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  • Melissa Forbes

is there a place for compassion in higher music education?

Updated: Dec 8, 2018


"By making space for diverse musics, learning styles, and pedagogical approaches, we shift our attention away from exacting external standards and move toward shared music-making with others whom, despite their usually younger age and lesser experience in certain areas, we recognize to be equal with us in the collective place we call humanity."

Compassionate music teaching, by Karin S. Hendricks


During my time teaching music at tertiary level in a small, regional Australian university, I have noticed a gradual softening in my approach to students. As a newbie university tutor, I tended to hold students to the same (often impossibly high) standards I have held myself to over the course of my life. In a number of cases, this did not end well for either me or the student. At the time, I simply thought that these students couldn’t “cut it”. In hindsight, I now see the folly of my ways.


There will always be a place for the training of elite musicians in the higher music education landscape. However, as I have outlined elsewhere, most of the students at my university simply have not had the same learning opportunities as their city counterparts prior to commencing music study at university. Some are completely self-taught. Should this preclude them from participating in higher music education? My argument is, no. Does this require a different approach to learning and teaching? Absolutely. Trying to impose the traditional model of technical and performance excellence in this context, in my experience, does not work so well. My students have incredibly valuable contributions to make in myriad ways, and it is my job as an educator to ensure these contributions are developed and can form part of a sustainable career. Despite their often-times lack of experience coming into the degree, students at my university graduate to become a vital part of the fabric of their communities.


I believe a compassionate approach to students is integral to fully implement an inclusive higher music education program which is an alternative to the conservatoire model. I am currently reading Compassionate Music Teaching by Karin S. Hendricks from Boston University. Hendricks’ compassionate teaching framework identifies six ingredients for working with students compassionately: trust, empathy, patience, inclusion, community, and authentic connection. Hendricks sets the scene for the role of compassion in music teaching by charting the shifts which have occurred in music education from the 20th to 21st centuries. Earlier models were heavily influenced by the industrial era models of education in which product was paramount, and production was policed by an authoritarian foreman. She also interestingly points out the role that military bands (at least in the US) played in shaping music education: “These trends took hold and held fast for decades, with countless band directors leading from the podium like sergeants and instilling deep admiration, fear, and respect from those they led” (Hendricks, 2016, Chapter 1). Parallel to this, Hendricks argues that private studios during the 20th century “thrived on an intensely competitive nature” (Hendricks, 2016, Chapter 1).


As I have experienced myself as a music educator, Hendricks points to the broadening of both music education and what it means to be musical in the 21st century. For example, the program I teach into is a popular music program, which would have been unheard of not that long ago within a university music program. Our program also teaches music theory from the ground up (no previous theory knowledge required!). Of course, there will those who think that the move away from the traditional model is a shocking lowering of standards, but such an argument presents a one-eyed view of higher music education. I believe higher music education must respond to the context, and resist the adoption of "one-size fits all" approaches.


Compassion has a central role to play in all music education, and as I have experienced, particularly so in educational settings where our students’ experiences are vastly different to our own (I was myself, after all, conservatoire trained). Rather than becoming frustrated with this difference, I have learned to treat my learning and teaching relationships as collaborative partnerships informed by empathy, understanding and as a “shared human experience between equals” (Hendricks, 2016). This is not a dilution of standards, but an appropriate response to changing times and shifting educational contexts. And, as Hendricks argues, compassion is not weakness. Compassionate teaching requires firm boundary setting, clear expectations, and flexibility. My experience is that such an approach is beneficial for my students, and for my own wellbeing as an educator.


Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t easy to be consistently compassionate in my teaching. I am only human, after all, and sometimes feelings of frustration overwhelm me. Being compassionate requires work and constant vigilance. The rewards, however, far outweigh the effort.


What do you think? Have you experienced this shift in music education? Do you adopt a compassionate approach to learning and teaching?


Hendricks, K. Compassionate music teaching [Kindle version]


PS the best thing about discovering Hendricks' book (apart from it providing me with a framework to think about my teaching), is that it was recommended to me by one of my students. Thanks Anita!

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