“What would it mean to be skillful, rather than skilled?  What would a skillful performer sound like?”

These questions immediately stood out when I read Randall Everett Allsup’s Democracy and one hundred years of music education (2007).  A particular pupil came to mind.  This girl had basic knowledge of the piano and had never taken singing lessons.  I would not describe her as a skilled musician.  Yet her piano compositions allowed listeners to paint their own pictures of beauty within the music, and her vocal performances had a depth that was often unnerving.  This was skillful music; music that made us stop, be in the present, and recognise our own souls.  By sharing in her music, we were being educated about ourselves.

Students teachers growing people

Allsup continues, and he could be talking about the same girl.  He identifies the need for reciprocal relationships between students and teachers, for teachers to self-identify as “growing people…Students and teachers who engage in conversations that matter are acting upon their world.  Conversations that matter – whether about art, curriculum, community, teaching, life, or love – are what make us people first, and students and teachers second” (2007, p. 55).  This girl did not shy away from conversation, from interacting with difficult issues and accepting responsibility within her communities.  Perhaps that experience was part of what made her skillful.  It certainly brought soul to her music.  I was reminded of the time I asked her to help a younger pupil who was reluctant to work with his peers.  Within 30 minutes, he’d ‘improved by four sub levels’, if one is inclined to use such terminology.  Of more value was his sense of contribution, of growth, and a new willingness to participate in his class community.  Their brief student-teacher relationship was certainly not one where “the only point of a lesson is the delivery of a specific piece of musical content” (Allsup 2007, p. 55).  This girl skillfully shared her soulfulness with the boy, and their musical creation reflected this.

Values vs. value-added

Further examination of the history behind democratic education is provided by Edson, who draws on Dewey’s belief that there is “little in life that would not be considered a subject for the school curriculum” (Edson, 1978, p. 68).   It is interesting to compare Dewey’s seven objectives, outlined in 1918, with Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path, almost 3000 years old.  Both encourage respect for the present and for achievements made in the present, that experiences should be full of value and therefore educational.  They suggest that education has soul and is for the soul.  It’s a stark contrast with the scientific system of education that Edson discusses, in which “procedures could increase productivity and efficiency” and “the application of scientific procedures to curriculum development suggests that curriculum is ‘value free’ or ‘value-neutral’” (1978, p. 64-5).  The promoters of this approach no doubt intended ‘value free’ to mean freedom from political concern.  Since politics can be defined as “the total complex of relations between people living in society” (Merriam Webster, 2015), we need to consider how people are encouraged to have values about and be valued within their societies – and how appropriate it is therefore is to assess schools on their ‘value-added’ progress in national tests.  Nicky Morgan’s first education speech since the 2015 election promotes education as adding value, as preparation for life rather than as life itself (  It provides a stark contrast to some presentations of education beyond the school gate; for example, the National Trust’s Fifty Things list ( includes far more opportunity to explore being present and having presence.  Theirs is a curriculum of values, of becoming skillful and soulful, if not automatically efficient.

Lived music

Thinking specifically about democracy in music education, Allsup reminds us that “Dewey believes that education should be ‘a process of living and not a preparation for future living’” but suggests that we “ask ourselves how much time our students spend ‘living’ music and how much time they spend ‘preparing’ music…Are the concerts we schedule the reason we teach, or signposts of progress and growth along the way?…In our students’ minds, there comes to exist ‘real music’ and ‘school music’” (Allsup 2007, p. 55).  This raises two points:  Firstly, in UK contexts, it may be more appropriate to replace ‘concert’ with ‘exam’ and, given the considerable restrictions that exam preparation places on curriculum time and lesson content, to then ensure that concerts provide space for pupils to explore their own musics rather than another imposed agenda.  Secondly, when working in a boarding school it was somewhat easier to remove the barrier between “real music” and “school music.  Because we lived together, our ‘lived’ music was shared more freely.  It was much easier for music lesson content to reflect the needs of the community because the school was the community.  No doubt the multi-dimensional relationship between teachers and pupils also helped in this area:  Teachers were literally their pupils’ neighbours, with dogs to walk, lawns to mow and growing still to do, rather than being raised onto the pedestal associated with the master-apprentice ethos still found in some forms of music education.

This awareness of personal reality on both sides of the relationship is likely to provide educational benefit.  Allsup advises that teachers see children not as “empty vessels, as deficient in the subject matter I am offering to teach.  I will learn a great deal more if I see them as growing people.  But I must also see myself that way, too” (Allsup, 2007, p. 55).  From a musical perspective, such a collaborative relationship can be developed particularly well through improvising, exploring new musics through listening together, and by valuing the expressive and interpretive aspects of performance (Paul Harris’ Simultaneous learning is an accessible book from which to start thinking about these ideas).  For some teachers, however, discarding the “vessel” approach challenges their self-identity, since it is moving away from a position of clear authority to a “tension between tradition and change” (Allsup, 2007, p. 54).

And so we return to the difference between being skilled and being skillful.  Music teachers will almost certainly not be skilled in every musical genre that engages their pupils.  But if they can be skillful in finding spaces and support for the exploration of these musics, pupils will develop their own skills, skillfullness and values.  It is those people, the ones who are not afraid to converse about values, who will show us their souls.  Which, in both the Deweyan and Christmassy sense, is a wonderful present.

P.S.  Yes, this is another ‘posh blog’, for those of you who have noticed the difference between my theories class assignments and general ramblings.  Also, I know that skilful normally has one ‘l’, not two.  I’m just trying to be consistent with the article that I quoted.


Allsup, R. E. (2007).  Democracy and one hundred years of music education.  Music Educators Journal.  93:5, 52-6.

Edson, C.H. (1978).  Curriculum change during the progressive era.  Educational Leadership.  36:1, 64-9.

Harris, P. (2014).  Simultaneous learning:  the definitive guide.  London, Faber Music.

Merriam Webster (2015, 3rd November). Dictionary.  Accessed online at

National Trust (2015, 3rd November).  Fifty things to do.  Accessed online at

Nicky Morgan (2015, 3rd November).  One nation education speech.  Accessed online at

candle, soul


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