The short answer: NO! Bennett Reimer’s Philosophy of Music Education as Aesthetic is alive and well, coexisting beautifully with the Kodály Approach at Millersville University. However, let’s explore Reimer’s MEAE philosophy to learn how balance is achieved between formalism and absolute expressionism in order to teach music in ways that get to the heart of the subject.
Reimer developed a philosophy centered on teaching music, defined as “material organized to be expressive,” by encouraging students to experience the arts aesthetically. Simply stated, he advocated structuring lessons (experiences) for students to perceive music more deeply and then to respond to it more fully through performance. Improved perception increases students’ awareness of the interplay between musical elements, thereby improving their musical sensitivity, their ability to respond (perform, listen or compose) musically. Being “musical” in this context involves the potential to feel, to actively employ one’s emotions in order to express their musicianship in ways that only music (and the other arts) have the power to achieve. The main goal is to have an aesthetic experience, a “peak, feelingful experience” or, put most simply, “goose bumps,” while making music (or listening). The affect thus embodied in the music experience is ineffable; there is no other way to fully express this content except through music (and the other arts). Therefore, since no other subject in public school curricula deals so specifically with the nature of feeling through artful performance, music education is unique and essential. This primary means of dealing with human nature deserves a permanent place in public school education. The inclusion of music in every student’s course of study is paramount for them to be educated in the fullest sense of the word.
Bennett Reimer (1932-2013), American music educator, began his career as a clarinetist and then oboist. After medical issues ended his performing career, he worked with Charles Leonhard and Harry Broudy at the University of Illinois, and became a specialist in the philosophy of music education, specifically Music Education as Aesthetic Education (MEAE), curriculum development, theory of research, and comprehensive arts education programs. He held the John W. Beattie Endowed Chair in Music at Northwestern University from 1978 until retirement in 1997. He is best known for his seminal book, A Philosophy of Music Education, first published in 1970, a second edition in 1989, and a third edition, A Philosophy of Music Education: Advancing the Vision, in 2003 (Prentice Hall), which has been translated into French, Japanese, and Chinese, with a Greek edition in preparation. He was the author and editor of some two dozen other books and wrote over 145 articles and chapters on a variety of topics in music and arts education. Reimer’s textbooks on music for grades one through eight, Silver Burdett Music, were the most widely used through the United States and the world for two decades. [Wikipedia, “Bennett Reimer.”]
A Misguided Philosophy?
In reading Chapter 1 of our textbook, an unflattering view of aesthetic education is posited by our author under the heading, “A Misguided Philosophy.”
By the 1930s, many music educators, swayed by the philosophical writings of John Dewey on aesthetic education, turned against formal instruction in the classroom. Karl Gehrkens, in Music in the Grade School (1934), was among the first to advocate shifting to an approach that was centered on song. Believing that learning to sing could be fostered through the aesthetic experience of song singing, he suggested that traditional exercises for vocal instruction, which could involve a considerable amount of class time, be replaced by an approach designed to teach the child to sing through the singing of beautiful songs. The lack of information on child vocal pedagogy found in methods texts from Gehrken’s publication to the 1980s reflects the popularity of the song approach. . . As reforms in education gained momentum, more creative expression was expected from students. Music educators became more concerned about aesthetics and the need for children to experience more “real” music – more songs with charm and beauty. Thus, the pendulum swung from a systematic approach to a more creative one in which music instruction was centered on song for art’s sake. But reformers tended to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water” by eliminating child vocal instruction from music teaching; children were supposed to learn to sing by singing songs. The evidence that many adults today cannot, or will not, sing suggests that many did not learn to sing. . . . This shift in attitude toward singing instruction was perhaps the most misguided effort to ever influence the teaching of music. To expect children to learn to sing without a systematic approach to vocal instruction seems almost ludicrous today. Nevertheless, this approach prevailed for almost fifty years, and today there remain music teachers who believe that singing is some type of “gift” that a person either has or has not received. A lack of public support for music in the schools could easily be rooted in this misconception.” [Kenneth Phillips’ Teaching Kids to Sing, 2nd edition (2014, pp. 12-13)]
Thoughts from an MEAE Advocate
As you might expect from the underlying philosophy of this blog, I think Phillips overstates his case with only scant evidence to back it up. He misrepresents what many of us who believe in MEAE actually do. Having undertaken graduate study with Dr. Reimer at Northwestern in the late 1980s, I am a strong advocate for MEAE, and can tell you that Reimer believed vehemently in the power of performance and the skill building necessary to create excellent public school performing ensembles. He simply thought that we were already pretty good at that, having focused on those aspects of music instruction since the country’s founding. This is obvious when one peruses a typical tune book by William Billings, for example, where the opening chapters cover the rudiments of music and the nature of good singing followed by hymns, anthems, and canons for practicing those skills. In the twentieth century, inspired by the invention of the phonograph and the fact that people no longer needed to make music to experience music, Reimer and others sought to augment the public school music programs by taking advantage of modern technology that accounts for how non-performers enjoy the art form. Furthermore, Reimer believed that American music education already does a good job with teaching performance – to the 15% of the student population involved in elective ensembles – as evidenced by the fine quality of public school choirs and bands regularly heard, for example, at ACDA and MENC conferences.
Instead, Reimer chose to devote his career to the other equally important musical behaviors: listening and composing/improvisation. His efforts, however, were never meant to be at the expense of performance, but rather to augment course offerings for all students. Reimer was concerned with the other 85% of students outside of elective performing ensembles. He chose to address the totality of what music education can and should be: not just the training of capable performers, but also the cultivation of excellent listeners, whom he called “consumers of music.” He emphasized the reality that performers need an audience, the seats of concert halls need to be filled, and everyone purchases (accesses free on the internet?) recordings to enjoy. Yes, this mode of entry into the musical experience requires sensitive, informed listeners. However, he did not believe that every listener has to be a performer in order to experience the benefits of musical experience.
Sure, as a professional performer myself, I agree that performance is the most direct way to access the power of music, but it is not the only way! Everyone listens to music everyday without even trying (TV commercials, elevators, doctors’ offices). Witness how many people have ear buds implanted in their ears or how loud sub-woofers are in the car next to you! Listening is, without a doubt, the most popular thing that people actually do with music. Reimer strove to devise strategies that centered on listening to music (and also composing) that could be taught as yet another avenue to reach the non-performers. While this goes against (and ruffles the feathers of) those who believe that performance is the best (and only?) way to access music, the question remains: How can we teach students who prefer not to perform to have the most meaningful experience with music? (Reimer called this an aesthetic experience.) Reimer felt we could teach people to listen (and compose) as a means of accessing aesthetic experiences. Remember, ultimately, if we can’t (or don’t want to) teach music to 100% of the school population, how can we say that music deserves a place American public school meant for everyone?
Since the rest of our course deals with choral music education, where we’ll apply this philosophy directly to group performance, let’s reflect on some “non-performance” options now. In the most unattractive and watered-down description, “non-performance” classes are often called “Music Appreciation” or some such thing. Reimer believed, however, that listening to music (as well as composing, teaching, conducting, etc.) were all actions – actually a mode of performance – that involved mind, body and soul. Passive listening, without an in-depth understanding of what is actually going on in the music, does not allow one to enjoy the art to its fullest. Reimer’s philosophy was actually revolutionary in its approach to teaching of music in the most comprehensive way. Teaching the act of listening (and composing) in effective, logical, and systematic ways had not been attempted throughout the history of American music education. The advent of recording technology (records, radio, television) allowed people to experience music without having to perform it themselves, or listen to live performers. This dramatically changed the way people interacted with music. It introduced enormous opportunities for greater (and more regular) contact with quality music than had hitherto been possible. People could now easily listen to the finest soloists and orchestras in the comfort of their living room; their expectations of what quality performances entailed were also heightened. With excellent performances so accessible, one could experience music at a much higher level than what they themselves could produce. Listening – only listening, without the responsibility of performing – became a primary musical activity. Perhaps this explains the decreased emphasis on performance found in the 1930s aesthetic movement that Kenneth Philips believes is so misguided.
I believe the aesthetic philosophers and educators in the mid-20th century were trying to utilize these “new” ways of encountering music by acknowledging the reality of how people actually interface with the art form. Again, they weren’t anti-performance – as the performance-obsessed among us tend to believe – but that they were attempting to address how most people interact with music. Many of my friends and relatives, for example, have absolutely no interest in performing music, but share a consuming passion for listening to music that equals (or surpasses!) my own. For example, Steve Jobs (not a friend or relative, by the way), deceased and former co-founder, chairman and chief executive officer or Apple, Inc. and CEO/majority shareholder of Pixar, was admittedly obsessed with listening. In Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuyster, 2011), Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (who co-founded Apple Inc.), describe their passion for listening to music in the mid-1960s.
In addition to their interest in computers, they shared a passion for music. “It was an incredible time for music,” Jobs recalled. “It was like living at a time when Beethoven and Mozart were alive. Really. People will look back on it that way. And Woz and I were deeply into it.” In particular, Wozniak turned Jobs on to the glories of Bob Dylan. “We tracked down this guy in Santa Cruz who put out this newsletter on Dylan,” Jobs said. “Dylan taped all of his concerts, and some of the people around him were not scrupulous, because soon there were tapes all around. Bootlegs of everything. And this guy had them all.”
Hunting down Dylan tapes soon became a joint venture. “The two of us would go tramping through San Jose and Berkeley and ask about Dylan bootlegs and collect them, “ said Wozniak. “We’d buy brochures of Dylan lyrics and stay up late interpreting them. Dylan’s words struck chords of creative thinking.” Added Jobs, “I had more than a hundred hours, including every concert on the ’65 and ’66 tour,” the one where Dylan went electric. Both of them bought high-end TEAC reel-to-reel tape decks. “I would use mine at a low speed to record many concerts on one tape,” said Wozniak. Jobs matched his obsession: “Instead of big speakers I bought a pair of awesome headphones and would just lie in my bed and listen to that stuff for hours.” (pp. 25-26)
“Steve had a TEAC reel-to-reel and massive quantities of Dylan bootlegs,” Kottke recalled. “He was both really cool and high-tech.” (p. 34)
“It was great,” he recalled. “I had been listening to a lot of Bach. All of a sudden the wheat field was playing Bach. It was the most wonderful feeling of my life up to that point. I felt like a conductor of this symphony with Bach coming through the wheat.” (p. 32)
Such a joy of listening is not uncommon. Was it necessary for Jobs to be a consummate performer in order to feel that deeply about listening? Not that I’ve learned, though I just started the book. It was Bennett Reimer’s desire, however, to teach students about the “non-performance” aspect of music-making, where mindful listening actually becomes performance-oriented in the action of perception and response to music. Someone like Steve Jobs would have enjoyed learning about this in order to further his own natural inclination, yet other students, especially those with no interest in performing, could also benefit greatly from such instruction.
Use of Technology to Teach Listening and Composition
Given the incredible potential of our current technology, intriguing courses centered on how to listen (and how to compose) can now be constructed with ease. Such courses could be especially effective as distance or computer-based learning alternatives. Listening activities (coordinated with visual and kinesthetic stimuli) are already abundantly available, with designs that increase awareness of musical elements, lend context (historical, cultural) to the composition, and allow the exploration of a wide variety of repertoire that spans time and space. Composition programs, which no longer require specific musical training to operate, or to compose, or to have musicians perform, could be presented to interested students with the intent to explore their ability to organize musical elements. What would happen if the field of music education took courses like these seriously, especially as a way to involve the other 85%? Hopefully, performance ensembles will continue to flourish, but unless we involve everyone, we shouldn’t be surprised that cuts in music education will continue.
MEAE Is Very Much Alive: On the Threshold of a New Frontier
Bennett Reimer’s MEAE philosophy anticipated these current trends and comprehensively addresses the authentic nature of music and the musical experience. Beyond simply a performance-only priority, Reimer sought to encapsulate within his philosophy the multiple parameters of what it is to be musical. Remember, he didn’t discount performance – he honored it – but he felt we needed to explore the potential for teaching music in other directions, to address the needs of all students and the different ways everyone can be involved with music. The initial inspiration for this approach – listening without having to perform (or be in the vicinity of a live performance) – was spurred by technological innovation. Today, with the abundance and over-emphasis of technology in our culture, we could have an exciting Renaissance of fresh approaches to music education. This would take music education in the direction that the vast majority of people follow, it would attract more students to our programs and engender greater community support, and it would celebrate music as a unique and essential part of the curriculum. Bennett Reimer’s MEAE philosophy is far from dead. It stands at the threshold of what music education could be in the future, if we are brave enough to explore this vast frontier in new and different ways.