Ideas and resources for music education.

Reflections on Fifty Years of Reflections on Sound and Silence

This is an older post from my previous blog, originally posted in June 2021.

sound and silence

On Wednesday 23rd June I attended a seminar, organised by B-MERG, entitled Paynter and Aston's 'Sound and Silence': discussion and response. A tie-in with the 2019 book marking 50 years since publication of the original work, the session offered a few perspectives on the legacy of Paynter and Aston's book, as well as some discussion of its relevance today. It was a fantastic seminar, and I haven't really stopped thinking about it since.

Sound and Silence has always been a key text that has shaped my views on musical education. The perfect cocktail of whole-class music-making, projects with such exciting, unknown possibilities, and the overall framing around the thought-processes emerging from 20th Century art music, is one I've always found to be intoxicating. My training at Birmingham City University modeled many of the, for want of a better term, 'ways of musicking' discussed in the book, and I've always held a strong belief that 'good music education' should look at lot like the projects detailed in the original book. As such, over the course of the seminar, I was both inspired by the contemporary context that these ideas were given, but also filled with conflicting thoughts on my own practice.

The first speaker was Gary Spruce, whose short presentation situated the 'dialogical' forms of music making espoused by the book within current thinking around music curricula. Spruce eloquently summarised the most powerful concepts from the text; namely the focus on process over product, the teacher as mediator, and how we define what creativity is, or might look like, in the projects described. Rightly, the essence of the book was presented in stark contrast to what is currently valued in our education system, namely 'cultural capital', and 'powerful knowledge'.

I am totally on board with Spruce's arguments that these terms prioritise the western classical tradition as the dominant mode of discourse, and wrongly suggest a focus on amassing of factual knowledge above all other forms, but I wonder how useful it is to present Sound and Silence as a challenge to these trends (even though it definitely is). In my setting, as part of a recent review of our curriculum, I feel I've been able to, in a sense, 'redefine' the use powerful knowledge and cultural capital, to align with my own philosophies around music education. In my programmes of study, powerful knowledge is knowledge of music (as opposed to that), taught and learnt through the dialogic process espoused in Sound and Silence. Similarly, in my department, cultural capital, though not explicitly defined, is considered as knowledge of the authentic working practices of musicians from across the globe, i.e., students gain this cultural capital through performance and composing activities, akin to those found in 'real' music making, and related creative pursuits (and, most importantly, found in Sound and Silence). That's what I've decided those terms mean, and we act accordingly. Is this useful? Should I rage against the machine, and reject the assumed notions inherent in these terms, or should I present an interpretation of them that builds the most musical culture in my school? I was left wondering on this for some time after the seminar (I'm still wondering).

After Spruce's comments left me questioning everything I've ever done in the classroom (a not-uncommon occurrence in my life), after hearing Chris Philpott, I was able to give myself a break. Philpott's breakdown of the different types/modes of creativity in music, alongside a discussion of the tensions between them all, was enlightening and fascinating. Since 'curriculum reform' has become the focus of much of the work in my school, I have questioned my decisions to develop 'different types of creativity' across KS3 on a sometimes hourly basis. I was reminded that we, as educators, should be constantly reevaluating our teaching, our decisions about what and how to teach. Philpott presented a 'sort of' linear progression from Type 1 to Type 5 (as explained in the latest book), but I was able to identify with my own evolving notions of creativity in my teaching. We are all on a journey with our thinking around these issues, and that's good.

Finally, John Finney presented an impassioned plea to consider the importance of a child's agency in the music education we provide for young people. It was heart-warming to hear the creative process described in such a way, namely as 'a conversation', which is in some ways contrary to so much that is promoted about 'good teaching' from our current 'overlords' in government. This, alongside the description of BCU (my own PGCE training provider) as 'keeping the flame alive' for this kind of music education, was both uplifting and timely.

Reflecting on my own practice, the self-flagellating part of my psyche was left pining for the pre-COVID days, when music education in my department looked a bit more like 'the ideal' that I was taught at the beginning of career as a teacher. Though my department is far from where I want it to be, I shouldn't be too hard on myself; the trying circumstances of the last two years have presented insurmountable challenges, and I'm fortunate to have made as much music with young people as I have. Teachers are too self-critical.

Looking forward, as I move from current school to a new country, and a new education system, I am left determined to promote and embody the music education described in Sound and Silence wherever possible. Both books are inspirational. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to hear them discussed, and I'm so pleased I've carved out the time to think carefully about them, 11 years after first reading Paynter and Aston's masterpiece.