An De bisschop



An De Bisschop

Amparo Serrano de Haro

Dave Sinardet

Erna Hennicot-Schoepges

Lasha Bugadze


An De bisschop

An De bisschop was born is Vilvoorde (Belgium) in 1980. The title of her PhD in Pedagogic Sciences in 2009 at the University of Ghent is : ‘Community arts as a discursive construction’. She worked at The University of the Western Cape, Centre for Performing Arts in Capetown (South Africa) and at the Can Tho University in Vietnam. Since 2010 she has been in charge of managing different cultural and pedagocical institutions. Since 2014 she is in charge of the curriculum of teacher’s in art matters at the School of Arts – Royal Conservatory Ghent. An De bisschop works in Ghent and lives in Drongen (Belgium).

Classical is class, but it doesn’t have to be that way

An De Bisschop
An De Bisschop


Classical music is without doubt one of the European cultural traditions that can contribute to the formation of a common identity and a dialogue between communities. But as long as inequalities in music education are allowed to persist, this remains a fiction. What pedagogical changes are needed?

I am sitting on a wooden bench, the red plush of small neighbourhood music halls, and I’m listening to a performance of De Karavaan, a socially engaged art project that establishes musical dialogues between Roma and other musicians. The audience is just as diverse as the musicians on stage, which cannot be said of every intercultural project. But here it seems to go like this naturally: Roma mothers bounce their babies up and down when they cry a little, children roam the room, musicians encourage one another. And then she makes her entrance… the star of the show: Justina is barely 8 years old, but manages to tame orchestra and audience alike when she launches into the refrain of ‘Nacho larme’ a Slovakian Roma-song.

She dances and sways, flicking her skirt and curls; there are no nerves, only musical joy. She has an extraordinarily powerful voice, perfect timing, and sings with great soul. I am moved. But that feeling quickly gives way to disillusionment and a sense of powerlessness, because I realize that she will struggle to develop her voice to its full potential. In regular Belgian school education, music is a blind spot in the curriculum, and music schools all too often have an intellectual approach to western classical music as their point of departure.

At these institutes, the ‘soulful’ singing at which Justina so excels is often absent due to a one-sided focus on technique and the right notes. This child grew up among Roma-musicians, which gives her a natural flair and ability that we rarely manage to achieve with children in classical music education. We can debate whether this is a matter of the ‘genre’ - classical music is just a complex form, and folk music is less so - but this is an argument I do not wish to pursue here.

From a pedagogical perspective, the music itself takes priority as a language that every child can learn to speak and to perfect, if it is given the opportunity to. Thus it is not genre that poses the problem, but rather the nature of today’s music education.

Music Education’s Animal Farm

Justina’s achievement teaches us much about the possibilities and limitations of music education in Europe today. To begin with, the legislations of practically all countries insist that they offer every child the same opportunities in education. That is also their duty in a democratic education system. In practice, sociological research into music education consistently proves something else: children whose parents can afford music lessons, and who can guide their child along a music school trajectory, are in fact those that actually participate in music education, and are thus those given the opportunity to develop towards conservatory training and the professional circuit.

Classical music may be a common thread in European art history, and so may have the potential to unite us as Europeans, but in reality it is something that constantly divides us, because music education that is drawn in large part from classical music remains one of the educational systems that reproduces social inequality in Europe. In this vein, music sociologist Ruth Wright describes music education as a system in which “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”. This can change, according to Wright, as we become aware of the importance of musical pedagogy as a political field.

Every pedagogical practice, as we know from Rancière, is always inherently poiltical in the sense that emancipatory education begins from the assumption that all students already ‘can speak’ and thus can make meaningful interpretations from the start: “When we classify such sounds as noise, we are not stating a psychological fact but are introducing a political distinction. We are saying that they lack the capacity to speak and are thereby suggesting that they need to be told what their sounds mean.”

This position brings us to a question at the heart of pedagogy, namely the way in which we relate as teachers to our students. In music pedagogy we work in a direct way with ‘sensitive’ material, because we speak only about ‘music’ if it is experienced and interpreted; otherwise it remains simply a collection of abstract notes.

Justina, for example, does not need to be explained to what her music means, she can express this better than anybody. What Justina needs in order to develop herself further musically is an ‘ignorant teacher’; one who does not discount her cultural background but rather assists her in drawing on her specific experiences to explore new musical worlds.

Is this a utopian dream, or is it really possible that music education might play an emancipatory role in the life of the average European child? This would mean that every child learns to speak the language of music, and thus to develop itself more fully in social, emotional, cognitive and ultimately societal domains. And can we pin down more concrete components that might be important to such a politically aware music pedagogy?

The call of ‘the community’ grows louder

I think that there is hope, at least as far as the political consciousness that people like Ruth Wright and Rancière advocate for is concerned. For example, it seems to me no coincidence that both the European Association of Music in Schools and the Europe Jazz Network chose the same themes for their conferences this year: how do we make connections between different ‘communities’?

The worlds of music education and jazz alike understand that educational and professional music practices cannot float atop the reality of a diverse society. Whether we want to be or not, we are all always already politically engaged. This realization is growing in the arts in Europe, paradoxically at the very moment that European politics have taken their eye off the ball in terms of human rights and social redistribution.

This democratic reflex is logical considering the history of jazz, but the classical repertoire too has many links with the folk music of yore. By actively seeking out collaborations with different communities from within music education, we can grow not only democratically, but also musically, and many projects illustrate the impressive results that this can lead to.

De Karavaan with Roma musicians is one of these, but more talked-about projects, like the European practices based on El Sistema, or the community projects of a classical orchestra such as De Filharmonie in Flanders are also fine examples. In truth, working these ‘bridges’ into the fabric of music education is often difficult: too often these efforts lead to one-off projects rather than efficient, ongoing collaborative links.

Nonetheless, I remain convinced that working through outreach is the necessary first step in moving towards more widespread equal opportunities in music education in Europe. If we wish to reach every child, then we must address each child in the terms of its own lifeworld and with a musical language that is meaningful to that child, or that becomes meaningful through musical pedagogical praxis.

Musical genres are not the crux here, but rather what counts is the experience of music as a springboard to a command of music as a language that makes possible dialogue between people. Justina has this command, and I hope that via community projects like De Karavaan she can continue to grow through music education. 

Informal learning and the importance of musical enjoyment

A second component of a more democratically oriented music education is daring to recognize the importance of, and to stimulate, informal learning. Justina demonstrates clearly how children can pick up huge amounts through informal learning environments, and because informal learning by nature places more value on the meaning that the student gives the learned, it often leads to great gains in learning.

For Ruth Wright, then, affording informal learning greater importance in music education is the didactical implication of her sociological analysis: in the process of informal learning, as she puts it, teachers do not stand above their students, but rather beside them, growing the musical and pedagogical capital of all involved from a learning context in which freedom and equality are inherent.

This thesis resonates with recent conclusions of research into the positive effects of music education on child development. For the Music Education Council of Great Britain, Susan Hallam has reviewed the most pertinent research in this area, and provides a compelling look into the effects of musical play in various domains. It is remarkable that many of these effects are consequences of the social aspects of music-making in a group: empathy, psychological wellbeing and a positive self-image are above all stimulated in pedagogical settings in which people make music together.

Musical activities should also be fun and have meaning to the participants if these activities are to be effective.

If we translate these conclusions into the culture of music schools, then it becomes clear that the importance of musical enjoyment and the group aspect is subordinated to the faultless performance of a solo repertoire. And what of pieces being meaningful to the student? This is a dialogue that is rarely entered. Greater attention to informal learning in music education - for example via collaborative creation and projects that take place beyond the walls of the music school - can once more place these important elements in the foreground, and in doing so potentially enhance the wider social and democratic effects of music education.

Music as language and the restricted view of humanity that guides us

As far as informal learning goes, Justina was lucky to be born into a culture in which these informal music practices are simply a part of everyday life. Not every child is that lucky, and for those the role of education becomes more critical. But what is wrong with the view of humanity on which we base our educational structures, such that music is a subject that is either absent from, or at best insignificant in comparison to, the rest of the standard curriculum?

In this sense, the Belgian education system participates in the achievement-society, in which people are reduced to their contribution to the economic system. To a great extent, education complies with this regime, and in doing so neglects its general task of fostering the young and developing democracy. Cognitive development is regarded within education as the ‘highest good’, because this is the only kind of development that is truly societally valued. This despite the fact that children just as much grow up socially, emotionally, and physically, and could do with a hand in these regards, too.

Making music together at school helps children become more empathetic creatures, who often attend school with more pleasure and feel more comfortable in social relationships. Why is it that we refuse to accept all of the existing evidence on this subject? A focus on quality music teaching as part of regular classroom learning is the foundational pillar of a music education that is equally accessible to each child, and that precisely due to this accessibility can have significant social and democratic effects. Music schools cannot take up this task, despite the fact that they too should become more aware of the political character of their pedagogical endeavours.

Justina’s musical achievement taught me that music is first and foremost a language that can enable dialogue between communities, that classical music still is tied up with class, but that it does not need to be this way, provided that musical education can become more aware of its political role, and that music in the classroom should assume a more prominent role, in order that every child in Europe should speak this language. Only then can we posit that music, regardless of its genre, can make a real contribution to the imaginary European identity.