School music programs should be teaching Mohammed Abdel Wahab rather than Ludwig van Beethoven

Fireandair had this to say in one of my recent blog posts about parochial nature of Western Classical Music:

fireandairNovember 13, 2013 at 4:57 pm · Edit · Reply

Still thinking about this — in a way, the attitude that says that Western orchestras should just stick to what they do best is not a bad one. The idea that a Western orchestra could have a hope in hell of presenting such diverse types of music with any real fluency — or worse, that they “should” — is an ego trip. If the African drum virtuosi can crank out polyrhythms with one hand behind their backs … then in a way why do the Western orchestras need to? I could see how the musicians would find it fascinating (especially the timpanists) but isn’t it an ego trip to treat these incredibly complex traditions like some sort of political bingo chips, or to imagine that most of the (culturally Western) members of a Western orchestra could have a prayer in hell of playing that sort of stuff with the mastery of someone who has been doing it since they were in diapers? Classical musicians are quick to say that you need to start in the womb to be able to play their stuff — well, that African drum master did just that. You can play with those tools but unless they are a part of your culture, you probably can’t touch the master’s virtuosity.

Just thinking about this — that it can either be a hallmark of ego of of humility to say that Western orchestras have a “home court” of music and will probably always be best at that kind of stuff — either because one feels that Beethoven is the ultimate expression of passion, or because the other varied traditions are simply too complex, great, and involved to master them on the side after a lifetime of training in Western music. Individual musicians in a Western orchestra may have a grounded feel for it if they come from that background, but the orchestra as a whole may not.

my response (which didn’t address everything she brought up) was:

Jon Silpayamanant November 14, 2013 at 1:57 pm · Edit · Reply

That’s a good point. I think one of the reasons I posted this blog and occasionally about the ethnic orchestras is simply to dispel the “myth” that Western Classical is universal in any sense. Especially the way it has been practiced in the past century by focusing on the canonical warhorses.

I remember when the early music/historically informed practice movement started to get a lot of negative attention from mainstream classical music institutions–it all seemed to be a way for one population to disparage another by highlighting the legitimacy of a “correct” (and universal) way to perform classical music. I think the underlying fear is that this “correct” way is simply one of many and has now become another form of “historically informed practice” since most new music that is performed is rarely done by the SOBs–Symphony, Opera, and Ballet organizations are just another historical way of approaching a relatively narrow range of music from a particular period of time and region (primarily 19th century Europe).

To admit that there is other “great music” out there–other “great performing traditions” with ensembles and practices–would lessen the legitimacy of the one touted as featuring the “greatest” musical works of mankind–and we can’t have that, right?

So maybe it is best to let SOBs do what they do best: Specialists in one art form of many. This begs the question of what then do we mean by music education since it become untenable that by bringing back music education in the schools at the pre-college level we should be focusing on the traditional string orchestras, full orchestras, and concert bands. Then it becomes a question of Whose Art are we supporting–and once you ask that question, then you realize that there’s no reason why Western Instrumental Instruction should be the norm and we should actually be bringing relevant music instruction to communities rather than subsidizing one cultural art form over another–letting the local cultures determine what arts they value!

My question to music education advocates would be how would they feel if instead of teaching violin, and string classes we teach erhu and other traditional Chinese huqin strings as the Purple Silk organization does in the Oakland area?  Or instead of teaching timpani and flute in band class we started teaching dumbek and ney as the New York Arabic Orchestra hopes to do with their new Arabic Music School?  Instead of school orchestras playing German symphonies, we have them learn how to play Turkish fasıl, Azerbaijan mugham, Indonesian gamelan, Arabic waslah, or Japanese gagaku?

If the answer is that “we should teach kids how to play the greatest music of mankind,” then unless we can demonstrate that there is something greater about a Beethoven Symphony over, say, an Abdel Wahhab Waslah, the question was loaded with an ethnocentric and eurocentric bias in the first place and that percolates up to the Music Conservatory Level and then the Professional Performing Arts world level.

Mohhamed Abdel Wahab, sometimes referrrred to as the "Beethoven of the Arabic World,"  with a Cümbüş.
Mohammed Abdel Wahab, sometimes referrrred to as the “Beethoven of the Arabic World,” with a Cümbüş.


  1. There’s a real danger in the sort of nationalism that is the underpinning of the Germanic symphony. The problem I always had when trying to develop ideas of going outside “the canon” is just the same as orchestras–it’s not my specialty, so I’m stuck using the resources given in books. And the treatment of the music in those books doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

    Music from all cultures does need to be taught, at least in an appreciation format. And having opportunities to expand into those areas, for performance, would also be great to see in the US. However, then we start butting into traditional systems (say, the student/master set-up in the Middle East and in India that still pervades), and the risk of “co-opting,” with inauthentic practices coming into play. Because, let’s be honest, academia isn’t always the best place to learn these things.

    For teaching younger students, I think we need programs in place like what I’m seeing in the UK. Several people I know at universities are working with teachers to develop units for specific grade levels to include teaching different types of music. The one I am most intimate with is electronic music, but I’ve also seen some development of traditional instruments of India webpages and materials as well.

    If researchers can pair up with educators to create practical resources, it can be a huge boon to the effort.

    As for post-secondary opportunities, it’d be great. At UMKC at least, we’ve had lots of guest performers, speakers, and even classes on writing for traditional Chinese instruments. But then UMKC has Chen Yi and Zhou Long on faculty, who have a wealth of experience not just with western music, but traditional Chinese instruments, in traditional and contemporary formats.

    Of course, most of these schools also don’t teach American folk music, segregate jazz, don’t deal in pop, and so on and so forth. To get into even more of a global attitude, it’d take expansion of programs, which, sadly, in a time of heavy contraction, probably won’t fly.

    And, an even bigger question: why are we focusing on the performance? That’s a bigger k-12 question I have, and one I struggled with a huge amount as a music ed major (and one reason I didn’t follow that course).


    • John, that’s why I mentioned the Purple Silk organization which did create the demand and funding for school music programs in the Bay area–but a program based on traditional Chinese music since that region has the highest per capita Chinese immigrant and Chinese American population. They’ve developed a k-5 program, a middle/high school program, and even a community college program which help feed into the two or more dozen traditional Chinese ensembles and orchestras in that area.

      My point isn’t about music appreciation so much as it is about the idea that the only music worth teaching (at any level) in the US (and Europe) is Western Classical music traditions. The examples I gave were meant to highlight the parochialism of music education here (and yes, regional, folk, and pop music styles are also an omission that we might need to address).

      Am I saying we need to have degrees in Chinese instrumental and Chinese Opera performance at, say, DePauw as part of the music school program offerings? No, but I am saying that when schools do have these programs, they are invariably a part of the ethnomusicology departments. Some of the students and graduates of the IU School of Folklore and Ethnomusicology I work with occasionally comment on the fact that the ethnomusicology department is in the folklore school and not in the Jacobs School of Music. We make this distinction at the academic level between “normal music” and all that other “ethnic music”–how would we feel if we simply made Western Classical music one subject of study in ethnomusicology and taught it through these departments?

      The interesting thing about the a number of these ethnic orchestras I’ve been blogging about over the years is that they regularly perform new works so there is a healthy relationship between the performers and composers that we only see in the new music side of Classical music. These ethnic communities and organizations also spend time teaching composition to kids as part of their normal outreach even setting aside the fact that in many of these traditions there is a healthy improvisation aspect to the performing traditions which naturally make performers into creators of content in the first place.

      Maybe it’s just time to completely redo the academic music system and school music system to reflect ‘music’ rather than ‘Euro-American Classical Music from the late 18th to the early 20th century’–things are already moving into that direction anyway.


  2. “To admit that there is other “great music” out there–other “great performing traditions” with ensembles and practices–would lessen the legitimacy of the one touted as featuring the “greatest” musical works of mankind–and we can’t have that, right?”

    But at the same time, if Western orchestras don’t play that stuff, the they are falling in their responsibility as the most forward and advanced musical institutions capable of Saving the World!!!!!

    It’s starting to look like any behavior can be questionable if done with the wrong attitude.


    • It’s starting to look like any behavior can be questionable if done with the wrong attitude.

      Exactly! That was actually the focus of my undergraduate thesis–Performing Ethics–I’ve always been somewhat annoyed by the perspectivizing done by privileged systems and how that leads to marginalization. The language and codes and behavior used to reinforce that power structure is much more transparent when you start broadening the context outside of the tiny world that is classical music and euro-american pop music.


  3. There is absolutely no reason not to teach this sort of thing – the only barrier is in the teachers themselves. I teach some aspects of African doumbek/djembe music in general music classes, but I can’t do a full curriculum on it because I lack the experience in it. I think that even worse than teaching exclusively European, tonal, common-practice era music is teaching minor elements of other cultures when it’s all interpreted wrongly because the teacher hasn’t been steeped in the culture. I would love to have Arabic or East Indian musicians come into a class to teach something about ragas or oud. Unfortunately, the opportunities for that in our modern system of education just aren’t as present as we’d like them to be.


    • Then should we force the Purple Silk organization, which brought music programs to k-12 and the local community colleges in the Bay area, to scrap their Chinese Music Program? That’s the real question–as it pertains to funding of music programs. If funding only goes to Western music programs then we’re just stuck with the funding a particular cultural form over another. Sure, there are the institutional and structural barriers you mentioned, but some communities are getting past them–any non-private support should serve the communities rather than enforce a particular cultural artifact upon them.


      • Absolutely – I just think you’re going to be hard pressed to find the temporal resources to put it into public schools unless it IS through those sorts of volunteer community organizations. Diversity/multiculturalism works a bit differently here in Canada, so the prospect of choosing which culture to fund and the attendant difficult justifications is well-established here.


      • It did start off voluntary but has become integrated into those educational systems with funding. Funding which I imagine was helped by the fact that there just happens to be a half million Chinese-Americans in the area to push for it.

        I imagine that there is some minimal threshold for initiatives like this–start up costs and legislative power through political agency is going to matter as much as anything else (at least in the states).

        I understand that there is something of a quota system for broadcast media in Canada for playing Canadian artists, does that work for ethnic groups within Canada too?


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