Peter Dunbar-Hall: World music needs to be taught in culturally responsible ways

Peter Dunbar-Hall - Photo courtesy of The University of Sydney
Peter Dunbar-Hall is Chair of Music Education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and author of the books “Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia” and “Cultural Diversity in Music Education.” He joins us in this exclusive interview on a wide range of issues covering digital music, music education, indigenous music, and the role of museums in educating people about world music.

What are some emerging research frontiers in the field of music education?

Technology will occupy us all for some time now, as we integrate increasingly new media into learning and teaching – I think the potential of new forms of technology is only slightly realised so far. The days of using notation software are now seen as an early stage in technological applications to learning music. I think research into how learning functions in a technologically alive site will be worth investigating; maybe there are new ways of learning music that technology brings about.

There will also be greater focus on culturally specific ways of learning and teaching, and greater realisation that there is not one way to teach music; Western ways of doing things will be questioned much more. An offshoot of this is emerging research into music and music learning among immigrant/refugee/diasporic groups as these groups of people receive more acknowledgement and recognition, their uses of culture are becoming topics of investigation, and music, its uses and ways of teaching/learning are developing into a new area of research.

I think there is an increasing focus on community music –¬ its outcomes, problems, governance, management, relationships to government policies –¬ and how teaching and learning occur in community music settings.

The role of music teaching and learning in settings where music and dance are under threat of extinction is becoming a solid topic as well.

What are some unique aspects of the music education field in Asia and Australia?

Australia has much in the way of multiculturalistic ways of teaching music, plus large amounts of teaching/learning through creativity – I think these things are still new for many Asian music educators. Education (and ways of learning and teaching) are so culturally influenced that it is difficult to compare Australia (with its Western education framework and post-colonial ethos) to Asian systems. In Australia, there is also strong recognition that local Indigenous musics (of Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander peoples) need to be taught, and that this needs to be done in culturally responsible ways. Again, I’m not sure that this same realisation works in Asian countries, where often the music of local indigenous peoples (often minorities) is not included in music education systems.

What are the key opportunities and challenges that the Internet and mobile devices offer for music educators?

I think the great advantage is access to everything – information, people, music, sounds, ideas. These outcomes lead to new ways to think about learning, ways of sharing and collaborating with others in different locations, and interactions. The ability of the newest wave of phones to act as web downloaders, cameras, and recording devices means that everyone suddenly has access to viable technology for teaching, learning, and research. The problem is one of cost –¬ many students (and teachers) will not be able to afford the breadth of technology that is found in the more developed economies (I see this in my fieldwork in Southeast Asia all the time). In some countries, eg China, access to completely open Internet resources is limited by government policy –¬ this keeps education in a backward state in many cases.

How are youth uniquely positioned to take advantage of this new environment?

Technology is strongly integrated into Australian education in general, and into teacher training – but we are working out new ways to use ideas and broaden horizons. This involves seeing current students as digital natives who are used to living and functioning in a technologically driven environment for their studies as much as for their social lives. This is a challenge for many teachers, who do not have the same technological skills or interests. I think this is going to prove both a hurdle for some time, but will eventually lead to reshaping of how teaching is delivered and learning is accomplished. There is already a strong research literature on this.

What are some new impacts that diaspora populations are having on music and its education?

There are many – not only repertoire and instruments, but access to teachers and new ways of learning and of teaching, of teaching without notation – thus developing skills such as aural memory, group sensibility and ways of seeing diverse uses/roles of music. There is also interaction between styles of music – new hybrid styles – and new thinking about music. This is also leading to new research agendas in music education.

What are some indigenous/folk music forms that are in threat of extinction and what is being done to preserve these traditions?

A big topic – there are programs under way in this, some through UNESCO, some privately funded, some through government agencies. For example, in Indonesia, certain forms of music have been listed as UNESCO cultural heritage with local government recognition and programs to support them, their performance, their teaching and learning.

Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia by Peter Dunbar-Hall, University of New South Wales Press (July 1, 2004)
What are your thoughts on ‘fusion’ music, which some traditionalists and purists seem to frown on?

I love it – as do musicians I have worked with in indigenous/folk/traditional settings – it always amazes me that musicians have no problem with this, but researchers do. To me tradition means various things, in many cases the tradition that musicians practice is the act of continually moving ahead, not keeping music stalled in one place. Fusion styles of music reflect the reality of life in a multicultural society.

Some instruments such as the tabla, djembe, cajon are finding wide acceptance outside their home bases – what new approaches are emerging to teach these instruments in new settings?

Skype, for instance, is being used here, plus other forms of technology – I also find that Indonesian musicians are keen to see how I would teach and if they can learn new teaching strategies from me (while I am learning theirs). Alongside using instruments such as these is the realisation that they come with their own teaching/learning styles and this has real potential to develop music education in new directions and new ways of thinking about it.

What are the ethical challenges in promoting world music without ‘tokenising’ or trivialising it?

There are ways to be respectful (a simple way is to always use correct terminology, not simply translate terms into one’s own language) but there are many challenges. For example, each music has not only its own terms, but also its own aesthetic stance, its own intellectualisation — to train teachers in all of these is probably impossible, so a problem. Teachers will need different types of training (perhaps drawn from anthropological models) to be able to utilise all these types of music. Ethically, I think this all comes down to realisation of the situation concerning the cultural meanings of music and developing way to teach through this.

What new roles can museums play in music education?

What a great question! Many ways – as preservers of things, as research institutes, as providers of ideas and practices, as venues for performances, workshops, demonstrations, etc. I’m not sure museums see it this way.

How do you see music as an agent of socio-political change, in an era of increasing conflicts and terrorism?

It always has been and will continue to be so!

What are some ways of getting practitioners of music to become effective teachers of music?

This is difficult – they need training, understanding of pedagogy (and all that that implies) – there are too many good musicians who think they can teach (and ruin things for many of us through poor practices and thinking). So schemes of training are needed, but ones that indicate the conceptual basis of teaching, not just strategies.

What are some of your memorable highlights as a music educator and director travelling around the world?

Learning from musicians in Southeast Asia – not only their dedication and willingness to share ideas, but their warmth and openness; performing with Balinese musicians; collaborating with musicians, instrument builders, managers and researchers.

What is your message to the music teachers, students, musicians, fans and the music industry out there?

Accept what everyone else has to offer, reflect on it, and adapt it with respect to the situations you find yourself in. Always acknowledge who taught you something, and try to return the favour.

Buy Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia

Author: Madanmohan Rao

Madanmohan Rao is an author and media consultant from Bangalore, and global correspondent for world music and jazz for World Music Central and Jazzuality. He has written over 15 books on media, management and culture, and is research director for YourStory Media. Madan was formerly World Music Editor at Rave magazine and RJ at WorldSpace, and can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao.

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