Music education makes for a poor commodity

Music education makes for a poor commodity

The privatization of music education has turned it into a commodity, and with students becoming increasingly addicted to instant stimulation and gratification, a pretty bad one

When I first started teaching piano lessons I decided to ask my 7-13 year old students to practice 15 minutes 3 times a week.  At the time I worried that my demands were so low that I sounded ridiculous to parents.  Since then, each week I whip out, polish, and refine my “why didn't you practice” speech for the 50+% of my students who either couldn’t do all 3 practice sessions or didn’t do any practice period.

For a while I chalked my students' failures up to kids being kids.  Having ditched situationism after undergrad, I studiously avoided the “kids these days” ethos, keeping in mind that it has traditionally been the argument of (situationists notwithstanding) reactionary puritanists.  However, my ambivalence  towards “kids these days” was called into question after reading Mark Fisher's 2009 book, Capitalist Realism.  Apart from being a moving critique of the sterile aesthetics and hopeless McJobs brought about by neoliberalism's triumph, the book is also a criticism of “kids these days”.  Drawing on his experience as a college educator, Fisher argues that students are increasingly depressed, in large part because they are unable to imagine attaining fulfillment “beyond the pleasure principle”.1   Describing his students as “twitchy”, in a permanent state of “agitated interpassivity”, with “an inability to concentrate or focus”, Fisher complains that his students are not merely “lazy”, but rather lacking the willpower necessary to extricate themselves from the, “communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; [refusing] to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand.”   To illustrate his point, Fisher describes an interaction he has with a particularly over-stimulated student:

Quote:
I challenged one student about why he always wore headphones in class. He replied that it didn't matter, because he wasn't actually playing any music. In another lesson, he was playing music at very low volume through the headphones, without wearing them. When I asked him to switch it off, he replied that even he couldn't hear it. Why wear the headphones without playing music or play music without wearing the headphones? Because the presence of the phones on the ears or the knowledge that the music is playing (even if he couldn't hear it) was a reassurance that the matrix was still there, within reach.2

The story of Fisher's over-stimulated student is eerie, and it made me think of the students who I teach that cannot get through their lessons (let alone practice sessions) without playing with their phones or fitbits.  Fisher's persuasive writing encouraged me to dig deeper into the “kids these days” ethos, and what I found was a large body of evidence suggesting that in fact “kids these days” are facing challenges and are suffering in ways that are unprecedented. 

As I mentioned, 15 minutes is how long I ask my students to practice for.  It is also the block of time examined by researchers who observed the homework habits of middle school, high school, and college students in a 2013 study.  The researchers found that in any given 15 minute period, students were spending just 65% of the time on work, and the rest on various forms of distraction, usually technological.  “We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching,” said the director of the study, Larry Rosen. “It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices... It was kind of scary, actually.” 

Further evidence of a generational crisis of focus comes from the advertising arm of Microsoft Canada.  In the study—intended for distribution to advertising executives—researchers determined that the average attention span of Canadians in the year 2000 was 12 seconds long.  By 2013, it had shrunk to just 8 seconds.  As Fatima Bhutto wrote in The Guardian, “Goldfish, by comparison, can go nine seconds.”

In the foreword to the study, Consumer Insights Lead  Alyson Gausby explained that far from being a cause for concern, declining attention spans are actually a positive sign for advertisers. “Today, multi-screening is a given, so it’s reassuring to know that multiple screens don’t reduce the (potential) impact of advertising. Since consumers turn to their secondary screens to fill in those inbetween moments when they might otherwise drop off completely, they’re more engaged overall and already primed for immersive experiences.”  Gausby concluded by writing, “While these results certainly held some surprises for us, they are all good surprises.” 

With kids “primed” by advertisers for the next, to use Alyson Gausby's words, digital “hit of dopamine”, their attention spans and their motivation for effort and self-discipline are in free fall.  The result, as Fisher argued, is a major mental health crisis.  1 in every 5 children has developed a mental health disorder,3 and the Center for Collegiate Mental Health reports year over year increases in depression, anxiety, and academic distress.

The dramatic shift in student attitudes demands new approaches to music education.  Practicing, for kids and even for professional musicians, is boring.4  As such, it doesn't stand a chance against social media and video games.  If self-regulation is no longer working, educators ideally can fall back on parental pressure to provide the necessary motivation for practice.  Research has shown that parental supervision of practice is one of the most important determining factors of a child's success on an instrument.5  However, hopelessly misguided parental attitudes towards music education often preclude parental pressure. 
The issues of declining practice and misguided parents were discussed in American Music Teacher's  2010 article of the year, “Should Music Lessons be Fun?”.  The article, written by music teacher Lesley McAllister, begins by noting that recent technological advances have made students increasingly reluctant to practice.  McAllister explains that music is, “a serious art, requiring discipline and hard work,” and that if students are not going to self-regulate their practice, parents need to step in to make sure their kids learn how to approach something which requires real effort.  The problem is, parents seem to be under the delusion that music education is somehow different from other forms of education.  Parents routinely demand that their child's music lessons must be “fun”.  McAllister responds to this notion by writing, “Most parents want to see their child happy, and that is really at the heart of their desire for their child to enjoy studying music. Of course, they want their child to enjoy school too; and yet, they almost never go to the math teacher at school and say that math lessons should be 'fun'.”6

The idea that the study of music requires no real effort seems to be driven in large part by the rise of private music instruction companies.  As public schools cut music education services, families turn to private companies to fill the gap.  The issue is that these companies do not care about education so much as retaining students.  This means that they each compete to play off of parents' misconceptions about music being “fun”.  Visiting the websites of  DC area music instruction companies makes this obvious.  On the “about us” page of B&B Music are the words “Fun is our Focus” in large bold font.  Under that heading comes the sales the pitch, “Private music lessons with B&B are fun and engaging...our music students are excited about taking lessons because we make it easy and fun for them to learn.”  The opening sentence of the description on the front page of Winterhalter Music Lessons reads, “Our students have fun learning to play an instrument in their home with one of our talented and enthusiastic instructors.”  The website of the School of International Music claims that their teaching philosophy, “fosters a positive atmosphere for learning, progress, and fun.”  The top bulletpoint on the “about us” page of the Bach2Rock website reads, “Learning to play music should be fun. It's called 'play' for a reason.”

In reality, teachers often work with more than one company at the same time (at one time I was working with 6 music teaching companies) and so the idea that one company would offer lessons that are more “fun” than the others seems a little silly.  However, more to the point, cheerful statements like this belie the often gritty reality of music teaching.  Particularly young students sometimes throw temper tantrums when it comes time for their lesson, and in general students frequently make for reluctant participants in what is often one of their first encounters with boredom and hard work.  Because of the misconceptions peddled by the music teaching companies, parents now have unrealistic expectations for “fun” in their music lessons.  They have little to no inclination to supervise their child's practice routine, and feel that their student's lack of progress must be the fault of the teacher.

To be fair, music can be fun, but there's no question that the real benefit of studying music is not fun, but rather the internal satisfaction and sense of fulfillment that comes from hours of hard work spent honing your skills in order to make art.  I guess that doesn't sound as catchy in a marketing pitch.
If parents aren't going to supervise their kid's practice, and if kids have less and less motivation to take music education seriously, there is only so much music educators can do.  With the rise of privatization, music education has become a commodity like any other, and when judged in terms of its ability to provide instant gratification, a rather poor one. 

  • 1. Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? UK: Zero Books, 2009. 21.
  • 2. Fisher, 23
  • 3. Annahita Ball et al, “School mental health content in state in-service K-12 teaching standards in the United States,” Teaching and Teacher Education 60, (2016): 312-320.
  • 4. Woody, Robert, “The Motivations of Exceptional Musicians,” Music Educators Journal 90, no. 3, (2004): 17-22.
  • 5. Miksza, Peter, “A Review of Research on Practicing: Summary and Synthesis of the Extant Research with Implications for a New Theoretical Orientation,” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 190, (2011): 51-92.
  • 6. McAllister, Lesley, “Should Music Lessons be Fun?” American Music Teacher 59, no. 4 (2011): 16-19.

Comments

Khawaga
May 23 2017 20:59

Good post, as always.

This speaks so much to non-music teaching as well. It's a good day when 3-5 students out of 30 have actually done the assigned texts before coming to class. And in class they are constantly on cell phones and their laptops, and they pay quite a lot to be in that class room.

And this:

Quote:
Particularly young students sometimes throw temper tantrums when it comes time for their lesson, and in general students frequently make for reluctant participants in what is often one of their first encounters with boredom and hard work.

Was so me when I was about 6-7 years old. My mom forced me to learn to play the guitar (I wanted to learn the drums because it was way cooler) and I avoided practice and the sessions like the plague (if I could; usually I was forced to go).

Steven.
May 24 2017 09:30

I can empathise with this, as previously lazy student both in music and academically.

I was classically trained in a few instruments, but I pretty much hated practising and try to avoid doing it wherever possible. When I was younger my parents did force me to, and I did make progress, but when I got older they stopped, so I pretty much stopped practising and stopped progressing.

In terms of academic staff, I would always try to avoid doing homework and make excuses. But I don't really attribute this to poor attention span, as I would spend hours doing my own self-directed reading/learning, I just didn't like being told what to study or do.

So I don't know if that is similar to the situation with "kids these days" or not… Is the technology/the smartphone the issue? Or is it just a convenient way of dossing which was not previously available? Pretty sure if I had had a smart phone as a kid I would have tuned out in a lot of lessons and instead googled stuff

mhugman
May 28 2017 16:36

While I agree that the effects of social media on attention spans is worrying, I totally disagree with your thesis that music should be primary about "serious hard work towards serious art" and not fun. I say this as an adult musician who has played guitar for 17 years, and before that, clarinet for 7 years. I don't believe that fun and making good art are mutually exclusive, and I think that is a notion that is deeply embedded in Western and bourgeois assumptions about what education is for and how it should be structured. I have learned far more, and become a better musician, through inspired and fun playing that I ever did in years of boring lessons and school band practice. It's called "playing" you know! Music education is colonized by the western classical ideal, where musicians punish themselves to make demanding music played for the elite, who politiely clap. This is not where music came from originally. Music was a sponteneous and communal celebration of being alive. If it became technical that was a result of continuous practice, not in the sense of self-denying strenuous work towards an end, but practice in the sense of playing as being an end in itself! This hard separation between ends and means is indicative of western thought which breaks things apart into categories instead of experiencing connection to all things. Music is such a connection.

The privatization of music goes far beyond music companies promising "fun" lessons. It has to do with the very concept of music lessons in themselves, and the assumptions embedded in them. The music teacher should step aside and allow the student to discover the instrument for themselves. Only when the student has burning questions as the result of their musical exploration, should the music teacher make their assistance available. The teacher should serve as a guide, hopefully having the ability to guide the student to one of the infinite possible paths available on the instrument. They should never teach that one path is the correct one, for that is the death of music and the death of true learning. Ultimately that is why students turn to their smart phones, because increasingly they are seeing that the bourgeois institutions they are forced to participate in are death. I don't believe for a second that any of those students wouldn't make an excellent musician. The problem is that our teachers have succeeded in teaching them that learning music is NOT fun. This is a travesty since music is our collective birthright and integral to living a good life.

Soapy
May 29 2017 00:45

I think you might have a misconception about how I teach. I like to give kids pop songs and Disney songs to work at, and asking them to practice 45 minutes a week is hardly requiring "punishing" self-discipline

mhugman
May 29 2017 12:56

Do the kids actually want to learn these pop and Disney songs? Even 15 minutes of doing something you really don't want to do is punishing yourself, in my view, especially if it's not in the service of a greater goal that you actually want. The role of education I believe should be to facilitate what the student wants to do themselves, and cultivating a higher sense of things to expand the horizons of what they want. If they really wanted to learn that Disney song, you couldn't stop them from doing it if you tried. So the problem as I see it, is that you have to figure out what music the student is really interested in and help them learn that. Maybe they aren't interested in music at all. In that case, maybe your role would simply be to expose them to new music until they find something they're inspired by. Or maybe it is just not the right time for them in their life. I didn't care about music at all when I was taking clarinet lessons. I cared about video games. What would have been useful to me then was learning how to program games, would have loved it. It was only after I discovered heavy metal as a teenager that I picked up a guitar and learned riffs on my own, something I had to be forced to do on the clarinet. This kind of broader perspective I think is an inherent limitation of music lessons as such. Your job is to just teach the kid music. But should they be taught at all at this point? Or should they be learning something else more in line with their interests? That is a broader social question that can only be addressed at the societal and institutional level.

jef costello
May 29 2017 13:56

I do think attention spans are falling although I am not sure how much evidence for this there is. A lot of the anecdotal evidence is from people hwo have either forgotten what they were like as kids or who do not realise how unrepresentative their experiences were. For example here in France people regularly complain that the exams are becoming easier, but they are comparing a time before mass education to now. Also a lot of these comparisons are unfair, for example picking a question off an old a-level paper and comparing it to an easy question on a low-tier modern paper.

In general it does seem like attention spans are not as long as they use dto be and I personally feel like mine has shortened. Looking at the short-term rewards offered by social media and a lot of games, I've read that game companies employ psychologists to help them keep people addicted (which they already did but not explicitly)

I am not sure that this is connected to music specifically, although music tends to be one of those things that parents tend to make them do for other reasons which pretty much guarantees a lack of motivation.In general kids are demotivated because they can't see the point of what they are doing or the usefulness. In my opinion that's partly due to arrogance on the part of the kids and uninteresting nteaching as well as the fact that at lot of it is useless. The idea that qualifications will lead to work and a future is less and less credible.

Soapy
May 29 2017 15:06
mhugman wrote:
Do the kids actually want to learn these pop and Disney songs? Even 15 minutes of doing something you really don't want to do is punishing yourself, in my view, especially if it's not in the service of a greater goal that you actually want. The role of education I believe should be to facilitate what the student wants to do themselves, and cultivating a higher sense of things to expand the horizons of what they want. If they really wanted to learn that Disney song, you couldn't stop them from doing it if you tried. So the problem as I see it, is that you have to figure out what music the student is really interested in and help them learn that. Maybe they aren't interested in music at all. In that case, maybe your role would simply be to expose them to new music until they find something they're inspired by. Or maybe it is just not the right time for them in their life. I didn't care about music at all when I was taking clarinet lessons. I cared about video games. What would have been useful to me then was learning how to program games, would have loved it. It was only after I discovered heavy metal as a teenager that I picked up a guitar and learned riffs on my own, something I had to be forced to do on the clarinet. This kind of broader perspective I think is an inherent limitation of music lessons as such. Your job is to just teach the kid music. But should they be taught at all at this point? Or should they be learning something else more in line with their interests? That is a broader social question that can only be addressed at the societal and institutional level.

I teach them how to read music via notation and lead sheets, I start with nursery rhymes then expose them to classical, jazz, and pop, encouraging them to pursue whichever genre interests them the most because I really don't have a preference. In the end I get most students not only to learn how to play music but also I teach them self-efficacy which is a life skill that is highly important so that if they decide they are not interested in music they can apply the skills to something else.

Rather than engage with what I wrote, constructed over hours of extensive research into the education literature and based on countless hours of my own teaching experience, you constructed a straw-man of what you thought I represented and then proceeded to make a series of broad sweeping statements to take it down, not bothering to ground it in any facts to back up your argument.

@Jeff I cite a study in the article which argues that attention spans have decreased significantly

Serge Forward
May 29 2017 15:16
jef costello wrote:
I do think attention spans are falling although I am not sure how much evidence for this there is. A lot of the anecdotal evidence is from people hwo have either forgotten what they were like as kids or who do not realise how unrepresentative their experiences were. For example here in France people regularly complain that the exams are becoming easier, but they are comparing a time before mass education to now. Also a lot of these comparisons are unfair, for example picking a question off an old a-level paper and comparing it to an easy question on a low-tier modern paper.

In general it does seem like attention spans are not as long as they use dto be and I personally feel like mine has shortened. Looking at the short-term rewards offered by social media and a lot of games, I've read that game companies employ psychologists to help them keep people addicted (which they already did but not explicitly)

I am not sure that this is connected to music specifically, although music tends to be one of those things that parents tend to make them do for other reasons which pretty much guarantees a lack of motivation.In general kids are demotivated because they can't see the point of what they are doing or the usefulness. In my opinion that's partly due to arrogance on the part of the kids and uninteresting nteaching as well as the fact that at lot of it is useless. The idea that qualifications will lead to work and a future is less and less credible.

tl;dr

jef costello
May 29 2017 15:22
Soapy wrote:
@Jeff I cite a study in the article which argues that attention spans have decreased significantly

I am not trying to be funny but I didn't even notice that.

Auld-bod
May 29 2017 19:54

There have been some good points made on this thread, so here is my 10p.

Some years ago at a psychology lecture I was told that the maximum time most children (people) could concentrate with any intensity was fifteen minutes. The point was made that children made excuses to take a break, like looking round the room, daydreaming, rearranging their socks, etc. So teachers should periodically bring the children back on task by issuing class reminders (and attempt not to reprimand).

Adults exhibit similar behavour, like have a smoke, make coffee, eat a biscuit, check their phone, etc. Hard work is hard and the brain slows down and needs time to digest information. (I’d suspect with music/dance/P.E., the body tissue needs time to internalize the exercise. There is a word for this but I’ve forgotten it.)

Advertisers know this wandering concentration well and time their ads accordingly.
The editing of movies and the speed of jump cuts are often down to about three seconds. Compare with older movies where the cinematography was usually allowed to develop place and character in the story. Now often cardboard characters race around blowing stuff up and technology is the real star.

Steven.
May 30 2017 10:02
Auld-bod wrote:

The editing of movies and the speed of jump cuts are often down to about three seconds. Compare with older movies where the cinematography was usually allowed to develop place and character in the story. Now often cardboard characters race around blowing stuff up and technology is the real star.

Sorry, but I disagree with this. While films have changed, you can't argue that they were better in the olden days. For example loads of old films were just based on crude stereotypes, rather than proper three-dimensional characters (especially women) - of course films today aren't perfect, but they are getting better. And in terms of visual entertainment more generally, many TV shows are now much longer and more complex than in the past, and more based on slow character development rather than short-term action. Compare The Sopranos with the Dukes of Hazard for example.

Soapy, I think you're getting a bit defensive. No one is criticising your particular teaching style. Teaching music classically, learning to play an instrument and play it well, is certainly useful and has its place. But I think it is equally true that other less traditional teaching methods also have their place. Learning classically is great if you want to be a musician in an orchestra or a session musician or what have you. But it does pretty much suck the joy out of learning and sap lots of creativity. I learnt a bunch of instruments classically, but can't improvise anything at all. Whereas some people I know who taught themselves piano or guitar and can't even read music can just make songs up off the top of their heads, which personally I think is better skill (as I'm not going to be a professional musician, I just don't play any more, because if undiscovered play stuff other people have written, I might as well just listen to it played by people better than me)

Auld-bod
May 30 2017 12:16

Steven, your example is a good one regarding ‘the Sopranos’ and ‘the Dukes of Hazard’.

Recently I heard someone describe ‘Twin Peaks’ as the birth of the golden age of American television. In the UK, I understand we see the cream of American product. The UK has similar examples of some quality stuff. The reason for the scarcity is there has been a long term cutback on expensive drama productions (particularly with the BBC), similarly there are fewer sit coms, which require scripts and actors, whereas standup comedy is cheaper.

We’ll have to disagree regarding the aesthetic qualities of old movies. I’d put ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941) or even, ‘I Remember Mama’ (1948), above most product produced today. My understanding is that the last boon in American post-war movies began with the generation of directors, who were influence by continental movie makers. This more or less ended with ‘Star Wars’ (1977), the never ending western in space. The excellence of a portion of American TV is due to some of the best talent ‘moving over’ to the small screen. In a similar fashion in the nineteen thirties and forties, Hollywood benefited from talented Europeans fleeing from the Nazis.

I’m not saying that there are no good movies being produced today, it is that with the demise of the old studio system and the egotistical/dictatorial power of the studio heads, the accountants have a lot more say in what gets produced.

The Japanese director of ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954) was inspired by the westerns of John Ford. What has been inspired by ‘Star Wars’? The last ‘Mad Max’ movie I thought was so bad (all ‘style’ over content), the DVD was in the charity shop the next day. To end on a happy note, I’ve been watching ‘Justified’, which is well plotted, acted and has an excellent sound track.

Sorry for the derail.

The problem with formal education is the ‘schooling’ aspect. A.S. Neil thought that a child would learn when they were ready and interested. The way things are today, the interests of the educational institution comes before the needs of the child. I’ve found many teachers tend to think mature learners make the most rewarding students, as they want to be taught and can see the value in making an effort. They want what is on offer and do not need to be coerced or sold on some far-off goal.

jef costello
May 30 2017 17:16
Auld-bod wrote:
To end on a happy note, I’ve been watching ‘Justified’, which is well plotted, acted and has an excellent sound track.

Justified was excellent. I've started watching Rectify again although I'm not quite sure what to make of it.
I think there is also an element of Nostalgia, I remember saying to my mum about how lucky she was to be young in the 70s when music was great and she pointed out that I was just picking all the good bands and ignoring all of the rubbish. There has always been good and bad art, but technological advances do tend to leave things behind, Citizen KAne may still top best film lists but most people haven't seen it. Much like the lists of favourite books tend to be dominated by books that have film adaptations.
There certainly is a war on our attention spans and our relationship to knowledge is changing but that has always been the case. When I was in sixth form a teacher made us learn a poem by heart, when she was at school they did it all the time. So when people, like myself, say that kids don't want to learn anything these days it's not quite true, kids have never really wanted to sit down and learn stuff by heart, the easy access to technology just makes it easier to justify and cover up. Our brains are changing and adapting but I am not sure attention spans are necessarily getting worse or even if we are measuring the right thing in the right way. I do wish I had better powers of concentration but I can remember complaining about this to a friend a few years ago who pointed out that I had always been like that.

I will add one thing, I do get a little tired of the expectation that everything should be fun. I try to do task-based learning so things have a meaning and I try to make the work enjoyable, but if you expect my lesson to be as much fun as playing games on your phone then you are going to be disappointed.

Auld-bod
May 30 2017 20:27

Jef, you’re right there is an element of nostalgia in my opinions. However I think the myth that ‘new is better’ is a more dominant factor in most people’s thinking. This belief possibly has two main contributory reasons. Each generation wants to believe they’re smarter, and better informed than the dark-age generations before them. Secondly commodity capitalism needs to keep consumption growing, so today’s gizmo is sold as better than yesterday’s and tomorrow’s is gonna be even better. In terms of technological advancement this is usually true.

Popular culture reflects a similar kind of cyclical development as other parts of the economy. This usually shows itself in a creative explosion which is quickly shaped into a commodity and exploited. Popular music is a classic case. An example: early in the twentieth century black culture produces jazz. In a bleached form it makes it onto records and eventually the radio. The music becomes bland and subsequent creative developments takes place often when black musicians attempt to recapture the form. Eventually it stopped being a ‘popular’ music. The blues tells a similar story (partly because the material conditions that gave it birth are largely gone). Soul, country and rock ‘n’ roll music are similarly exploited though due to their amazing regenerative (and parasitic) abilities are not yet extinct.

I have heard similar arguments being made for other art forms which emerge with a burst of energy only to degenerate: dada morphing into surrealism, etc.

Regarding your comment that everything taught may not be ‘fun’. Many things we learn are not fun, sometimes things have to be taken on trust. It is only once you know something, or acquire a skill that you can evaluate its worth.