The MEND Report

What next for Irish music education?

Introduction: the report of the Music Education National Debate (MEND)
MEND … not another report (!), however provocatively acronymic, aspirational, notionally panacean? The Music Education National Debate, an initiative of the 1990s, already perhaps fading from memory as yet another perceived ‘flash in the pan’, has suddenly expanded into an eight-megabyte Report. Its gradual release to music education readership over the past year has attracted worldwide responses confirming its prophetic character, its continuing relevance and its complementarity in relation to current initiatives in Irish music education.

It would be impossible to give more than a flavour of the content of the Report, or indeed of the complexity of the initiative itself, in a short essay. Because it canvassed the views of an impressive array of globally distinguished music educators, from four continents, and blended them with those emanating from virtually every music education agency in Ireland, it is a ‘sobering cocktail’ of received wisdom that surely cannot be ignored in the strategic planning of music education in contemporary Ireland. Above all else the gargantuan MEND Report is – consciously and arguably comprehensively – a resource document, fashioned to provide philosophical underpinning for continuing efforts at reform of this generally misunderstood and poorly served sector of education.

MEND in brief: genealogy and summary
The MEND Report traces its own origins back to the foundation of the state, and further, and to the epoch-making events that have punctuated and defined the progress of music education in Ireland in the twentieth century. At the beginning of a new millennium it now finds itself significantly flanked by two sequences of events. On the one hand there was the disastrous fallout from An Curaclam Nua of 1970 and its exposure in the Deaf Ears? report (Arts Council 1985) coupled with the equally damaging confrontations with government in relation to secondary-school music (in particular the Leaving Certificate crises leading to the NCCA curricular reforms). On the other there are the events which emerged, as will become apparent, from the penumbra of MEND itself – the conflict over the Irish Academy for the Performing Arts, and the initiatives to promote specialised instrumental tuition spearheaded by the Music Education Action Group (2000-2002) and Music Network (2001 and still in progress). It is notable that all of these latter are, at last, concerned with the central dilemma of how to deal with the conceptual confusion over the nature of performance.

In particular MEND was a self-styled response to the largely statistical Deaf Ears? report, with its chilling seminal statement that ‘the young Irish person has the worst of all European musical “worlds”’.

The author spent some five years of preliminary research into general music education concerns before broaching the public initiative to the main potential sponsor, the Dublin Institute of Technology; happily there was an enthusiastic and generous response, and so the Music Education National Debate had an auspicious launch, culminating more than two years later with the patronage of the President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, for the critical final phase. The project comprised a one-day heralding debate aimed at developing an agreed agenda, three symposia (including a crucial central event devoted to informed commentary from the international community), and a seminar to highlight the potential role of Irish (traditional) music in general education. There were in all, some 34 scholarly presentations, responding to a carefully planned agenda, and 33 hour-long debates to further explore the views put forward.

MEND coincidentally uncovered, for Irish audiences, the contemporaneous and globally-destabilising upheaval in relation to the fundamental tenets of music education philosophy. Until the consequences for Ireland of these developments could be thoroughly weighed the report could not be issued. The sequel to the public phases of MEND therefore became, inter alia, a painstaking analysis and rationalisation exercise in attempting to reconcile seemingly diametrically held views, each visited personally and authoritatively on MEND participants by its author. The outcomes of this study eventually produced two discriminated sets of results, the first (‘Findings’) segregated as a hard-hitting statement of what the defining parameters of Irish music education might be, the second (‘Recommendations’) a more conventional list of suggestions contextualised to the Irish case

Basic premises of MEND
The composite fact that music and music education are an inseparable pair and that music and music-making are not only uniquely human but are also universal experience and faculty, seems an unexceptionable starting point. But this triggered an investigation into the nature and value of music, postulating philosophical enquiry. The universality claim also presupposes educational travail and a search for a method of manifold transmission. Adopting and following on from the school-based target area of the Deaf Ears? report, MEND deliberations are anchored in a core concern about the capability of the general school system to rise to its musical challenge. The enquiry then branched out naturally and logically into all the other concerns enumerated in the agenda. Of special importance were:

1. The irreducible essence of a suitable philosophical approach. Ultimately this accounted, and justifiably so, for the bulk of post-MEND deliberations.

2. The pragmatic management of involvements (activities) and diversity in fashioning a curriculum, whether school-based or in a wider context; the need for balance and relevance, and the limitations of time, in implementing a workable dispensation.

3. The demystification and reaffirmation of the notion of music as art.

4. The role of popular music and multiculturalism (including, in the case of Ireland, its subset of biculturalism) in music education.

5. Specalisation in music as a valid outlet for a sizeable minority of the schoolgoing cohorts. This, of course, encapsulates the burning questions of skill acquisition and proficiency in performance.


Key figures in MEND
It was to be expected that certain topics and their advocates would emerge as dominating influences in the enactment of MEND and in its subsequent analysis. Without gainsaying the invaluable contributions of the many, including the delegates themselves, who completed the tapestry of the proceedings, it seems appropriate to mention key figures whose inputs were dramatic in impact, especially since the magisterial force of their authority was not always fully appreciated at the time. Professor Harry White may now be identified as a kind of agent provocateur who precipitated MEND onto the international stage, with all the ensuing beneficial outcomes. Although the analysis of the material generated does not unequivocally endorse his stance, his piece, ‘A Book of Manners in the Wilderness’, delivered as the veritable epilogue of MEND, raised all the issues that were subsequently identified as defining current concerns in world music education. His unashamed defence of Western art music as enabler in third-level music education seemed to dispense with political correctness and to demand a healthy candour from the respondents.

MEND was enriched by the interventions of Bennett Reimer, undisputed doyen of music education philosophy, whose 1970 mini-masterpiece on the subject, A Philosophy of Music Education, remained virtually unchallenged for a quarter of a century, until David Elliott, pretender and enfant terrible, attempted to deconstruct it when he launched his book Music Matters. The feud between these two giants was partly fought on Irish soil. And yet, Elliott’s aggressive dismissal of much of Reimer’s position had and still has value in revitalising his master’s thought processes into discreet metamorphosis. The distinguished leader in American music education research, Richard Colwell, added a dimension of honest brokerage to the proceedings. We owe a debt to Colwell for drawing attention to the differences between curriculum as promulgated, implemented and delivered and the confusion caused by claims based on the first rather than the last. Marie McCarthy, with a foot in both camps, so to speak, was invaluable in comparative analysis involving the United States and Ireland. Janet Ritterman’s painstaking treatment of the Conservatoire issue was thorough and prophetic; much of her wisdom can be seen as still capable of reconciling the different stances which are currently problematic on that issue. Paul Lehman’s exposé of the drama surrounding the promulgation of National Standards (1994) for music education in the US and their relevance and applicability to Irish concerns will be remembered as a rich and thoroughly pragmatic contribution to the understanding of the connections between philosphy, standards, assessment, advocacy and balanced curriculum. Finally Patricia Shehan Campbell and Micheál Ó Súilleabháin provided complementary inputs on multiculturalism and its Irish subset, biculturalism. Professor Ó Súilleabháin, an enthusiastic and charismatic contributor throughout, was seen as the possible architect of curriculum reform to give traditional music a more secure place in school music.

The MEND Agenda
The MEND Agenda was drawn up by the delegates to the Heralding Conference in 1994. A comprehensive list of possible topics was suggested and the delegates were asked to prioritise them. The resulting choices were merely re-ordered to give a coherent sequence. In simplified form the topics chosen were as follows:

• Philosophies of Music Education

• The Current State of Music Education in Ireland

• Continuum in Music Education

• Performance in Music Education

• Assessment in Music Education

• National Culture and Multiculturalism

• Third-level Music Education. Teacher Training

• Sequel to MEND – A Forum for Music Education

• The Salient Issues. The Relevance of American Practice

The identification of crucial issues followed a developmental route which was uncannily prophetic, self-confirming, and robustly stable. Furthermore it was endorsed within the international post-MEND dimension, stimulated so successfully by the provocative Harry White, to whose valedictory paper, ‘A Book of Manners in the Wilderness’, responses, of vastly different thrust, were forthcoming from both Bennett Reimer and David Elliott. That triumvirate had inestimable value in specifically addressing the Irish context of music education. What emerged was Reimer’s masterful statement of the three contextual irreducibles in contemporary music education, as applicable to Ireland as to other systems, whether sophisticated or merely developing. They are:

1. The performance dilemma, which is currently a top priority issue in the US as to its very definition. The similarity to current concerns in Ireland is to be noted here.

2. The management, indeed the reconciliation, of the pop versus high culture confrontation in music education. This is in the nature of a truceless war; it has a high psychological content and a media dimension, with overwhelming market force, which is unlikely to be normalised easily into peaceful coexistence with the conventional norms of much twentieth-century music education practice.

3. Multiculturalism, which Reimer believes, from American experience, to be already ripe for reappraisal as to the extent or nature of its inclusion in general music education.

It quickly became obvious at Phase I of MEND that there was a serious lacuna in Irish pedagogical thinking as to the philosophical options available to inform the practice of music education. This had to be addressed, and became the theme of the second phase. It is the writer’s opinion that the relevance of American practice and scholarship, in all its variety, to Irish concerns was confirmed unequivocally. In particular, the emergence of performance (and the notion of specialisation in relation to it) as the central issues in music education management was an ineluctable outcome. But within the philosophical subset, the understanding of the aesthetic concept (music as art) and its compatibility with other philosophical constructs of the value of music in life, as in education, began to assume importance. In specific terms, concerns about continuum in music education, especially at the second/third level threshold, were copiously debated.

The ascendancy of philosophy
The need for a rationale to guide effort in educational planning is axiomatic. Decisions in music education are sensitive to the nuance of the philosophy of music on which they rely. Because of the bewildering scope of music as a universal activity it is just not possible to accommodate all activities in general education; the choices depend on the shift of balance between activities, and on the philosophical approach to suitable repertoire. The problem has recently been compounded by radical differences between the ‘intelligencers of music’ and the difficulty in convincing exposure of sophistry. The idea of a universal philosophy of music education is idealistic and utopian. In a total MEND context, two attempts were made to put one in place. David Elliott’s is a rather loose, albeit adaptable model. He might be termed a total multiculturalist and believes that, intrinsically, all musics are equal, that they should be promoted in education by active involvement in music-making and respond to the widest spectrum as to what constitutes its value; specifically he sees the dominance of Western art music as narrow and restricting. Reimer is characteristically much more circumspect and offers a synthesis of respected theories – Formalism (or Absolutism), Praxialism (Elliott’s preferred approach) and Referentialism – for our consideration, all as valid candidates for inclusion in a ‘universal’ approach. It is notable that his own derived and celebrated theory (that of Absolute Expressionism with its pedagogical enabler, Music Education as Aesthetic Education) is nowhere to be found, but is subtly merged with the referential idea. The real value of his presentation, however, lies in the synthesis, to which he gives the new name – Contextualism, liberating music education as a kind of utilitarian and functional pursuit free from the implacable constraints of Absolutism. He stresses the need for a balanced approach and rounds off his theory convincingly, if somewhat arcanely, with an invocation of cultural anthropology, which comes full circle by reaffirming the synonymous nature of art and music.

The approaches of Elliott and Reimer, representing intentionally polar counterpositions, were seemingly irreconcilable. The problem for the MEND analyst was to rationalise and, if possible, restore confidence in the stability of the main corpus of philosophical thought and the potential compatibility between rival stances.

Analysis and rationalisation
Reimer and Elliott covered a philosophical spectrum so wide that it invaginates a comprehensive range of options in music education for universal application. In applying it to the Irish context there is thus little danger of invoking too narrow a model. On thorough analysis it was discovered that similarities in their positions were more compelling than differences. Their very public documented confrontation became a cause célèbre, which provided invaluable clarification and material for discrimination. When all the rhetoric is discounted it can be seen that Reimer succeeds in getting Elliott to concede that process (music-making/praxialism) cannot flourish at the expense of or even by ignoring product (fomalism and craft). Nor can a curriculum be balanced if it does not treat performing and listening as equally important. On the other hand, consideration of music as art (referentialism/ expressionism), a challenge held up by the writer to both theories as inviting a more thorough appraisal of the ‘non-western art’ roots of the pure aesthetic, finds Reimer more explicit than Elliott, although the latter, by constant invocation of art phraseology is also in agreement. In this context David Elliott has undoubtedly influenced Bennett Reimer to expand his implied definition of art to include functional utilitarianism (contextualism). The ultimate position is that the difference between the two rival approaches can be reduced to the emphasis, in practice, placed upon different activities or involvements. It is interesting that each expert would claim that the new American National Standards, properly implemented, would vindicate his position. This inexorably leads on to an enquiry into nature of performance and the need for specialisation, which is, and should be, at the root of comprehensive music education concerns, and is dramatically relevant in the Irish context.

Findings and recommendations
Even before Phase III of MEND began, there were certain tendentious themes which, by their frequent recurrence, seemed to be defining problems in Irish music education that are general rather than specific and call for conscientious enquiry and radical reform. They were extracted as an overarching nexus that must be admitted and addressed before effective implementation of recommendations can be hoped for, much less guaranteed. They are:

1. There was little evidence at MEND of a consistent philosophical stance underpinning music education strategy in Ireland, apart from what has been tacitly imported as part of various methodologies favoured from time to time. There is a need for greater awareness and discrimination in this respect.

2. Without the benefit of ongoing philosophical dialectic, prospective teachers have been starved of opportunities to engage in philosophical discourse and to apply considered philosophical principles to their teaching situations. The route for philosophical underpinning to communicate effectively from original thinkers to the taught cohorts is therefore inhibited.

3. There is a damaging dichotomy between academic and practical streams of music education in Ireland. This appears as mutual lack of understanding and intolerance between professional groups but also impinges on the learners, especially when questions of curricular balance, relevance and prioritisations of available time are concerned.

4. Performance as a component in music education is seriously misunderstood as to its potential (and limitations) vis-à-vis other components in the curriculum, its technical and interpretative demands, and its time constraints.

5. Time management of the curriculum demands constant reappraisal as to realistic estimates and expectations of quality, diversity and range in the delivered curriculum. Teachers who are relevantly trained are the single most valuable resource in (music) education. There is concern that teacher training for music education in Ireland is neither adequate nor always relevant to the demands of the published curriculum; this is particularly so in relation to the revisions of the last decade at all levels of school music education. This must be reflected in progressively lower student standards – expected and/or achieved. The lack of teacher specialisation in primary school music contexts necessarily limits or defines the standard and quality of the educational outcomes and must reflect into higher levels.

As to recommendations, of which there were 39 in all, these were segregated under the various headings of the MEND Agenda. Two dominate as of overriding importance. They are the establishment of a permanent forum for music education and a continuing search for a solution to the performance dilemma, which is insidious because it is the product of a complacence born of conceptual confusion. Although there is still concern and public debate about the effectiveness of the new curricula for schools, and government disingenuousness as to details of progress on the Academy for the Performing Arts, it must be accepted in good faith that, at least, they are in place. If there is one significant piece in the jigsaw of Irish music education that is still missing, it is the provision of specialist vocal/instrumental training that is generally available (on a countrywide basis) accessible and affordable. There is confidence emanating from the MEND enquiry that it is only when this service has been added that the other two initiatives will work as intended. Happily, whether prompted by MEND or otherwise, the funding by government for the feasibility study currently being carried out by Music Network is a development that may yet prove to be epochal.

Forum for Music
The Music Education National Forum set up under the auspices of MEND, but totally independent of it, was an enthusiastic body which set about its work in a very professional way. It ran to four lively plenary meetings before it ran into difficulties; it was adjourned sine die and could not be reconvened although the membership was still resolute. Fortunately the vacuum left behind at a very crucial juncture in the affairs of music education was felt sufficiently for a new body – the Forum for Music in Ireland – to spring up to take its place with an even wider brief. The MEND report has been presented to the Forum, at its invitation, and was well received. There seems little point in fragmentation or duplication of effort. The aspiration of MEND in this regard is fully realised by the new body; it should receive the full support of all those interested in progressive amelioration of the music education dispensation in Ireland.

The MEND Report encapsulates the faithfully processed, withal derivative, wisdom of countless music lovers intent on forging a brighter future for music education in Ireland; as a record, at the turn of the millennium, of twentieth century successes and failures, and as a harbinger of continuing reform based on its findings it is a veritable enchiridion. As possibly the first thesis thoroughly to address, with benign intent, the possible reconciliation of rival philosophies of titanic North American authorship, rather than to celebrate their differences, it has been hailed as a ‘first’ of its kind and received enthusiastically in American academia; it has already been placed on the list of recommended texts on the curriculum of at least one prestigious institution. It is interesting to ponder that not only has Ireland benefited from a comparative exercise on the travail of American music education, but a provocative Irish viewpoint, as expounded through MEND by Harry White, has even been used as a template to evaluate current strategies in the United States. MEND is the first study of Irish music education to break away from the post-colonial stranglehold of British practice and to sample a wider menu. It is gratifying to find the Report being embraced and valued in Ireland too for the acknowledged philosophical advocacy it can afford to current initiatives such as the MEAG and Music Network submissions to government. It is hoped that, as a resource document, it will continue to be useful to those who are destined to influence Irish music education effectively into the future.

The MEND Report, with Appendices and Proceedings, is available by e-mail or in CD-ROM form. Hard copies are being printed and will be available later. Any of the following contacts may be used:

Frank Heneghan
heneghan [at]
27 Waltham Terrace, Blackrock, Co. Dublin

Hard copy – Dr Ellen Hazelkorn, Director of Faculty of Applied Arts, DIT, Rathmines Rd, Dublin 6. See DIT website.


DIT Go to Faculties/Applied Arts/Conservatory of Music and Drama

Music Network

Also at

Published on 1 September 2002

comments powered by Disqus