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Music education, ecology and democracy

If ecology is a systemic issue about making the world a living space for all human beings and their environment, then music educators have a say in it. It is the responsibility of music educators to reflect on how they can inflect a robust system to make it more democratic in terms of both pedagogy and accessibility. Their ability to enact this responsibility is also about democracy. May we foster the propagation of democratic waves in our society, and may these waves have a sustainable impact on ecology.

Text: Martin Galmiche

The Greek meaning of “eco”

Our complex, post-modern societies are confronted with multiple problems at the planetary scale. It is not excessive to suggest that we all should have the responsibility to reflect on what it means to behave in an ecological way, not only as citizens but also as professionals. But for many professionals, this reflection is not straightforward if the definition of the word ecology is kept at a basic level (“the attention paid to non spoiling the planet”). In particular, this is the case for music educators, who may consider that their activity doesn’t really have something to do with any physical or chemical pollution. However, when the word ecology is understood within a wider framework and approached through systems thinking, this reflection becomes much more relevant and crucial. Then, ecology takes a social meaning where the notion of habitat (the Greek meaning of “eco”) may be understood from a spatial perspective: it deals with the space where we all live and that we all should have our word to say about. And from a systems perspective, this habitat is embedded in time, in other words, the central issue of ecology may rely on how the space where we live changes in time, and why.

Balanced states and waves

Generally, professionals and citizens who have a sense of agency and “work to make the world a better place” (whether fairer, more respectful of life, or both), are constantly struggling with the arduous question of changing a system that runs in a very stable way. However, stillness does not exist in nature, rather, what we observe are constant oscillations around balanced states, which themselves result from the constant opposition of several mechanisms. In physics, for instance, balanced states result from the continuous competition of various forces, and the oscillations around them may be conceptualised as waves. It is well known that in some cases, the propagation of such waves can have an impact on the mean state of the system itself. This impact can be strong and irreversible, which is usually the case when turbulent phenomena develop, and these phenomena have a high level of unpredictability, e.g., wave breaking. The point here is not to pretend that human nature and social systems can be analysed and “calculated” in the light of such quantitative, mathematical considerations. But the language used to describe the complexity of nature is potentially a helpful reservoir of metaphors that can be used to narrate social systems.

What can we do as music educators?

In society, strict stability does not exist either. Rather, society is made of complex and never-ending combinations of forces whose average equilibrium may sometimes give the impression of a static state. In fact, apparently static situations are always near-static situations and are, therefore, embedded in time. In other words, even systems that seem impossible to change, such as large institutions, are actually permanently moving around a balanced state. Faced with such a balanced state, what can we say? What can we do? What can we change? Ultimately, I suggest that it is all about democracy. And in music education, the issue of democracy is underpinned by at least two questions, namely, To whom is music taught? (i.e. What is the meaning of democracy in terms of accessibility and social justice?) and How is music taught? (i.e. What is the meaning of democracy in terms of music pedagogy, e.g. is there a place for the students’ voice?).


These questions, and the relationship between them, are complex and far from obvious as they can be understood and viewed at various scales, from the classroom scale to the societal scale. These questions also involve collective, institutional choices as well as individual, professional ones. For instance, if a conservatory music teacher decides to change her/his way of teaching, e.g. by giving more place for the students’ voices in repertoire choices, invention, and/or improvisation, this decision will not have a direct impact on social diversity within the conservatory if the conservatory board does not also change its admission system. And vice versa. Nevertheless, I like the idea that these two aspects of democracy in music education are coupled and may belong to one, coherent dynamical process. It is our responsibility to feed this process, in other words, it is our “responsibility to foster responsibility”. The word responsibility is understood here not as a feeling of guilt, but as an ability to “invent a response” in the face of ecological questions, that one could name “response-ability”. And maybe one of the reasons why the place of invention in music education must be defended is that it may help develop the strength to make one’s voice heard, in other words, the strength to develop such “response-ability”.

Democratic waves

In line with the reflection above on stillness and dynamics, it is usually recognised that democracy is not a steady state but an endless struggle. Democratic intentions, even of small amplitude and potentially short life, not only have their say in the permanent oscillations of a social system, but also can be part of the forces that determine the complex and subtle equilibrium around which the social system oscillates. Therefore, they can potentially have an impact on the long-term evolution of this equilibrium. Such democratic intentions may, or may not, grow and become institutionally recognised. But in any case, they are necessary for democracy to exist, not as an ultimate state, but as an ongoing process embedded in time. Just like it is impossible to imagine an ocean without waves, and impossible also to deny that waves are a large part of what the ocean is, a large part of what we experience in time both on the seashore and on ships.

Martin Galmiche is a doctor in fluid mechanics, a music education practitioner-researcher in the Conservatoire de Lyon, France, and a doctoral candidate in the Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki.

Music Education AMP

The purpose of this blog is to serve as an amplifier for critical statements and openings for discussion in the field of music education. The blog publishes texts in Finnish, Swedish and English. The writers are students, teachers and researchers in the music education degree programme and MuTri doctoral school.

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