How to raise the tone;Cross-phase;Books;Reviews;Subject of the week;Music and the arts

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
TEACHING MUSIC MUSICALLY. By Keith Swanwick. Routledge. pound;14.99.

Keith Swanwick's new book says something so self-evident that many people in music education haven't time to notice that it's true. Music is itself; it's not an adjunct to cultural studies nor an embodiment of eternal values. Nor is it a recruiting agent for schools in a competitive market, still less a dissociated set of skills that can be assessed by the ticking of boxes.

Among the virtues of this readable and thoughtful little study is that Swanwick supplies the terminology and the arguments to turn the potentially commonplace into fresh thought. He insists that we should have a sense of what music is before we can reflect purposefully on how to teach it well. His definition, derived ultimately from the aesthetic philosopher Suzanne Langer, shows music as a series of metaphorical transformations: we hear tones as if they were tunes, then hear these shapes take on their own expressive life, and then feel that they derive from and reconstitute our own previous experiences.

Swanwick goes on to link this definition to the place of music within culture, asserting that while it occurs within specific social contexts it is not trapped by them, and to three valuable principles for music education. There should be care for music itself as a form of discourse, care for students' own musical discourse, and above all a commitment to fluency, prior to other desirable ends such as literacy in notation.

These seemingly abstract themes are orchestrated with a rich mixture of anecdote, literary quotation, gnomic aphorism and rationally passionate commitment to young people's learning. It is not a textbook, nor a set of prescritions. But the positive examples of true musicality that Swanwick cites, no less than his distaste for current curricular prescriptions that are not rooted in good practice, should make music teachers more thoughtful, more confident and, with luck, more delighted by the work they do.

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