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Exploding Art Music Productions

1.1: The student as maker: A narrative for a pragmatist aesthetic


A school, like a village has a common culture which reflects the diversity of its members and the unity of its purpose. All human communities have a musical culture which is both pragmatic and aesthetic. The pragmatic products may be no less aesthetic than the expressive are able to serve a function. Music is made, performed, shared and reflected upon as an individual and a group expression, for a purpose, or for art itself. Music making in a community context is part of a system of creative activity and for the purpose of this discussion I would like to utilise Csikszentmihalyi's definition of creativity which outlines a system with three elements: "a culture which contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain and a field of experts who recognise and validate the innovation." (1996:6).

For the process and the product to exist and have value these aspects of the system need to be acknowledged. Philosophy and practice in music education has recognised the value of art as experience (Dewey, 1980), and a praxial approach (Elliott, 1995) which considers the value of context in curriculum. The purpose of this discussion is to recognise that the school is a community context in itself, and that community offers the opportunity to re-integrate life and art in context. In turn this context offers unique opportunities for music to be both educative and relevant to community. In practical terms, I would suggest that much of the ceremonial and pragmatic music making in schools can be useful and educative rather than an imposition or obligation to music teachers. In this brief forum I will attempt to outline the notion of art-life re-integration and a pragmatist aesthetic (Schusterman, 1995) utilising a narrative drawn from a piece of ongoing research. The narrative examines the multiple roles of a Synthesizer ensemble and describes the effects upon the students musical and generic development. The analysis and discussion of the key points to emerge from the narrative have been blended with the 'vignette' in an attempt to unify and make best use of the dimensions of this paper.

The school as a music community The school is a community, and if we examine the roles music takes in a 'village community' (Dillon, 1996), then we can more clearly recognise the idea of a pragmatist aesthetic. Within a village community, music:

And all members of the community participate in making, listening, playing and being critical of music in relation to its purpose and quality. The role of music then is an expression of the uniqueness of the community and a unifying and functional one as well as having the means of its own growth as expression. The role of the artist in that community is to:

Within this community ideal you can see that Csikszentmihalyi's system is evident. Evident also is the notion that the musician in this environment is a practising performer /composer, reflective/critical thinker about the domain and teacher. The separation between performer and teacher is not made nor is the distinction between product which is pragmatic or functional and that which is purely aesthetic, they are both 'music'.

The following vignette is taken from a pilot study carried out at an independent P- 12 school. The ensemble observed has four student members and one teacher/director. It focuses upon the pragmatic 'work' of the ensemble which is used to highlight the educative and musical/aesthetic value of the environment. The information has been extracted from in-depth interviews where the main request made of participants was to describe their own personal music story and the story of the ensembles development. Personal participant observations, video and audio tape of performances and rehearsals were also collected as data. The school Minister/Counsellor was interviewed in relation to his observations of the role of music in the community and effect upon students development. The approach seeks to examine the system of music in the lives of students, that is to examine the influence and effects of people, places and things upon musical development. The aim was to build a definition of what constitutes a nurturing environment for music education. The information presented here is a precursor for a larger participation observation case study, which is still in progress. The story used here, is not intended as definitive data but to illustrate and highlight events which have been noted in practice, investigated conceptually and which are in the process of being examined empirically.

The story of the synthesizer ensemble

The Synthesizer Ensemble is essentially a quartet with three members playing keyboard controllers (two on stands, one hung from the neck of the performer like a guitar) and one Wind controller (Clarinet / Saxophone fingering). The players come from a variety of backgrounds: a classical flute player, a piano player who also plays rock guitar, Synthesizer/computer composer/performer and a classical/modern pianist. As the ensemble is unique there is very little written specifically for it and appropriate repertoire is difficult to obtain. The ethos of the group is to promote and explore the possibilities of Synthesizer as an instrument in its own right rather than merely imitate. They seek to play works which are challenging technically, culturally diverse and which educate their audiences to the expressive qualities of the instruments in consort. Consequently the music and the performances they play reflects this exploratory role. Over the past three years they have been commissioned to perform and arrange pieces for multi media church services. These performances have included large scale works such as an Arabic mode/rhythmic improvisation with choir and solo vocalist, a 'Stations of the Cross' composed by the director, and a vocal/ Synthesizer piece based upon quotations from Faure's requiem. As well as this they performed their own complete multi media programme which contained works from contemporary Art music, Electronic music, through Popular music to Baroque and Medieval music which they have adapted and performed. The group performs both a pragmatic role for a community purpose and a purely aesthetic one for the development of the expressiveness of the instrument. The students and teacher describe the dual role as:

"... really interesting because there were a lot of creative things that the players in the ensemble had to do that they did not necessarily have to do in any other ensembles." (Teacher/Director)

He also highlights the idea of a small ensemble being able to be educative because of the initiative and responsibility placed upon the players:

"I think small ensembles, probably are the most musical ensembles and I'll qualify that, the idea of a small ensemble or chamber ensemble where there is not as much duplication of parts, so each player has to take more of an initiative for themselves. Whereas, that is not to say there is no initiative in a large ensemble, but its a different kind of thing, in the small ensemble basically there's one part per player and all the other parts rely on that player to make a meaningful cooperative, musical contribution and there is less room for superfluous parts in a small ensemble." (Teacher/Director)

The students who perform in the ensemble see it as a creative partnership with the teacher who 'directs' the ensemble but he relies upon the members of the group to interpret and improvise as a normal part of the ensembles performance. They valued the breadth it had given to their musical lives as well as the opportunity to play in an innovative and unique ensemble.

I think in Synth ensemble ....I can't really say we create a distinctive sound, because it differs every time, but I do think that we can create moods in a way that other ensembles in the school canÕt do as readily and a diverse range of moods, and for that reason I think its very appropriate for services background music, enhancing an atmosphere because I think the instruments really add to that and the sound can be very suited to not being a performance thing. As an ensemble we can be a great accompaniment for what ever else is going on. And I think it's been lovely to be involved in some of those church services because there is a lot of emotion behind what people are feeling, I think its great when music can really contribute to that occasion. (Student ,Wind Controller player)

The idea of playing in an ensemble which works in a functional way is seen by students and teachers alike as a possibility for creative and innovative work. The Minister who has worked with the group commented upon a particular instance of innovation:

What it said to the students was that there was something almost tribal about this. That they could create their own rhythm, their own message, their own particular way of being musical , it wasn't imposed from anywhere else it actually happened through the creativity of the staff at the time and the students who worked with those people. I thought it was an extraordinary time. We all commented later how passionate it was and how people if they didn't remember anything else about that night, remembered that music. (Minister)

The effects of this kind of pragmatic setting of music upon the individuals in the group and their peers and teachers is interesting in itself . The students who witnessed these performances are not from regular church going backgrounds, nonetheless they appreciated the effort of the Minister and Ensemble to make the message relevant to the community. The events were unifying ones which were "relevant and reverent to community" ( Dillon, 1995: 32 ). The personal effects upon the members of the ensemble were also quite profound. Each student reported a deeper way of knowing each other gained from the dependence upon each part to be in place so that their own part was possible. The work with improvisation was universally cited by students as a shift in the way they thought about and interpreted music. The diversity of the music also had an effect upon their music listening and critical skills. Each student reporting expanding their listening to include ÔWorld musicÕ, Jazz, early European music as well as Electronic music. Members of the ensemble felt that as a group they were on the "cutting edge of Electronic chamber music". This feeling was largely attributed to the sense of uniqueness, control over repertoire development and function in the community. This had a profound effect on the confidence and self esteem of the participants :

"..what seems to gel with kids at this school is the fact that they belong to something, a production, an ensemble, a small music group which has had the effect of raising their own awareness of who they are." (Minister/Counsellor)

The students reported experiencing this sense of belonging on two fronts, firstly the deep relationships developed through playing together in an ensemble and secondly, the relationship with the community gained through interaction and purpose. The dual roles of performing music for purely aesthetic and pragmatic purpose had an effect upon their personal feelings about community and the feelings of the community about them. Interviews with counsellors and teachers cite a large number of cases where students with low self esteem and often poor social skills had developed socially through the structure of musical relations in an ensemble. The view of their musical expression being valued, also has an effect upon their self image when they may be unable to express themselves in a verbal/social sense. The ensemble that performs in both settings, the pragmatic as well as the purely aesthetic, experiences the communityÕs need and appreciation for them through the pragmatic and the receiving of the expressive through the aesthetic.


The purpose of this narrative has been to highlight that "it is the whole environment both spiritual and social which educates the child" (D'Cruz and Hannah, 1979:63). This whole environment can be particularly utilised in music because it is so easily able to be integrated purposefully with community. A school community like that of a village, presents many opportunities for ceremony and tradition. Music teachers rather than seeing these as an imposition upon their already large workloads can use them as an opportunity for music making which can be valuable as music learning. Most important is the emphasis upon music as a personal and group expression and that it serves a strong creative role in the community or as the Minister puts it "...there is a kind of culture here that music is about exploring, rather than just a tradition handed down" . This does not take away from the music 're-creation' and recreation and learning in this environment. Unconsciously these kinds of involvements and roles of music exist in many schools and communities, what is recognised here is that once conscious these involvements can become creative and educative. The essence of 'Student As Maker' then, "is to recognise the integration which is occurring between life and art and give individuals access to critical values and an educated perceptual ability which can recognise and be critical of art in life, from within it as well as from a distance. The power of reflection in this way is the key to active participation in the post modern world and beyond." (Dillon, 1995:70)

In the same sense that a village values its own music, music makers in a school setting are able to uniquely respond to their role within the community and reflect that community's values and culture. The music makers reciprocally gain the approval of the village. Consequently in this context the immediate culture is the school and also music as an artistic domain. The "person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain" is the student, the "field of experts who recognise and validate the innovation" are the music teachers (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996:6) who also encourage and nurture this making process. In this sense the school is a self contained community in itself, it can reflect and simulate the world outside, but unlike the community outside, provide the forum for reflective practice about art making and music education.

About the author

Steve Dillon is currently undertaking research for his doctoral thesis and has taught post graduate music education part time at LaTrobe and Melbourne Universities. He has many years of experience as a teacher and head of performing arts at an independent school, a contemporary composer and a vocal performer. He has published a number of commercial music resource books and has recently begun a Synthesizer and music education publishing company (Exploding Art) on the internet to encourage and promote notated works in these areas.


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