One of my students recently penned a passionate piece about the growing trend of taking music out into the wider community. While he thoroughly approved of initiatives aimed at spreading music to those sections of society who, for one reason or another, might not feel they have access to it, he bemoaned the fact that so many of those initiatives were not so much aimed at the wider community as one specific segment of it. And more especially, that the focus seemed to be almost wholly on taking music to those which society labels as having “Special Needs”, a term he found deeply patronising.
For some time this is an issue which has concerned me, although it was the catalyst of the student’s impassioned comment which really got me thinking about quite what is meant by these oft-use, politically-correct terms “taking music out into the community” and “special needs”. I did a quick search and discovered that a clear majority of initiatives which aim to “take music out into the wider community” actually do nothing of the kind; they simply redirect music from one special group to another. The principal beneficiaries of such initiatives are usually either those with a learning or physical disability or those suffering from some kind of degenerative condition such as Alzheimer’s or Cancer. These are the so-called “Special Needs” people; who, by the very fact of being so labelled, are segregated from society. In an age when we have trained ourselves to ignore people’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality, it seems perverse, to say the least, that we happily use their mental or physical condition as a conduit of segregation. I can’t call someone whose skin colour differs from mine as “black”, without causing offence; why, therefore, is it correct to describe someone whose mental capacity differs from mine as “Special”?
Let’s not, for all the tempting avenues it opens up for a discussion on the confused state of our current society, bother about those labels. Let’s merely say that every single person in society is special in some way – inasmuch that none of us is quite the same mentally, physically, emotionally or psychologically – so those with “Special Needs” constitute the totality of society and therefore the label is pointless (as well as offensive).
Instead, let me ask the question about the specifics of taking music out into “the wider community”. What do we really mean by this? And, is the taking of music into communities comprising those who differ in some mental or physical way from the norm, merely a palliative for those of us privileged to possess musical skills as well as both mental and physical characteristics which are seen by most of society as “normal”? By focusing on music’s much-vaunted therapeutic qualities and flaunting them in front of those who have some kind of disability, are we not in danger of turning music from high art into a branch of medicine?
Music, from its very beginnings, was not something which addressed the totality of society. At one point merely the possession of gods, of the god-like and of the churches which worshipped God, music went on to become the unique property of earthly and spiritual rulers, of the aristocracy, of the extremely wealthy and subsequently of the educated elite. It was really only in the 19th century that it spread to those who had neither the wealth to fund it nor the education to understand it, and it became primarily a form of entertainment rather than an intellectual exercise. With the advent of recording and broadcasting, music suddenly was accessible to all, and music education flourished as a means of keeping alive the old elitist attitudes; the thinking was, you may be able to hear music, but do you know how to LISTEN to it and do you UNDERSTAND it? With the 21st century such elitist attitudes have largely been swept away, and with it much of the mystique of music has been demolished. There is a dominant belief that knowing music and practising it should be open to anybody and everybody, and, as if to support this, in the last half-century, the idea that music has very definite therapeutic qualities has grown.
That belief that music is no longer an elitist art nor something requiring intellectual application has been superseded by a concentration on music as a health and well-being beneficiary. Work out in a gym, follow sport, do any of those things that we are told are good for our health, and you find them invariably accompanied by music. My father’s 101 healthy years and my recent phenomenally speedy recovery from a serious operation are explained by those who know us, not by our lifestyles (neither of us follows any of the advised health regimens) but by the fact that we are practising musicians. And it might be right, although I am not at all sure it’s anything more than good luck. Music is seen as an adjunct to good health.
The corollary of that is that if you are in bad health music can be of benefit to you. Thus, we single out those in our society who seem physically or mentally less healthy than the norm, and throw music at them. And it does seem to help, even if all the research suggests that such help is only temporary and primarily palliative. Little wonder, then, that so many feel that by going to those groups and giving them music in one form or another, they are doing some good to society. I believe that they are, and from the evidence of my own eyes, it does have a beneficial effect which is well worth all the effort and expense involved. But does this constitute “taking music out into the wider community”?
It does not. There are still huge swathes of society, rich and poor, educated and ill-educated, old and young, black and white, who feel alienated from music. Now they feel alienated not because of their detachment from society’s elite, but because of their detachment from society’s disadvantaged. If music belongs to the “Special Needs”, is it relevant for the rest of us? What efforts are made to take music out to that section of society? The answer is some, but not much. And the way it’s done is simply to put music on in some kind of public arena (a park or a football stadium) and expect the musically-alienated to turn up. Nobody actually thinks that there is anything odd about this. Surely, if you don’t normally feel music has anything to offer you, you would not make the effort to go out and find it, no matter in which environment it is being presented?
People with “Special Needs” are easy to address – they are all lumped together in a single building, either as residents or as out-patients – but the real body of society, the vast majority of those for whom music seems an irrelevance, cannot be so easily located and therefore so conventionally addressed. Much as I applaud efforts to spread music to other sectors of society, let’s not kid ourselves into believing that merely by going to the old peoples’ home or the cancer ward, we are truly taking music out into the wider community.