Class, control, and classical music

Last week I was lucky enough to meet Anna Bull, the author of Class, Control, and Classical Music (Oxford University Press, 2019: Kindle | OUP). We had a great chat over a long lunch and I know her work is going to make a huge impact on my own, both research-wise and in my teaching.

I’ve just written a review for her book on Amazon (she didn’t ask me to, I just loved it so much and there weren’t any there), so I thought I’d reproduce it as a blog, here…

Bull’s “Class, Control, and Classical Music” is a book for our time, especially for those of us who went through classical music training (even just school-age instrumental lessons or choir/chorus rehearsals), loved or loathed it, and would like to point a critical lens to that part of our lives.

My reading of it was as a Conservatory lecturer with a background as a composer, music technologist, poor pianist, trombonist and singer (in “classical” terms), and music educator. In fact, someone who educated in a privileged private school with an enormous and award-winning (classical) music programme for 12 years, and now trains teachers-of-the-future in the conservatory.

Something that has increasingly bothered me over 20 years as a practitioner and educator, is that “music education” as we conceive it (right down to state/county/national syllabi/standards) is not really for everyone, even if it’s supposed to be. Because nearly all of us who teach music have a classical background, and most of us who design those syllabi assume that background, we create a system to perpetuate this cycle, rather than to think about what is actually relevant to most children. That’s why in nearly every country around 90-95% of children drop music at school even though they’ll tell you it’s one of the most important things in their lives.

This book tells us the stories of those who DO stay in the system. Those who succeed, at least to the end of high school (whether they then consider tertiary study or careers in music is one of the interesting points in the book – as well as why). In a classic Grounded Theory approach, Bull represents the voices of her young participants and shares their stories. Those magical moments of classical music learning that many of us experienced are there, but so are the dreadful parts of the system, the pressure, the brainwashing, the Othering, the valuing, the abuse. Bull tells it as it is, but everything she says is grounded in the vivid lived experiences of these young people.

And then there’s an even deeper layer. Through a Bourdieusian lens, Bull dissects the broader themes of cultural boundary-making and maintaining that are at work. She reveals the boundaries and transformation that must be overcome to join the classical music world from the working class, and the difference pressures felt and lived by those relative to (the assuredness of) their status in the middle-class or even the elite.

Bull investigates the historical roots of today’s self-perpetuating and exclusive system from Victorian England, and reveals that those links to class were part of its original design. She also shows that the system sought to dictate gender roles and still does that successfully today. You can’t read this and not wonder why at the time of the #MeToo movement there isn’t an active group (press or academics?) investigating why this is as it is. Good on Anna Bull and the few others she is forging ahead with in this field for doing this work.

As someone who likes to challenge themselves to think critically about their own worldview and to reconsider my position on matters of great importance to me (and music education is very important to me!), I spent the whole of this book relating her data and analysis of the data to my own life. Recognising the patterns that I fitted in to (oh wow, white male middle class composer), and questioning when ideas did not fit with my own experience (did those betray my own privilege?).

You may find this book enlightening, as I did. Or you may find it provocative and challenging, and not at all representative of your own experience. Either way, if you love thinking critically about your own experiences, I daresay you’ll love the experience of reading it.

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