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date: 17 February 2019

Commentary: Music in the Community

Abstract and Keywords

This article presents an overview of Section 2 of the Oxford Handbook of Music Education, Volume 2. It considers John Dewey's (1927) thoughts on the relationship between the “goods” (values, benefits) of some kind of activity and the nature of “community.” It argues that it is highly unlikely that there will never be a fixed concept or “how-to” of community music. For however and wherever community music is conceived and practiced, this elusive phenomenon continues to evolve and diversify locally and internationally to meet the changing needs of the people it serves today and those it will serve tomorrow. It reinvents itself continuously in relation to the musics and technologies its practitioners and clients desire and appropriate; and, of course, community music matures constantly as community music facilitators deploy their creativity to reframe, adjust, combine, integrate, and overlap existing ways of empowering people to make music for the realization of its many “goods” and the many ways that music making, musical sharing, and musical caring creates “community.”

Keywords: community, music, John Dewey

What is “community music”? To many in our profession this term may signal a new idea or practice within “music education.” Actually, it's the reverse. In the broadest sense, community music predates institutionalized school music education by thousands of years. For as many people know, archeological evidence indicates that humans have been making music for at least 50,000 years (Schneider, 1997). If so, then humans have also been engaged in passing on, transmitting, or “teaching and learning” music in their communities for an equally long period of time. Otherwise, music would not exist. In short, wherever there is something people identify as “music,” there is something we would reasonably recognize as community music: making, hearing, and learning how “to music.”

As it turns out, then, the basic problem that puzzles many people about community music (CM) is not “music” but “community.” With this in mind, a good starting point for what follows in this section is John Dewey's (1927) thoughts on the relationship between the “goods” (values, benefits) of some kind of activity and the nature of “community.”

Wherever there is conjoint activity whose consequences are appreciated as good by all singular persons who take part in it, and where the realization of the good is such as to effect an energetic desire and effort to sustain it in being just because it is a good shared by all, there is in so far a community. (p. 149)

Dewey's thinking allows us to make an important leap: if people engaged in music making value their participation for “the good(s)” it provides, then the means by which they learn the skills and understandings required to participate in these goods is also a means of creating and sustaining “community” in all beneficial (p. 100) senses of this term. Moreover, the means of teaching and learning a community's music may also be a “good” in itself.

Peter Dykema, a central figure in the early development of American music education and community music, believed strongly in Dewey's thoughts and values. Dykema (1916) argued that towns and cities across the United States should ensure that citizens of all ages have access to musical groups, competent teachers, and performance venues of all kinds. He urged also that teachers should focus on fostering students’ love of music so they would continue playing and singing after compulsory lessons and classes ended. Dykema's writings not only precede and affirm the thoughts of many contemporary music educators and community music workers; it is also noteworthy that he, too, grappled with the meaning of community music: “Community music is a term that has obtained great vogue the past three years and yet so far as I know it has never been defined” (p. 218). That said, Dykema proceeded to articulate an essential principle of the contemporary theory and practice: “community music is not the name of a new type of music nor even of a musical endeavor. . . . It is not so much the designation of a new thing as a new point of view . . . community music is socialized music . . . music for the people, of the people, and by the people” (p. 218).

Contemporary concepts of CM echo the values articulated by Dewey and Dykema, but they have broadened and deepened dramatically, due to (1) expanding ways of making, accessing, and experiencing music, (2) new understandings about the plethora of “goods” that musical “particip-action” affords people of all ages and dispositions, and (3) a surge in published research on the nature and values of community music. This last point requires elaboration.

Research papers about various aspects of CM worldwide have been a major feature of the biennial meetings of the Community Music Activity Commission of ISME since the 1980s and a recent feature of other professional meetings (e.g., NAfME, North American Coalition for Community Music). Otherwise, CM practitioners and scholars have had few formal vehicles (outside doctoral dissertations and a few national music education journals) for the dissemination of their research. To answer this need, David J. Elliott and Kari K. Veblen launched in 2004 the International Journal of Community Music, which is currently edited by Lee Higgins and Kari K. Veblen. It has emerged as a central repository of qualitative, philosophical, descriptive, and historical research on CM, as well as powerful motivating force for new and more diverse forms of CM activity.

Conceptually speaking, Veblen and Olsson (2002) see the core of CM as consisting of “people making music” (p. 730) in/through many forms of musicing, musical styles, locations, and social-musical relationships. Other characteristics of CM activity that Veblen and Olsson highlight and celebrate include multiple forms of teacher-facilitator configurations; a commitment to lifelong musical learning (p. 731) and participants’ social and personal growth; and a deep concern that all people have access to musical participation, including immigrants, children with physical and mental challenges, disenfranchised cultural groups, and children of low-income families (p. 731). In addition, scholars and practitioners note the (p. 101) tendency of CM organizations to assist school music educators whenever appropriate and possible.

The authors in this part of this volume of the handbook provide varying perspectives on all of the above, as well as other aspects and concepts of the natures and values of CM. In the opening chapter, Higgins argues that the term “community” is incomplete without an awareness that community, properly conceived, is a matter of ethical interactions and “hospitality.” After a deep conceptual analysis of these themes, Higgins traces the application of community-as-hospitality in three contrasting sites of CM: Bambini al Centro (Rome); East Hill Singers (Kansas); and the Music Academy of Gauteng (Benoni, South Africa).

“Reciprocity” is a key theme in the second chapter in this part of the volume, where Jones and Langston unpack the concept of CM as/for social capital. They note that social capital can be understood as any product of community interactions, including social networking, collective problem solving, and improvements in the quality of communal life. They suggest that while there is a wide body of research on social issues and CM, there is little research on the intersections and the gains in these areas. The authors ask: How do music, music education, and CM affect social capital? And what relationships exist between trust, social connectedness, social capital, and musical enjoyment? The authors explain a number of practical ways to foster “life-wide and lifelong musicing” and the development of social capital by addressing issues of curriculum, pedagogy, teacher education, enhancing musical opportunities that already exist within a community, and helping students organize their own musical experiences.

Scholars and practitioners of CM remain unresolved about whether music therapy, as a discipline, fits within it. Aigen suggests, however, that the aims and practices of CM therapy (CoMT) are in fact aligned with many of music therapy's premises and practices. To explore the nature of CoMT, Aigen explains its aims, both theoretically and practically. He highlights a number of CoMT examples in a variety of contexts, including a residential rehabilitation facility in New York City; a site in Raanana, Israel, where practitioners work with children with special needs; and the Centre for the Treatment of Torture Victims in Berlin, where political refugees receive help.

Silverman's chapter integrates philosophical reflections on CM with analyses of two neglected concepts and practices in music education and CM: love-as-action and social justice. Through the integration of theory and practice, she explains ways CM may adopt, adapt, and benefit from the practices of community facilitators working in various circumstances. Silverman then proceeds to discuss some prerequisites for, and dimensions of, these concepts in the context of Western societies generally and the United States particularly. The last section of Silverman's discussion connects the concept of love-as-social-justice to a practical example in New York City's urban environment.

Phelan argues that the phenomenon of global migration has tremendous import for the theory and practice of CM. She provides examples of migration in Ireland and explains how migration and globalization affect the work of community (p. 102) musicians in Limerick. In the process, Phelan emphasizes that “hospitality” is both a condition and a central component of CM and conceptualizes this component through the lenses of space and place. In addition, she suggests that we think of musical sounds as perceivable means for hospitality: “humanly embodied sound becomes, not just a source of musical knowledge but of musical hospitality, in its ability of ‘invite’ and evoke ‘missing’ cultural landscapes.” When CM practitioners work in spaces of migration, sonic hospitality becomes an important aspect of the landscape of welcoming “the Other.”

Cohen, Silber, Sangiorgio, and Iadeluca discuss how CM practices interact with at-risk youth. The authors explain the concept of “at-risk” youth, as this phenomenon is neither universally understood nor easily classified. They then proceed to explain the importance of Noddings's “ethics of care” for community musicians’ work with at-risk youth. They propose also that “the nature of ‘music’ as a lived experience” is rooted in caring relationships. In other words, if people are participating in musical activities, they are (or should be) engaged in caring relationships. If so, then musical activities are extremely adept at ameliorating the personal/social challenges faced by at-risk youth. Cohen, Silber, Sangiorgio, and Iadeluca use a number of CM programs as examples. They trace the ethics of caring in diverse CM settings, such as Portugal, the United Kingdom, Israel, Venezuela, and the United States.

Finally, Veblen and Waldron probe future possibilities for CM. They begin by examining the aims and values of “communitas” and how these values shape and enhance aspects of practice. In grounding CM in its function as “communitas,” Veblen and Waldron prepare the way for understanding current and potential relationships between CM and (for example) face-to-face social networks and computer-mediated musical-social networks, including online music education research communities, online music composition, and music trading online.

As we see from the above, the very idea of “community music” raises many conceptual and practical issues large and small, which in turn lead to many fascinating subquestions. As Veblen (2007) explains, many people address questions about CM through highly refined concepts, or from an “on the ground,” grassroots perspective—from the viewpoint of CM “workers” or “facilitators” involved in some variation of “teaching and learning music” that's related to but outside traditional music schools. Others think and work in relation to problem-solving strategies they create and deploy to address the immediate needs and circumstances of the people they serve; in the process, they think and rethink the “who-why-what-when-and-where” of CM.

In summary, it is highly unlikely—and in fact highly desirable—that there will ever be a fixed concept or “how-to” of CM. For however and wherever CM is conceived and practiced, this elusive phenomenon continues to evolve and diversify locally and internationally to meet the changing needs of the people it serves today and those it will serve tomorrow; it reinvents itself continuously in relation to the musics and technologies its practitioners and clients desire and appropriate; and, of course, CM matures constantly as CM facilitators deploy their creativity (p. 103) to reframe, adjust, combine, integrate, and overlap existing ways of empowering people to make music for the realization of its many “goods” and the many ways that music making, musical sharing, and musical caring creates “community.”


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Dykema, P. W. (1916). The spread of community music. The annals of the American academy of political social science 67, 218–221.Find this resource:

Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone. New York: Simon & Schuster.Find this resource:

Schneider, A. (1997). Archaeology of music in Europe: An overview. In Hans-Werner Heister (ed.), Music/revolution. Festschrift for Georg Knepler 90th Birthday, 1 (pp. 39–66). Hamburg: Bockel of-Verlag, 1997. [Abridged version in Tim Rice, James Porter, & Chris Goertzen (eds.), The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 8: Europe (pp. 34–45). New York, London: Garland Publishing 2000.]Find this resource:

Veblen, K., & Olsson, B. (2002). Community music: Toward an international perspective. In R. Colwell & C. Richardson (eds.), The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning (pp. 730–753). . New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Veblen, K. (2007). The many ways of community music. International Journal of Community Music, 1(1), 5–21. Intellect Press. Retrieved May 12, 2010, from this resource: