Music learning conditions

From: Bartel, L. (ed) (2004). Questioning the Music Education Paradigm. Toronto: Canadian Music Educators’ Association.

From Dilemmas to Experience: Shaping the Conditions of Learning
Lee Bartel & Linda Cameron


Music is a demanding art. Learning, from the first attempts to elite performance levels, is fraught with musical, pedagogical, and motivational dilemmas and the needs of the person are often neglected. How can these needs be addressed while pursuing the ideals of the art? We propose the key is the protection and nurturing of the individual’s engagement with the art. We propose that the choices teachers make related to the dilemmas set the conditions of learning and determine levels of engagement: choosing predominantly one way leads to engagement and an experience that will probably be a positive, enjoyable, motivating, and rewarding one that is likely to lead to a life-time of music participation. Choosing predominantly the other way may lead to disengagement and a music learning experience that, for the average student, will probably be a negative, de-motivating, psychologically damaging one, and in most cases lead to a cessation of music-making


“…competition in one form or another is a pretty basic part of it… We try to keep it down a little bit here by rotating part assignments but, there is a merit base in part assignment. You’re not going to put your worst player to play a first horn on the Bruckner fourth Symphony. You try not to put somebody on the part that will embarrass them and the school.”

“I think a lot of people have a sort of a love- hate relationship. I mean, if you didn’t have a fair component of love you couldn’t make yourself do it forever but the resentment of all the time it takes and how much you miss in your life.”

The study and pursuit of art is a fulfilling and delightful manifestation of a fundamental need of the human spirit. The engagement with new challenges of achievement is invigorating. The pursuit of ideals of excellence gives purpose and meaning to life. But, in the context of a consumer society, art is easily appropriated as cultural entertainment capital. Artistic concepts, aesthetic standards, and creative innovation can become idealizations of perfection forced on performers being exploited for societal pleasure. Individual achievement is mythologized as symbol for the corporate society. In this context emerge dilemmas of teachers’ goals versus the students’ needs, music’s demands versus students’ motivations and commitment, technical requirements of music versus its potential expressive import, and the digital age audience expectations of perfection versus the reality of the limits of human ability. In this context, how can the needs of the individual be balanced with the demands of the art?

A first, and very important step, is the admission that a problem exists – that the demands of the art in our time may not be aligned with the needs of the individual. It requires the recognition that pedagogic dilemmas exist and a conscious awareness of the values inherent in choices and behaviours. As researchers, it requires both a willingness to see beyond the “appropriate answer” of the discursive frame and to confront the “ugly” side of art but at the same time objectivity and responsibility toward time-honoured artistic values and practices.

Sociology of sports (Donnelly, 1997) now very openly admits there is a problem of verbal and emotional abuse of those considered talented as well as of many simply falling short of coaches and parents’ expectation. A recent colloquium addressed the issue “head-on” (Talented Children in Sport, Music and Dance: How can we Nurture Talent without Exploiting or Abusing Children? – University of Toronto, Centre for Sport Policy Studies, Sept 28-29, 2001). In music education we have essentially no research looking at this issue and little if any acknowledgement it even exists. In dance there is acknowledgement that there is risk of physical injury and eating disorder, but less attention to emotional issues of pedagogy. In music education we have the further concern of “legitimised deprivation” of opportunity for children on the basis of “talent.” Since music is a naturally occurring intelligence, education for the development of musical potential should be every child’s right.

Social justice literature points to places where the “system” deprives a certain group of the opportunity to develop a natural potential. Epp & Watkinson (1997), in a book entitled “Systemic violence in education,” state that they view as “violent” any practices and procedures that adversely impact individuals by “burdening them psychologically, mentally, culturally, spiritually, economically, or physically. It includes practices and procedures that prevent students from learning, thus harming them.” Parker (2000) and Bartel (2000) have pointed out applications to music.

Whether emphasizing technique over expressivity, selecting the “talented” for inclusion and the “untalented” for exclusion, or selecting music that is culturally understood by children or is musically foreign to them, teachers daily face pedagogical dilemmas. In this chapter we argue that the choices teachers make related to the seemingly unavoidable dilemmas of music teaching establish the conditions of learning and determine the experience children have with music. These experiences can be motivating and positively transformative but just as surely debilitating and alienating. We argue that the traditional music education paradigm, both school music and private instruction, is positively motivating in the long run for only a small percentage of the population. The rest “face the music” that they are untalented, unwanted, and unnecessary. We propose that, by attending to a particular side of the dilemmas we identify, music education could be reshaped into a positively motivating, transforming, and engaging experience for a much larger percentage of the population.


This chapter is based on the findings of a series of research studies we and a number of graduate students have conducted since 1996. Our research has had three facets:

Conditions of Learning (Written Personal Narratives). In an article entitled, “What really matters in music class” (Cameron & Bartel, Fall, 1996), we invited students and educators to submit personal narrative accounts of memorable experiences with music learning - positive or negative. We also gathered accounts from students at the University of Toronto. We were looking for learning conditions facilitating engagement. Initial findings were reported at the Canadian University Music Society conference in 1997 (Bartel & Cameron, 1997). We have now acquired some 200 individual usable accounts. We conducted a thematic analysis of the narratives and compared our results to the conditions of learning model of Brian Cambourne (1988) and the student﷓centred philosophy of Max Van Manen (1986). We found that our findings matched these models but extended the significant categories to include aspects perhaps specific to music learning. We reported the findings at a commission of the International Society for Music Education (ISME) in South Africa in 1998 (Cameron & Bartel, 1999; Cameron & Bartel, 2000).

Self-Efficacy of Generalist and Specialist Teachers Teaching Music. In 1997 we began a questionnaire study on teachers' self-perception of confidence to teach music and perceptions of musical talent (Bartel & Cameron, 1998). The questionnaire asked teachers to describe in detail any critical incident or series of incidents that affected their self-perception of ability and confidence to teach music. In 2001-2002 we continued this research in a comparative education study focused on the “generalist” teacher required to teach music. This study, conducted with Jackie and Robert Wiggins, compared teachers in New Zealand and Canada in self-efficacy and related factors. Most recently we expanded this to include in-service and pre-service music specialists. Findings have been reported at the International Society for Music Education in South Africa in 1998 (Cameron & Bartel, 1999; Cameron & Bartel, 2000) at American Education Research Association (AERA) conference, 2002, and ISME conference in 2002 in Norway.

Face the Music (Interviews on Systemic Issues). During 2000-2001 we focused our research on broader systemic issues and began in-depth interviews. A graduate student working in our research program conducted a small pilot study with interviews stimulated by movie excerpts (Jacques, 2001a) that replicated our results in the Conditions of Learning but re-focused analysis and proposed several new themes in the data. Jacques (2001b) conducted further interviews to explore the effectiveness of various approaches to the use of video excerpts. We then began conducting semi-structured interviews with musicians (School music teachers and private studio music instructors teaching beginners, intermediate, advanced, and pre-professional students, n=31). Interviews used video clips from popular movies as thought stimulators and memory “joggers” and focused on the following themes: (1) Value of excellence, (2) importance of virtuosity, (3) role of teacher as conductor, (4) perceptions of human motivation and ability, (5) concept of talent, (6) and role of music in culture. We used qualitative theme analysis to examine data and identified factors in the perpetuation of the “talent-oriented” system. Partial results have been reported in papers at AERA 2001, AERA 2002, and at the Research Alliance of Institutes for Music Education in Oslo in 2001.

Since 2001 we have also interviewed dancers and dance teachers, done initial work on theatre, and are currently beginning with gymnasts. We believe that there are pedagogical and psychological commonalities in the teaching, learning, and practicing of artistic performance in time – temporal expressive performance. Here, however, we focus on what we have learned from music.


The study and pursuit of music seems to be fraught with constant tensions and dilemmas: the student likes the positive teacher but feels something is being missed; the teacher emphasizes technique but then demands expressivity; to be an excellent performer a child must start very young but loses out on holistic development; all students deserve equal opportunity to participate but some students achieve a better performance; there is motivational benefit in competition but psychological cost in not winning; critical ability must be developed to be artistically responsible but the inner critic can ruin confidence and the love of the art. The decisions teachers make regarding these dilemmas determine to a great extent the quality of the experience of students. Setting the most productive conditions may vary from student to student, so possibilities for error are great. Because the decisions are not all “student-related,” dilemmas become more complex. There are at least three categories: music-related dilemmas, pedagogy-related dilemmas, and student-related dilemmas. There is certainly interaction among these and some are not an “either-or” situation, but rather a matter of emphasis or balance.

Music-related dilemmas

There is a cluster of dilemmas related to the characteristics of music itself or the choice of music to be learned. Although they are music-related, it really is a matter of philosophical beliefs and musical values that influence a choice on these binaries or dilemmas. It is how music is viewed. It is what the teacher considers important, and what musical practice or tradition the teacher is perpetuating, that determines which side of the dilemma is emphasized. The most pervasive and evident is the binary of expressivity and technique.

Musical Expressivity — Technical Proficiency. Music experienced from the perspective of a listener is sound with structure and expressive import. Dance from the perspective of viewer is gesture with stylized technique and interpretive expressivity. So even from the perspective of audience, the technique-expressivity binary is evident as the listener/viewer may attend to the syntax, the form, the compositional elements, and the traditional movement elements but may respond primarily to the expressive elements. However, when you experience music as a performer, the technical aspects —the repetitively practiced motions of muscle and bone—are inescapable. When the music is performed is a replication of a composer’s or choreographer’s intent, “mistakes” become glaringly evident, and a first priority of the performer. An excellent performance is one “not only technically competent but also musically good” (study participant).

In the study of music this demand for technical competence seems to be the basic ingredient but it is meaningless without artistic expressivity. Technique is a prerequisite but expressivity is the justification.

I want to be amazed but I also want to be moved and that is the dichotomy of the technical vs the artistic and the really amazing performances obviously combine the two.” D011

Looking back in retrospect, sometimes you feel you’re always being told a double theme from your teacher. You know you’re told that musicality is important — you should feel this, feel that, or whatever — but it has to be perfect. I’ve always found that those two things shouldn’t really, fundamentally be put together. And yet, as a student you are always being bombarded with this idea that there is perfectionism that’s absolutely required.
This is technical perfectionism?
That’s right. So, the idea that he’s fuming at him [Shine- movie] to have everything, all the notes there—“don’t disappoint the composer, don’t disappoint me” — that sort of thing, yet at the same time, “feel the beauty of the notes.” It’s a double message.
What do students usually opt for?
[laughs] well I find that at least today — I think there is at least in the top conservatories a real over-concern with perfectionism at the expense of real character and musicality.

If it is a dilemma for students, it is equally a dilemma for teachers. Expressivity is limited by technique. But an emphasis on technique may ignore the expressive. For teachers the question is whether you go through technique to expressivity, through expressivity to technique, or whether you go back and forth. For sensitive teachers, the dilemma seems more evident because, as in the experience of students, they seem to feel that insisting on technical matters is an expression of discipline, of rigidity, of the “tough” side of teaching and misses the motivation and “heart” of the art.

…if that trust is created between teacher and student, the teacher can later on go on and become just technical for a while, but actually you shift from this to that — you need to do both sides. You need both sides but you can start off by creating the trust and then you can become more rigid at certain moments….

Because artistic excellence is associated with technical perfection and the rigor and discipline of its development, students may feel a need for the “whip” of technical discipline.

there was one girl who asked me a couple weeks ago to help her. She wants to do her masters and she really needs work on technique, then I heard her sing in recital and I thought, she’s got a wonderful singing spirit, and to really focus on technique would be detrimental to her because a lot of that is happening naturally—so I wondered what makes her think that she needs to do this, because she doesn’t feel brutalized, perhaps?

The expectation of performative perfection, which always means note perfect, technical perfection, may come from teachers, may come from the students’ internal competitiveness, but both may be fueled today by the image we set up as the ideal.

There is a higher premium on technical perfection and accuracy than there used to be and it’s easy, and very possibly correct, to blame recordings. We hear so much perfect playing that you expect that live.

The cost of greater technical perfection may be the richness of individual expression.

…for some people it’s a major accomplishment to let go of worrying about technical growth and focus on musical growth, and on your own personal character identity in you’re playing. And, that’s what we are missing, of course, these days.

The “Bar” is technique…but that is a circus trick…Get people to value excellence…of passion, vision, …raising the bar so that there is more beauty or passion or thought or idea…and it isn’t about better “technique”

But, the greatest cost of an emphasis on technical perfection is not just “these days” — it is a long-standing problem of instruction. Technical imperfections are blatantly evident, especially when they result in “mistakes.” Consequently, teachers are often sticklers for technical development, intolerant to mistakes of any kind, and upset at a lack of similar values by students. A student’s inability to achieve the desired perfection is most commonly attributed to a student’s lack of ability or lack of sustained effort. Rarely is it considered a weakness of pedagogy. This translates easily into a sense by students that the teacher is justified in being upset, that being upset is attributed to such a strong passion for the demands of the art, and that is it is the insufficiency of the student that is ultimately at fault.

I had some classes with someone in Israel actually who was the sort of person who just badgered you over and over again until — that was more in a musical sense— you could tell he felt so strongly about phrases and this and that — even though it was difficult you felt he was doing it for a certain point.

We weren’t allowed to learn any pieces at all—only scales and studies. [The Cleveland teacher] was a bit horrified that our wonderful quasi-Suzuki teacher had no interest in any of that, any of what you would call standard technique… so there was sort of a corrective summer. And probably really great in a sense because after that point there was always a sort of double teaching — [The Cleveland teacher] was very regimented in Galamian technique and the [London teacher] was always talking about sunshine and the soul and the spirit, and that sort of thing and it was a really good combination. So this sort of dual studying thing went on the right up until I was 14.

As is evident from these last quotes, the emphasis on technique seems associated with one kind of teacher, usually a demanding, picky teacher who may be considered necessary like bad tasting medicine, while expressivity is associated with a pleasant, inspirational teacher. However, since technique is so essential, the unpleasant teacher is sometimes considered more important and in fact more desirable.

Relative standards — Objective standards. The first response to music or dance by audience, performer, adjudicator, or clinician always seems to be critical judgment. In fact, we teach strongly for such a response stance. This critical judgment can be norm referenced – relative to the person’s potential and progress, the age level of the performer, the size of the school, etc or it can be criterion referenced — with objective standards or criteria set by the ideals of the art. Most striking in the data from our participants was the tension experienced between these two bases for critical judgment. They might begin with avowing adherence to a relative, student-centered approach, but slip into an objective artistic standard.

“As a teacher I am nurturing, as a director I’m a bitch” D09

I think you can have an excellent performance by even a young ensemble which would necessarily be judged at a different level than a professional ensemble.
So is it then the personal best of the performer or the group in the moment?
Maybe, although some people may not be capable of a personal best which would rise to the level of any definition of excellence.
So there is an objective definition of excellence in music to which we aspire, we rise toward, we work toward?
Well, in terms of musical phrasing and being together and obviously right notes and right rhythm— it’s not going to be excellent in the way I would feel about it unless they meet the standards of the music.

A sub-category of this dichotomy between relative and objective standards is the dilemma for teachers of personal best effort versus musical perfection. When responding with relative musical standards, the teacher can give recognition to personal best effort and reward it with praise and encouragement and public celebration. However, if the teacher has strongly in mind objective standards of musical achievement which expects nothing less than musical perfection, it is very difficult to give unqualified praise and celebration. The high school teacher may want to encourage and praise a student’s best effort but if the teacher knows the student will go and audition at a prominent music conservatory and the teacher’s reputation will be associated with the student, the teacher may be much less ready to respond to the student in terms of the student’s best effort, but rather “be realistic” about the student’s potential. This problem can also be phrased as a learner focused - art focused dilemma. It is the very nature of the art.

I remember doing a lot of high school clinics, and a teacher would say oh I’ve got a great group they’re playing really great, and I’d go in there, and they could hardly blow their nose, they could barely put their instruments together, and you don’t want to say anything to the high school instructor that you’ve been deceived or something like this —you think, it’s nice that the instructor is so enthusiastic about his students and thinks so well of them.

When you say, “that was an excellent performance” what do you mean?
I mean, for them where they are now. There was a student who sang today “that was really excellent” I said, those are the words I used. Was it as good as he could do? No, but for where he is at right now, those are the goals he set, and considering all that went on before, things he’s got out of alignment, he did well. It’s different for each student.
You don’t hold up a fixed musical criteria?
No, no it’s school.
How important is the pursuit of what you perceive as the standards, even though the student may be this far away, are you still gunning for those artistic standards?
Yeah, it depends, if the student really has it, then I really push them with lots of encouragement. I always let them know that they’re good and I believe in them, but they really need to do the skill work, or the structured work. If I don’t think that that is there, I don’t tell them that. I get them to be the best that they can be.

Self-judgment is a powerful and constant element in learning and performing. The teacher may be fuelling this self-judgment by pointing to the standard, the ideal, or possibly the unattainable goal for the student’s potential.

The musicians self-esteem is so highly based on how you actually play, and even without Kiwanis and competitions, almost everybody is constantly aware where the level is around them and, you know, even with students I have here we set up unattainable goals. Because, we say go to the Toronto Symphony and listen to the soloist. And they’re playing the same piece but we know that they are never realistically going to play in that same vein, and yet that’s what we set up for them as the pinnacle.

Culturally-familiar repertoire --- Artistic exemplars. One of the choices that must be made in music education is what music will be the focus of music-making and ability development. In the traditional music education paradigm, this choice is made by the teacher. Granted the teacher may give students some choice among a few options equally acceptable to the teacher, but, the “study repertoire” is controlled by the teacher. And, usually the teacher places great emphasis on “great music,” “classics,” on “artistic exemplars” of valued music. In a private study situation the “artistic exemplars” are probably determined by the “canon” of acceptable and approved literature. In the British – Canadian conservatory system, the “curriculum” is set out in grades with literature lists for each grade, controlled through required selection for the centrally administered examinations. In school music programs, teachers select music with the strong consciousness of the expectations at music competitions and peer assessments of public presentations. Along with this comes a societal assumption about the symbolic cultural value of art: to be an indicator of achievement and “getting somewhere” by being aligned with the dominant elitist values. So when students from an urban school in New York city play “classical” music on the most symbolic instrument of elitist European art, the violin, the hearts of an audience and a nation thrill at the “hope,” the “elevation through art,” the sign of cultural progress that they are witnessing. Like changing from regional dialect to dominant language, from local accent to mainstream pronunciation, learning “classical” music is a sign of becoming educated, cultured, and worthy of respect. Like learning Latin or Shakespeare the value of learning classical music within our culture has a utility apart from its inherent functionality and even personal enjoyment value for the person.

The alternative choice of repertoire is music selected for its cultural familiarity to students, perhaps even selected by students. In most contexts today that means popular music. As Senyshyn in his chapter in this book illustrates with personal narratives, considerable discontent among students can arise over repertoire. Music teachers may ignore it and over time establish programs where students not willing to work with the repertoire selected simply elect not to take music. But, where students do not have a choice regarding participation, repertoire can become a significant factor in motivation and enjoyment. For many students today “classical” music is like a second language. Some students have the motivation and ability to adopt and adapt. Others, the majority in our schools today, simply elect not to participate. And, the dominant music education paradigm that accepts that music is essentially for the talented and the motivated 10 percent, finds this reality acceptable.

Music teachers do recognize the dilemma and attempt to address the problem in places by using jazz or music theatre as possible options. In a way, jazz and music theatre have reached “classic” status and the “artistic exemplars” within those styles are acceptable school fare. But like “classical music” they are really not the musical language of children and youth today. They may feature more of the “groove” and sensuality of today’s popular music and thus give them a greater sense of cultural relevance, but participation still requires a “second language” approach and commitment.

This dilemma is made difficult for teachers not only by cultural and societal forces but by their personal musical language ability. Music teachers tend to teach the way they were taught. Our present music education system selects classically trained musicians and inducts them into classically oriented programs. Most do not have the “chops” to deal with popular music even if they personally like the music. And, the culture of perfection has resulted in a culture of fear of mistakes and a desire to be able to know all the answers and control all eventualities before trying something in class. As a consequence, music teachers like to stay with band or choir playing and singing the “standards” and a few new “sanitized and concertized” arrangements of film or pop tunes to keep the less serious students happy. Only rare teachers have the ability and courage to add or change to steel pans, guitars, rock band, or other approaches strongly connected to many students’ real culture.

Manipulable Elements --- Replicable Prescriptions. A choice of most music teachers, without even recognizing it as a choice, is to make the replication of existing music prescriptions the primary focus of music lessons. This is so because the traditional music education paradigm is premised on notated musical works created by the “specially gifted composer.” These may be the great classics of the past centuries or songs and arrangements specially created for educational purposes. But regardless of type they are primarily notated. The music teacher then focuses on teaching children to decode these notations and to replicate the composers intentions as perfectly as possible.

The alternative choice teachers could make is to make the manipulation of musical materials a primary activity of music lessons. Young children learn through play. And the observation of young children reveals that the “play” with musical materials as well – they experiment with sound, with melody, with timbre, with rhythm. But when most adults and most teachers take control of children’s learning by formalizing learning, play with sound is reduced and the teaching toward replication begins. We even reduce acceptable sounds to a small set of “domesticated sounds” (cp. Marsella in this book). The problem with replication is that you can get it wrong. And so teachers focus on mistake elimination, on precise tuning, precise rhythms, desirable timbres, and contrived performance disassociated from the real social community of children. In the process many children “get it wrong” and before fifth grade decide music lessons are not for them.

There are real possibilities for teachers to make musical material manipulation, music composition, and improvisation a mainstay of music lessons. Many music curricula give it a place, but many teachers give it little because they themselves are not comfortable with composition or improvisation. In our study of teacher self-efficacy we found that music teachers rated their confidence lowest in the area of teaching composition. In language learning research has informed practice to the point where most teacher now have children compose their own stories as they learn to read others’ stories. The two processes synergistically support language learning. Imagine children in the first six years of schooling learning to read by reading fine literature, but never being given an opportunity to write their own ideas and stories. In most cases that essentially is what is done in the traditional music education paradigm. The music teacher may deal with the “phonics” of musical notation, may even have children do some musical “spelling,” “copying,” or “dictation” assignments, but never ask children to write a musical “story” or create their own “book.”