AMI Blog


I often write about marimbas being transformative instruments. Fundamentally, they bring a new approach to music education that has largely been an exclusive space. Like it or not, it is mostly students who come from homes where there is enough money and time to support the big commitment of learning an instrument. In South Africa this trend has certainly been challenged with the many successful NGO projects based in our townships and rural areas.

Wherever we teach, and whatever our resources and the economic status of our students’ families, every choice we make is based on our fundamental beliefs about music itself, about what good music education entails, about children and their potential, and about musical learning. For instance, we have ideas about who can learn, what they should learn, how they can learn. Lying beneath all these ideas is a set of values, some of which we are aware of, while others are less obvious. Some we may take so for granted that we have never questioned them.

Values are reflected in the things that matter in your music classroom, your teaching, your interactions with students, and your school. In general, we tend to take for granted that our own values are right … we are quite possessive about our own sense of ethics. Whether we want to get into a debate about the relative rightness of our own values, and the questionable values of ‘others’, the bad news is: Values are not neutral because they end up advantaging some students and disadvantaging others.

I am writing from my South African context, but in education generally, we need to always be alert to the unintentional effects of unquestioned values. South African schools have had some serious lessons in transformation in the last few decades. A school’s values are reflected in overt things like school celebrations – what is celebrated and how it is celebrated. But values also underpin rules about how to wear the school uniform, hairstyle code, behaviour, languages spoken, how and when to greet adults, out of bounds areas. Schools like to encourage a group identity of some kind, so too much individuality in any of these areas can be discouraged or even punished.

Very often school leaders expect their music departments to buy in to the school values. We’re expected to make the school look good, but often without the resources to do it! 

Getting closer to home, within our music departments values are very much to the fore. Whether you teach pop, or jazz, or traditional African music, it is likely that the way you conceptualise music education draws a great deal from classical western music education. This is because it provides a sort of blueprint that has been developed over time and that has shaped our ideas about how music is best learned. (Bear with me, I think this is a problem).

Classical music comes with its own values. Here are a few: solo performance, being able to read, write and interpret notation, theoretical understanding, self-discipline, talent, complexity, and what constitutes ‘good’ music (that is, the compositions of ‘great’ composers). These values have implications. For instance, if you believe that talent is something you are born with, you may not spend much energy on class music, but focus on individual lessons. Perhaps you submit students to an aptitude test before giving them lessons. If you believe musicianship is impossible without reading notation, you will put a lot of energy into teaching theory, sometimes at the cost of encouraging embodied understanding. Importantly, these values don’t necessarily match the values and practice of other genres. If you bring those classical values to teaching something like pop music, the mismatch can be pretty alienating for students. Despite lessons about music they listen to outside school, the value clash from the way the music is actually taught could be why many don’t enjoy lessons. Instead of labelling these students as lazy or unmotivated, perhaps a deeper look at the value clash is in order.

We send out messages all the time about what music matters most. Take for example the terms ‘serious’ and ‘light’ music? These terms are absolutely LOADED – they allocate value in one way or another. Think about concerts where the ‘serious’ music comes first – and the ‘light’ music comes afterwards? Or the ‘fun’ pieces that a child is permitted to play at the end of the year after they have completed their graded exam? (You must eat your vegetables before you can have dessert). How much time do you allocate to different genres? And in which spaces are different instrumentalists, or ensembles permitted to rehearse and perform?  It’s in these unquestioned choices that we allocate value to music, and to the people who make music. Despite our best intentions, we might also be sending out messages that reinforce cultural, gender and race stereotypes.

I started this post with transformation. Our schools/classrooms/studios should be places where all students thrive. Being aware of the subliminal messages our choices send out about what music, learning styles, and learners count is one way to address the unhelpful legacies of colonial education. The spectacular growth of marimba groups in Southern African countries in the last 40 years suggests something about these instruments, the music, and the way kids learn marimbas is hitting the right spot. Playing marimba in groups has the potential to counter many of the alienating values of classical music education. Playing in groups, inclusion, learning by ear, simplicity, groove-based music, gross motor coordination, egalitarianism. Of course, it’s quite possible to run a marimba group using classical music’s values, and I suspect many teachers do. 

It’s not a matter of which one is best. It’s a matter of recognising what counts in our approach, what we make important, what are the deal breakers, and what the consequences of these are for individual students. We do well to step back and question our most dearly held values – the ones that drove our own music education. They may not be best for the kids in front of you. We do well to explore the musical worlds of our students to figure out how to help them to build on what they know, and what their communities love.