Meeting the New: What 21st-Century Educators Can Learn from the Earliest "Ethnomusicologists" about the Appreciation of Music

Article excerpt

It may seem paradoxical to argue that twenty-first-century music educators, in search of a pedagogical perspective that meets the needs of our Internet-savvy young students, should study the way the earliest "ethnomusicologists" wrote about music: those reports by Jean de Lery, Simon de la Loubere, Jean Chardin, and others who, prior to 1700, traveled far from their homes in Europe, met musical customs very much at variance with those they were familiar with, and felt impelled to comment on this new and startling music. Paradox or no, the reason I think it is so useful to study these early writings is one that transcends the centuries, and all the changes in music and musical technology. The reason is ethical.

In those centuries-old writings by de Lery, et al., there are two things that still are very much present in our classrooms today-in our students and, if we are honest, likely in ourselves as well. First, a praiseworthy and educationally efficient desire to appreciate music different from what is familiar. And second, its opposite: the desire to swiftly sum up and then dismiss-or even scorn- what is new.

No amount of technology, per se, can alter this second attitude. What can alter it is a change of ethical awareness. Students need to be made aware, in a way that doesn't seem "preachy" or patronizing, that there can be a dual response to what is new, so they can discover for themselves which looks better to them. Which brings us face-to-face with the value of looking at these early ethnomusicologists--namely that the distance of the centuries enables us to talk with our students about this fundamentally ethical issue without immediately stirring up current musical prejudices: against rap, country-and-western, or opera. In fact, it has been my experience that once students learn about the issues involved 300 or 400 years ago, they are unanimous in their opinion: they object to the prejudices of centuries ago, and applaud the honest desire in some of these explorers of new musical territory to stretch their ears and their human sympathies. Understanding all of this enables students to know their own minds better, and to be in a far stronger position to object to prejudices in themselves and their classmates.

I would go so far as to say that an increased awareness of the ethics involved in listening to "new" or "different" music helps every other aspect of music education go better. For the entire point is to introduce students to what is new- whether it be new genres of music, or new perspectives on music that is familiar to them. Therefore, the most fundamental concept in music education isn't specifically about music at all: it is about our personal ethics, our attitude toward what is new or different.

What Is "Appreciation"?

Some decades back, the most common title for an introductory course in music was "Music Appreciation." The term is less often applied today, yet it remains the key to what we are attempting to accomplish in our classrooms. Appreciation, as the great American educator Eli Siegel defined it, is "being able to see something as it is and liking it at the same time." He offered this definition in his March 31, 1950, lecture titled "Aesthetic Realism and Appreciation," in which he also laid out the ethical significance of the matter:

   The word appreciation ... is one of those words synonymous with life
   itself. When a person doesn't like himself, one of the chief
   reasons is that he has failed to appreciate what he should
   appreciate. Whenever we fail to appreciate something deeply it's
   because we appreciate something else too much. We are lopsided
   somewhere. Just as when a person fails to be excited by something
   that should excite him, he appreciates indifference too much--so
   when some people cannot see with any greatness or depth of feeling
   what deserves to be seen, it means that something else has been
   given too much value. … 

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