the world that a nation had obtained (or was desirous of obtaining) a stronger degree of cultural homogeneity with its western cohort. To feed these institutions the type of musicians needed to sustain them, systems needed to be created that taught music literacy in a classical way. Thus, classical literacy was institutionalized in many places, subverting or coexisting alongside centuries-old traditional, nativist music.

As global perspective continues to impact institutions and systems at the local level, music educators are faced with a quickening pace of change in the values, flavors, and demands of their institutional partners. Students want to experience and learn about music from all perspectives, and, increasingly, they find traditional ensemble music education too narrow a focus to keep them engaged for four to seven years of middle and high school. Despite the best efforts of the classical academy to keep up to pace, increasing world music publications, embracing technology in the classroom and performance, attempting to adapt popular music to large ensemble performance expectations, the system finds itself at odds with the many diverse flavors of the musical world. Performing Brahms or Palestrina with forty mixed voices requires years of literacy building and instructional infrastructure that isn’t necessarily compatible with, or relevant to, choral music of Tanzania or historical gospel music or the four-chord strophes of top 40 hits.

Professional Spectra
In every field, there are “wings” of philosophical thought, and music education is no different. The traditional academy (we’ll call them conservative, for that is what they are), would like to see a music education system that embraces a renewed vigor and depth of traditional literacy, that tightens standards and expectations for music educators through their professional organizations and teacher training. The conservative mantra has long been “a rising tide lifts all boats”, which asserts that increasing traditional literacy skills (conserving the current academic paradigm) will improve the quality and efficiency of learning amongst all other styles of music, both literally and aurally. However, to effect this type of systemic change requires that communities demand a higher quality artistic and educational project than they currently do, a difficult task. There are some models of traditional academy music education that already eschew the tenets of their professional organizations, focusing on community-driven experiences and education and letting any judgment regarding the quality of the product fall where it may in the eyes of their peers. They have yet to gain a solid stake in the larger environment.

Meanwhile, the progressive wing of music education sees the academy system as unwieldy and bureaucratic, beholden to the top and requiring those farther down the ladder to conform to the increasingly heightened standards of the most elite professional ranks. They see this system as the reason behind (and, occasionally, the endorsement of) instructional shortcuts that rely heavily upon oral-aural skills that mimic heightened literacy of the elite academy while not actually achieving it. Rather than maintain the facade, progressives would like to embrace vernacular, contemporary music as an equal and important element in the literacy discussion. There is certainly an audience for this approach within the larger educational institution, as a variety of non-traditional music offerings have sprung up across the country in the last decade. However, there is as yet no reliable apparatus in place to measure accountability for these offerings beyond the local level. How is success defined for a choral classroom that no longer makes it a priority to achieve high festival ratings, first place trophies at competitions, or to secure its students positions in All-State and other honor choruses? Furthermore, the current classical institution will not vanish overnight, making it necessary for progressively-minded music educators to fund simultaneous curricula, a difficult proposition in current financial times.

A New Definition

I confess I have sympathies on both sides of this argument. I believe there is a way to find middle ground between these two approaches, one that doesn’t rely on “binning” non-traditional music into a separate category, and one that doesn’t erode the fundamental literacy skills of the classical academy. Instead, music educators should look to blend the two offerings together. A forty person ensemble may be split into small groups to experience madrigals. A varsity chamber choir can also learn and perform pieces learned entirely by rote. Professional organizations can insist on stronger and clearer literacy standards that communicate an acceptance of a widening world of musical expression.

Ultimately, I believe the best way to define musical literacy is still to do so at the community level. Music educators must determine local aspirations and then either raise those expectations through outreach and instruction or embrace them and work to inspire their colleagues to do the same.