Everything we do is music: a review

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Everything we do is music: Cross-curricular experiments in sound based on the music of John Cage – Barry Russell [Peters, 2016]

 

There has not been a great deal happening in the world of music education publishing recently. Yes, we have a steady stream of books on preparing for GCSE/A level as specifications change and some good music education research writing but, apart from a couple of notable exceptions, very little in the way of practical classroom advice for music teachers.

So it is very refreshing and very exciting when such a book does come along. Barry Russell’s “Everything we do is music” is one such book. And the subtitle “Cross-curricular experiments in sound based on the music of John Cage” shows what a bold and radical venture this is.

John Cage will of course be a familiar name to those involved in music education. We all know 4’33” – where everyone in the room is supposed to sit down and shut up for a few minutes [a variant on a default classroom instruction for many teachers of any subject]. And we all know that Cage sometimes shoved bits of rubber and screws into pianos to generate some oddball sounds. And that is more or less where it stops – and we certainly don’t let our students get anywhere near this stuff….

…which is a great shame, bordering on scandal, as we are sidestepping some of the most important music thinking and making of recent times.

Fortunately, Russell is here to help us change all that. By giving us access to extracts from the original scores and by guiding us carefully as to how we can exploit and make sense of these in classrooms, he has provided a wonderful collection of activities which can only serve to reinvigorate music in schools.

Let’s begin with the infamous 4’33”. How can teachers possibly make this work as a classroom activity? Russell suggests that we make it our own and ‘personalise’ it. For example, if we aim for group performances [there is no stipulation that this is a piece for a soloist] then decisions have to be made regarding who will lead. How will you cue the performers as to when the three sections start and stop? How can you make the audience aware of the sections?. Cage leaves us free to decide the length of each section within the time frame  – so how will you decide length of each section? Then think about a performing location. 4’33” does not necessarily have to be a solo piano played in a concert hall. It could be a rock band on a beach, a choir in a football stadium… And the activity is not over when the performance ends. What do performers and audience think and feel after the event? Discussion and reflection on music is important – and Cage gives us plenty of opportunity for this. We can then move on to working through some of Russell’s ideas for taking this powerfully musical concept of silence forward into composing activity…

Each section of the book encourages and guides us into finding stimulating ways of working with the music and ideas of John Cage. There are sections on Art and Music, Notations, Words and Music, Musical Games and Nature and Music. The final section Altogether Now! looks at ways of taking the ideas out of the music classroom towards working with other curriculum departments on large scale multimedia works. Ambitious, yes – worthwhile and memorable, definitely!

Of course there will always be those who will put the book on one side and retreat back into the comfort zones of Britpop and Pachelbel, but for braver teachers the rewards are rich. Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society famously says: “When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think”. Russell’s book adapts this for music, by encouraging our students to think, really think about music. And if they do this, they will have a deeper, richer understanding of what it is to make and to appreciate music.

I urge music teachers everywhere to give this a shot. OK there may possibly be times when it may go spectacularly wrong, but this will be more than compensated by those magical moments which students will remember all their lives.

This is a landmark publication for music education – highly recommended.

 

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