Fire the canon


I recall being at a conference-style event exploring the transition from school music study to university level study. It was a fascinating day seeing grass-roots classroom music educators conversing with academics. The gap was indeed wider than expected. One point that stuck in my mind was how quickly school-based curriculums has changed in comparison to what university music departments offered. Perhaps the regularity with which school curricula had changed accounted for the incongruence between school and university.

“They just don’t know the canon” remarked one academic. What is the canon? We all talk about it and no doubt volumes of papers have been written on it but do we all agree what the canon is? Is it fair to expect pupils to arrive with this “canon” in their heads? I think not. If there is an expectation for pupils to be brimming with repertoire knowledge then is it the responsibility of the class music teacher to feed their flock with chunks of the canon? Some pupils seem to devour repertoire through sheer enthusiasm and passion to discover more of the repertory they love. Should it be assumed that if the lack this compulsion to listen lots we as music educators should take on the role of canon-bearer and progressively introduce repertoire to fill the gaps. I think so.

Classic FM and it’s “Hall of Fame” perhaps help crystalize what the canon might be. Should it be a body of music that is considered by a group of people regardless of their educational backgrounds and professions, or should be a library of music prescribed by the chosen academics? It does raise the question of how we value repertoire and what makes “great” music. Perhaps. I remember the quotation heard at the start of a documentary I watched as a child on Bach. Someone involved in the Voyager space probe development had said he would put on it the complete works of Johann Sebastien Bach. To him that represented the summation of human achievement. Certain composers seem to be definitively canonic; Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven et al. Should we be grateful for what Classic FM has done to create the canon? Or has music of quality been eroded due to an over-marketing of “popular” classics?

Should we see our role as music educators as a cultural ambassador? Is it our priority to ensure the canon is shared with all? Or should we have different canons for those who are contemplating future music study as opposed to those who should be encouraged to experience some kind of canon that should be experienced by all? If we were to think of music distinctively British – something unapologetically occuring in the highest ranking pieces in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame – is there enough to share with our pupils? Should a canon for all be a British one? And then one thinks how should one experience this canon. Should teachers play the pieces and “explain” them? What benefit are we seeking by sharing particular pieces? Is this canon a selfish pursuit of “quality” music or something that will enrich the lives of all?

I enjoy Desert Island Discs. I often think what music I would take with me. Is it unfair to admonish music choices that are not “classical”? I dislike any attempt to subordinate musics. We should be free to select from the sheer vastness of the repertory and not be judged. Is it right for music educators to subordinate “popular” against “classical”? Is there a way to avoid this while still allowing our pupils (or students, if prefered) to experience certain music we deem canonic?

“What would you like your students to take away with them, after their compulsory music education ends?”. I think about this a lot. I think a love of music is a given. It features so heavily in their lives through iPods and other media that we should not doubt the prominence of it in people’s lives. What I would like them to have is a curiosity. There is a vibrant music life out there, existing in the music business that certains writers, performers, producers and a wealth of other professions. If my students can say “I wonder what else there is for solo harp” or “I should listen to more Brahms” then I’ve succeeded. I want them to go and feel empowered to hear more. Not feel a lasting resentment that because they were not immediately captured by a canonic work that they were not worthy and not a “musician”. I think canons, however spelt, can only be destructive rather than instructive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: