Enlightenment of Entitlement? Rethinking Tertiary Music Education

Warren Bebbington
| March 24, 2014

Tregear’s call for a more informed and enlightened discourse about tertiary music education is a timely one.

enlightment-or-entitlementFew involved in tertiary music education would have missed the hubbub surrounding the restructure of the ANU School of Music in 2012. Following years of financial difficulty, the university decreed a spill of all staff positions, and the workforce of salaried performing staff was dramatically reduced in favour of a smaller group of more academic appointments. Local music lovers reeled as long-serving and much-loved musicians, many the anchors of Canberra’s orchestral and choral life, were ejected into the community.

As the cuts were announced, the Head of the School guitarist Adrian Walter left for the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts, and musicologist Peter Tregear was swiftly put in his place to deal with the aftermath. In this Platform Paper, Tregear sets out to reflect broadly on the controversy and provide an intellectual argument for the direction the School is now taking.

Although their remedy was drastic, the problems besetting music education in Canberra were not unique. Tregear notes that the academic study of music generally has suffered a crisis of confidence from which it is yet to recover. A curriculum focussing on the Western classical canon and delivered via one-to-one instrumental lessons, unchanged in music schools for more than a century, has become increasingly irrelevant as public musical appetites have moved on. To the changed circumstances most music schools have responded with despair, but “if tertiary music education is to remain relevant,” says Tregear, “we who deliver it need firstly to move beyond a default position of victimhood.”

The way forward, says Tregear, is to “produce graduates who have an empowered sense of agency and responsibility for the musical culture that now surrounds us.”  He wants graduates who are well rounded, and educated for good citizenship. Amongst other things, these students need an understanding of the internet-based music economy, a breadth beyond the Western classical repertoire, and the ability to think critically about music as well as to play an instrument.

At Canberra Tregear has moved to have the traditional teacher-pupil hierarchy replaced by a “digitally-enabled Creative Commons.”  He advocates a system where students are encouraged to develop relationships with more than one practical teacher, or indeed take part of their lesson entitlement interstate or abroad, and in the process are encouraged to cross genres and modes. Academically, there is a first-year music history course that is not limited to the Western canon, and electives such as Music and Science, Music and Digital Media, Music Business and the Law, or Music and Globalisation. This is undoubtedly an innovative response to the circumstances in which his School found itself.

There are some assumptions behind Tregear’s argument. Firstly, he seems to accept that excising the core of practical staff from a music school, as ANU did, is necessary in our current environment, for salaried staff appointed to undertake one-to-one studio teaching, he says, “cannot generate enough income-earning work through the year.” But then neither can academics in several other disciplines: a university that wishes to have a veterinary program or dentistry school, for example, will quickly learn the need to deeply cross-subsidize such programs from elsewhere. And the costs of the educational models those disciplines embrace far exceed the costs of a traditional music school. Some disciplines create a surplus, others bring a cost; in the end a university makes a judgement as to which programs are vital to its character, and finds ways to protect those it values. The sad fact for the musical life of Canberra was that, in the end, ANU did not regard its practical music program as indispensable.

Secondly, Tregear is clearly troubled by the traditional one-to-one mode of practical music teaching, saying “the level of educational risk in the instrumental studio is high.”  He refers to “the damage a hothouse system can do to vulnerable young people.” The drive to study music is so blinding that young players become oblivious to its risks, falling dangerously under the spell of their individual teacher. There is clearly some truth in this although, in my experience, only for a small minority of students: music alumni surveys usually suggest that most look back on it with nostalgia for the rest of the lives.

He rehearses recent media enquiries in the UK revealing endemic abusive behaviour and harassment in key UK music schools.  That is certainly disturbing, but I would doubt it is universal: in more than 20 years as dean of two music schools myself, in universities with very rigorous standards for such behaviour, I was actually amazed at the rarity of such incidents, given the intense relationships that develop in one-to-one instruction. And such instances are no reason to abandon the whole model for something unproven. For one would struggle to point to examples where the kind of less-hierarchical, part digitally-delivered model with which Tregear is now experimenting have delivered sustained outcomes in advanced musical performance. Indeed, Tregear admits no one has yet found an adequate online substitute for the traditional one-to-one mode.

But there is no denying Tregear’s call for a more informed and enlightened discourse about tertiary music education is a timely one, and his Paper is a splendid example of an intellectual urbanity too rarely evident in music education fora.  He ends with a stimulating list of further issues music schools might ponder. We should watch with interest how his new model at the ANU unfolds, and also listen with attention to what more he has to say.

Reviewed by: Prof Warren Bebbington is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide and a former Dean of Music at the Universities of Melbourne and Queensland.

Author: Peter Tregear
Enlightenment of Entitlement? Rethinking Tertiary Music Education
Platform Papers No. 28, (February 2014). Currency House.

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