Rock's Quarrel with Tradition: Popular Music's Carnival Comes to the Classroom

Rock's Quarrel with Tradition: Popular Music's Carnival Comes to the ClassroomScene: A music classroom at a junior high school. The beginning band class has just ended and the students are putting away their curricular materials--instruments and beginning band method books. "Mary," a ninth grader, arrives for the next class, a class known as Rhythm Section Workshop. She begins to get ready for class by taking out her curricular materials: an electric guitar, a fifteen-foot guitar cord, and a loose-leaf binder stuffed with chord charts, solos, and songs transcribed from various recordings. One end of the guitar cord goes into her instrument, the other into an electric strobe tuner. As she tunes up silently, the din of kids from beginning band class gradually dies away. Mary unplugs the guitar cord from the tuner and plugs it into an amplifier. She warms up by playing her solo from one of the songs that her group is currently learning, the Doors' "Light My Fire." In an instant, her first notes transform the space that is a music classroom, invading the conventional ruckus of first-year players with the power that comes only from the direct and personal statement of someone with a lot at stake. Not only has she set up her musical gear, she has also constructed a mini-habitat. The speaker in her amplifier provides the source of her identity; the sounds emanating from it announce to all who she is and to whom the space now belongs. She has redefined the poles of noise and order, positioning them in new places on her own cultural map.

Having chosen to pursue rock music as a mode of expression, young musicians learn, often as early as elementary school, that they face a complex set of barriers that restrict their access to formal instrumental instruction. Not only do most school music curricula categorically exclude instruction in the instrumentation and repertoire of rock music, but young musicians must also navigate the subtle cultural spaces that they and their friends construct around themselves and the music. Student access to instruction and teacher respect for the cultural terrain are both essential requirements if popular culture is the object of study, yet until recently few schools have attempted to provide either resource.

It is therefore time to address issues that arise from attempts to include instruction in popular music ensemble performance in a traditional school music program. Previous efforts to incorporate popular music into traditional school ensembles are usually compromised by a refusal or inability to adopt a more authentic approach to its performance. However, an authentic approach involves more than simply outfitting the ensembles with more appropriate instruments and equipment (guitars, keyboards, P.A. systems, etc.) and adopting arrangements emphasizing their use. The teacher must also be prepared for the constant negotiation of the sociopolitical ideologies that frame the cultural practice of pop music. For obvious legal reasons, any activity that takes place in a school requires adult supervision. And most schools rely on the traditional ideological framework of faculty as the dominant class and students as a subordinate class. Meanwhile, rock and roll as a lifestyle suggests, if not demands, independence or even resistance; if you're a teenager, authority figures--parents, teachers, anyone in uniform, anyone over thirty--become the targets of that resistance.

In examining a single case study of a middle school music program, two main themes emerge: (1) pedagogical issues concerning the offering of a performance ensemble class in popular music, and (2) sociopolitical issues engendered by the convergence of music pedagogy and popular pleasure--"the classroom meets the garage."

The largest professional organization for music teachers, Music Educators National Conference (MENC), sponsored the 1967 Tanglewood Symposium, whose mandate was stated in these words:

Music of all periods, styles, forms, and cultures belongs in the curriculum. The musical repertory should be expanded to include music of our time in its rich variety, including currently popular teenage music, avant-garde music, American folk music, and the music of other cultures. (Cutietta 27)

In April 1991, the Music Educators Journal, for the first time since 1969, devoted an entire issue to popular music in education. Several of the articles made reference to the Tanglewood Symposium.

Unfortunately, as issue editor Rob Cutietta points out, that challenge has remained, for the most part, unmet. The substantial presence of popular music in the repertoires of today's traditional instrumental and choral ensembles is deceptive, evidence of an ensemble director's attempts to lure students with a "bait-and-switch" technique more often than it is a sign of a true appreciation--let alone understanding--of the music. As Cutietta sees it, the problem centers on how popular music is appropriated, interpreted, and performed by the music education apparatus, from music publishers to instrumental and choral directors.

In one sense, our approach to popular music takes after the formalism with which we approach European art music and, to a certain extent, jazz. We assume that a work's meaning and significance inhere in its formal characteristics--chords, pitch relationships, structure--and that successful adaptation to another instrumental medium requires transference of only those elements that can be notated. Frequently, especially at the earlier stages of musical training, we program arrangements of well-known pieces that are either simplified or reorchestrated: a familiar folk tune for Soprano/Alto/Tenor/Bass and piano, a Bach fugue for band, a Beethoven symphony movement for junior high orchestra, or a Sousa march for strings. Publishers' catalogs are crammed with pedagogically practical and often highly creative reworkings that leave behind the music's original cultural and sonic contexts.

Applied to popular music, formalism ignores a fundamental difference between products of the recording age (alternative rock, rap, and techno, for example) and other types of music that, for convenience, we refer to as "classical." When it is reduced--in the form of a notated lead sheet--to melody and chord changes, popular music loses its defining characteristic; in a very literal and immanently cultural sense, it has lost its "sound." Apart from the individual and collective timbres, which are conveyed to the listener mostly through recordings, the music is almost entirely without meaning.(1) (Many kids, however, also relate to a band's sound through live performances, whose purpose is often to advertise, and therefore recreate, the recording.) Thus, for most fans of a song's original configuration (the recording), an arrangement of a popular rock song for a traditional ensemble--irrespective of its level of difficulty or writing skill--will be viewed as laughably euphemistic.

"Although pop music is in most curricula," says Cutietta, "it is rare to find a program that attempts to perform it with the authenticity that would be given a Renaissance motet" (28).(2) Bypassing the now-tedious "testimonials encouraging pop music in the schools," Cutietta's argument thus proceeds from the position that the problem is not one of representation but of method, one of refusal or inability to concede to popular music its own set of style-appropriate performance practices (28). As Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel put it, "A great deal of teaching in the arts is still taste-changing. Much of it is carried out with the best of intentions, but however worthy the motive, however admirable the standards, it is still of course imposition" (390).

Cutietta's position correctly repudiates the policy of teaching popular music by assimilation and "tastechanging"; however, it overlooks what is perhaps an even more fundamental issue. At the heart of popular music's appeal, in the words of George Lipsitz, lies "music's inescapable identity as a social practice ... [and its] pervasiveness and power as a social force" (Lipsitz ix, xii). This power, and the often apparent disorder of social practice, can seem to pose a constant threat to the classroom equilibrium preserved by the traditional hierarchy of teacher and students.

When we accept the challenge to revise the ways in which we teach popular music (which include revising the format of its performance), we need to consider the very real and sadly ironic possibility that our efforts to raise standards, to make the music more authentic, will be met with suspicion if not overt resistance. At some point our policy of acceptance will feel to the teenager like one more act of adult appropriation and containment.