It is worth reminding ourselves that in light of Raymond Williams’ understanding of “a culture in common,” central to the concept of “shared humanity” is the idea that people’s well-being is related to “the tending of natural growth.” Williams insists (as quoted above) that “it is on growth, as metaphor and as fact that the ultimate emphasis must be placed.” It is all too easy to place, instead, the emphasis on the product of growth—what people grow into. Where we are concerned with the product, we care about growth simply as a means to an end. Growth is the pathway, if you like, to the desired result and, in order to determine the nature of that pathway, we become preoccupied with what the result should look like. Broadly, I believe that this preoccupation leads to two (of many) opposing camps of opinion in music education. Put crudely, some people believe each student’s end—the goal he or she is aiming for in terms of personhood and well-being—is different, multifarious, and ever changing, and that education should naturally reflect students’ different upbringings, cultural backgrounds, and likes and dislikes if it is to work well. In contrast, others believe that what makes for well-being in individuals and society is common to all cultures and people and that education should adhere to ideas of what this common well-being—this desirable end state—might entail. Accordingly—again, put crudely—in music education, some educators believe that students brought up, for example, on “Heavy Metal” music will flourish when given the music of the band Metallica (a Heavy Metal band) in music lessons, whereas others believe that students brought up on “Heavy Metal” will be best served when given music that experts believe is properly educational, which may or may not include the music of Metallica.Order now
I emphasize, however, regardless of the accuracy with which I portray these two camps of opinion, Williams, in defining a culture in common as involving the tending of natural growth, is not simply concerned with natural growth as a pathway to a vision of natural humanity, nor is he simply concerned with the tending of growth as a pathway to a vision of pre-determined, universal humanity. He is concerned, precisely, with the act of growth itself, as an ongoing, self-reflexive, preoccupation. This preoccupation, according to Williams, is the one thing we share, or have as a standard of sharing, with all other human beings.
It is because we all share it (or believe we all share it)—it is because we tend to our own growth in a way that we imagine would make sense to someone else, in a way that we believe others would be able to participate in, in a way that others would be able to choose themselves to share in—that makes our preoccupation meaningful. In other words, the emphasis on growth is not without direction, it is not simply emphasis on an empty process. The process has a vision, a goal, but that goal is in the process. The goal of the tending of natural growth is to allow people to grow in such a way that they recognize and enable the right of all other people to the tending of natural growth. In other words, we are attentive to how we grow within our lives in light of the idea that the nature of our attentiveness must invite the attentiveness of the other—must invite a self-conscious, self-relational act of tending. To repeat, the aim of the tending of natural growth is to create the will and desire in others for the tending of natural growth. The pathway is the goal. Perhaps this seems circular. I believe, however, it is what constitutes humanity. Anything that does not foster the will to tend to natural growth is not, in Williams’ terms, common—it does not create our shared humanity.
How, then, as teachers should we tend the natural growth of our students? In a way that asks: is our tending—our watering and our pruning—something that invites others to tend—to water and to prune? Are we tending to students in ways that encourage them to tend to themselves? Do our questions open our students’ minds to their own questions—do they uncover fields of inquiry and exploration or do they shut them down? Does our feedback help our students to reflect critically upon their own work, does it engage their own self-awareness, or does it turn them into performing monkeys? Does the music we play our students (or ask our students to play or compose), does the mode of musical engagement we encourage, do the metaphors and analogies we use—do all these practices require our students to savor music, to become attentive to it, to follow its twists and turns, its varieties of timbre, its questions, its self-reflection, its struggles and its delights?
Do these practices demand that our students follow closely—play, improvise, listen to, or dance to—music’s natural growth with thought and care in a way that encourages them to follow closely—play out, improvise, listen to—with thought and care, their own natural growth, their own lives?
The idea of the tending of natural growth as a reciprocal, human activity, in the context of current music educational settings does not imply the need for radical revisions to music educational practice. It simply requires that we shift the focus of such practice away from end results—bolstering fragile identities or giving students certain skill sets and so on—to the act of tending, self-critically, to music in such a way that students’ attentiveness to themselves is heightened. Where the tending of natural growth becomes the emphasis of music education, nothing much will change—at least, not outwardly. What may change is that where the purpose of giving students culturally specific music to remind them of, and to reinforce, their different cultural backgrounds, focusing on the tending of natural growth may involve asking students to set aside their cultural associations with the music and to listen to it with generosity. To listen to, or to play music with generosity is to engage music as if for the first time, to attend, for example, to the relationship between the bassoon line and the viola “Ode to Joy” theme in Beethoven’s Symphony in a way that is, itself, selfaware and attentive.
Similarly, where the point of teaching students instrumental skills may be, simply, to enable them to execute pieces of music, the emphasis of music education focused on the tending of natural growth may be to encourage them to interpret music in a way that reveals the music’s concern with (attentiveness to) its own parts. The focus will shift from technical proficiency to interpreting music in ways that may be understood to invite the students’ own self-attentiveness and awareness. Rather than the goal of a technically perfect performance, students will be encouraged to think about how the “Ode to Joy” theme may be interpreted in light of the preceding movements, or in relation to the lyrics that it accompanies, so that not only does its interpretation speak to the attentiveness of the student performer, but also the music’s nuanced nature, the attentive response of one element to another requires (and encourages) a nuanced (and
attentive) approach in the listener.
I think, sometimes, we forget that music is central to music education. I mean music, not as a product but as a relational act, one that involves us becoming mindful of, and attentive to, the senses through which we perceive it. Music is a product—a product of politics, society, and culture and as a product we need to be aware that it is used and abused in light of political, social, and cultural prejudices. If it is only a product it has no place in a democratic education system. As a product, it offers an experience that is, by definition, prejudiced and closed to growth. Education is about growth—the tending of natural growth. Thus, while music can be viewed merely as a product, in a fuller sense it may be understood to exceed this view in that it also invites musical participants to participate in a kind of musical self-awareness.
Beethoven’s Symphony is a product of a particular time and place—a particular culture, but I also believe it invites its participants to take part in a process which exceeds time, place, and culture, in which they may recognize the music’s attentiveness to its own, musical growth and, in doing so, become attentive to their own growth—a process which lies at the heart of what it means to be human. That does not mean that music educators must include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in their curricula. But it does mean that the Symphony should not be excluded on the basis of cultural incompatibility or irrelevance. The only basis for the inclusion or exclusion of music in a music education curriculum is Williams’ standard of a culture in common—the tending of natural growth.