EMBRACING TWO AESTHETICS FOR SINGING/ Louise M. Pascale, Lesley University Copyright Indiana University Press Fall 2005

 “I entered the Music Workshop course with trepidation. Of all the courses in my Master's program, I feared this one the most. My experiences with music have always been negative ones. As I entered the classroom, memories surfaced of the time I was told to mouth the words so I would not throw the rest of the class off key and when I was laughed off the stage after a friend and I attempted a rendition of "Rolling O'er the Billows." After that, I was convinced I should not sing.” 

Maxine Greene reminds us how easy it is to get caught in the "main text of life," one that is "negotiated mostly by convention, routine, habit, duty and one we have very little choice in." Our long-held acceptance of the "singer" and "non-singer" provides a perfect example of Greene's metaphor. The traditional meaning of "singing" is created out of convention and habit, perpetuated by the "main text" (white, middle class) values of American society. Singing, as it is understood in today's educational settings, settled into its role in American music education as a result of a number of significant decisions made as early as the 1600s by prominent leaders of the church.

Each of these decisions added to the growth and strength of the view of singing that became what I refer to as a "taproot" in music education. This taproot continued to settle comfortably into the groundwork of music education and has had major and long-lasting effects on how we generally perceive and experience singing. The Western perspective of singing is wedded to a multitude of assumptions and beliefs and, over a period of time, has taken on complex meaning. It is associated with subtle nuances, such as valuing the high, lilting soprano voice over the alto. It is connected to various philosophies and strongly held convictions, such as improving vocal performance through the mastery of musical literacy, and even exclusionary practices, such as selecting out the "better singers" and suggesting that others refrain from singing at all.

Perhaps the most profound consequence of this entrenched taproot is that it has left American society with a very limited perception of "singing." This singular, well-supported root, albeit strong, impenetrable, and closely connected with a number of cultural and societal assumptions, effectively narrows the scope of our perceptions, our language, our philosophy, and our teaching practices in the domain of singing in education.

Illustration of the powerful ways music relates to and directly expresses the social attitudes and cognitive processes of a culture are found in the work of John Blacking and John Miller Chernoff. Their work provides an opportunity to reflect on the cultural and societal influences of the "taproot" philosophy of music education and the ways these have created limitations on who expresses themselves musically, why, how, and for whom. One of the most critical of those limitations is that we have classroom teachers who rarely, if ever, sing with their students. The gap between those in education who sing and offer musical activities to their students and those who do not is greater than ever. The "non-singer" mentality persists in educational communities and is not being addressed in music education circles. Singing continues to be considered, by most educators, to be a complicated skill that must be learned and requires training in breathing, vocal technique, and diction, and a basic knowledge of note reading. Many have strong feelings about singing; it is not a neutral subject.

When the topic of singing is brought up, some involved in the conversation are likely to personalize it and be eager to share stories about their singing ability and to express their opinions about whether or not they qualify as a "singer." Sometimes the reactions can be extreme. Some people shy completely away from singing, to the point of running from the room at the mere suggestion that they might be asked to participate in singing in public. Others have an opposite reaction and experience singing as an enjoyable activity. These people know they can sing and are confident they are singers.

In my many years of experience working with classroom teachers, I have found a paradox: the self-declared "non-singers" singing despite the fact that they keep telling me they could not. Is this phenomenon of the non-singer in fact simply a myth?

And what prevents most classroom teachers from singing? I examined this "non-singer"  phenomenon primarily as a way to present a case and a viable process for changing the ways singing is perceived and implemented in classrooms across the United States. I focused on classroom teachers, music specialists and their relationship to each other and to singing in schools. My goal was to construct an argument for making significant pedagogical and philosophical shifts in the ways singing in schools is currently considered by educators and students.

Many articles in music education journals and introductory notes in music texts make a cursory attempt to address the issue of those who do not sing by making seemingly convincing statements about how everyone is a singer and everyone can sing. It is my experience that this method of attempting to convince classroom teachers that they are singers merely by telling them they can sing, is not successful.

 Most classroom teachers will respond by setting out to convince you that they cannot sing. After struggling with this dilemma, it became clear to me that I needed to understand the meaning of singing from the non-singer perspective in order to shift attitudes and perceptions about what it means to sing and what it means to be a singer.

What does the term "non-singer" mean? Where do beliefs about singing originate? What does a classroom teacher mean when she or he says, "Oh, sorry, I can't sing." I began my search to unearth the meaning of the non-singer by interviewing people who unequivocally believe they cannot sing. The underlying theme from every interview was a "knowing" or a "message" about what it meant to be a singer and thus about what skills or talents these non-singers lacked.

At first glance, I was puzzled by these messages. I could not understand where or how they received them. I assumed they had perhaps been dismissed from the chorus or told to mouth the words by some uncaring choral director. But, surprisingly, for most of interviewees, that was not the case. Although none were directly told they did not have a good voice or could not sing, they were thoroughly convinced they could not sing.

They listed a variety of reasons for their conviction: they never were selected to sing a solo; they could not lead songs; they could not read music; they sang out of tune. Any or all of these meant to them that they were "not good," "really couldn't sing," and thus were a "non-singer." I remained perplexed about the subtle messages they listed. It was still not clear to me where these messages came from until I interviewed a young woman named Onika, who was quite certain she could not sing.

Onika was born in Barbados and moved to the United States when she was four years old. She told me she loves Calypso and Solka music (music from Barbados) and she considers that to be "her" music. She sings along to all kinds of Caribbean music when she cleans her house. It is the music that makes her feel happy. When I asked why she knew she could not sing, she did not know how to respond to my question. Although completely convinced she could not sing, she did not know exactly how and why she came to that conclusion. At first, unable, to name the reason, she suddenly paused, looked me straight in the eye and announced, "Well, now that I think about it, it depends on where I am. When I'm here in the United States, I'm not a singer. When I'm singing my music in Barbados, I am a singer."

When Onika made this cultural connection, I realized it was the essential piece of information I was searching for. She provided me with a perspective I had not considered and gave me a much deeper understanding into the phenomenon of the "non-singer." SINGING: A CULTURAL AND SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION From the interviews I conducted, the consistent messages about singing, based on a white, Western cultural context included three elements: * someone who sings solos * someone who leads songs, and * someone who can sing in time. Onika considers herself to be a "non-singer" in the United States because, from her perspective, in American culture a singer is able to lead songs, perform, and has a big voice and she insists she has none of these qualities.

She formulated her beliefs about singing from her experience of singing in school and attending the Baptist Church services whose members were primarily African American. However, in Barbados she experiences singing differently. She says that the songs she grew up with in the Solka tradition are fast and "it doesn't matter what you sound like." She is comfortable singing them and they are fun to sing, so she sings a lot in Barbados and there she is a "singer."

Hearing Onika speak about her singing experiences led me to recall a personal eye-opening experience that also links cultural messages to a knowing about singing and music-making. The experience that brought this cultural connection home for me occurred when I enrolled my Western-classically-trained-self in an African dance and drumming course at the University of Ghana in Accra.

I approached it full of confidence and an eagerness to learn. My life has been filled with musical experiences and I believed I was equipped to learn this new musical style. I majored in music in college and have spent many years participating in various folk dance groups. Although I had never specifically taken drumming lessons, I was sure that my many years of music study would carry me through.

My Western roots and the effects of my culture on my musical knowing emerged within minutes of the first drumming lesson. During the first few daily lessons, I eagerly sat with my jembe (a medium-sized African drum) tightly held between my knees, listening intently to every drum pattern presented by the instructor and trying to make sense of the rhythmic patterns. As each pattern was played I would stop and request the instructor to clarify precisely which meter the pattern fell under. "Is it in ¾?" I asked "Or perhaps 4/4? Or maybe 5/4?" He listened intently to me as I struggled to fit his complicated rhythms into a framework that made sense to me. He was very accommodating and generously agreed wholeheartedly with whatever meter I suggested, doing so by simply adjusting his rhythmic beat (slowing down or speeding up) in accordance to my rhythm. After several futile attempts at this logical and scientific method of making rhythmic sense out of these drum patterns, I experienced an epiphany. I realized that asking questions out of my Western experience was not working. I was desperately trying to make Ghanaian polyrhythmic drum beats fit into my Western mechanized, straight-metered framework.

I later came upon Christopher Small's Music, Society, and Education which seemed to validate my experience. He confirms the strong sense of knowing and the importance Westerners hold about timing and rhythm and connects this knowing to a major philosophical shift that had occurred by the post-Renaissance which moved to an emphasis on a more logical relationship between pitch and harmony.10 The moment of truth was memorable. Realizing how hard I was working at trying to understand African music through a Western cultural lens, I discovered I had created an impossible task for myself. After that, each day during my drumming lesson, I tried to let go of my Western musical assumptions and beliefs as well as my musical experiences and societal values. Only then was I able to begin to open myself to understanding African rhythms.

This alternative approach did help my learning process although I continually struggled with the temptation to fall back into my old, comfortable cultural patterns of knowing. I went to Ghana with the primary purpose of learning African music and dance. I returned from Ghana with a profound appreciation for the ways in which culture and society affect our musical belief system. The experience enhanced my own curiosity about Western musical traditions and how they grow out of particular Western cultural and societal beliefs. I saw that Western musical traditions had framed my musical belief system and wondered how they also frame the philosophy and pedagogy of music education and particularly our understanding about singing in the United States.

I relate my Ghanaian experience and Onika's story as examples of the powerful roles culture and society play in constructing belief systems. The meaning of "singing" relates directly to this phenomenon. Small reminds us of this in the first sentence of Music, Society, Education when he states, "It is often said, but cannot be too often reiterated, that every human being is conditioned, to a degree impossible to fathom, by the assumptions of the culture in which he lives."


Is it possible to shift the established paradigm and construct a meaning for singing which embraces and values more than one aesthetic? I suggest that singing, as it applies to education, must be conceived in broader terms, viewed through multiple perspectives, and valued in aesthetic terms that go beyond the conventional framework.

Music education has defined singing through the perspective of Western classical music that primarily values performance, perfection, and virtuosity. This view of singing is valuable and worthy of perpetuating but, I believe, has had the effect of excluding many from experiencing singing or, at the most basic level, believing they can sing. I suggest embracing a second aesthetic for singing in music education. The first is the standard or "taproot" aesthetic that has been recognized in music education since its inception in the mid 1800s. The second aesthetic is an aesthetic for singing which stresses community building, diversity, group collaboration, and relationships.


For purposes of clarification, I will refer to the typical standard structural components of the aesthetic for singing found in music education as Aesthetic A. Aesthetic A typically values product and performance, stresses skill building, and often involves acquiring technical musical skills. Musical ability is emphasized. The categories "singer" and "non-singer" are inherent in Aesthetic A and tend to create an exclusive environment. These components are an essential part of teaching music to children and must be included in a school's music education program.

In creating a school where everyone sings, the music curriculum, based primarily on the standard music education aesthetic of singing, Aesthetic A, does not need altering. The point is not to change the components listed in Aesthetic A but simultaneously to embrace the components I will now refer to as Aesthetic B. Singing must become multidimensional so that it contributes to every part of the educational community and every person in the educational community contributes to it.

Aesthetic B emphasizes process and participation, and stresses social values and spontaneous singing. The primary purpose is enjoyment; singing for fun and recreation. Musical ability is, in fact, de-emphasized and there are no restrictions about who sings or who is a singer. There are no categories for "singer." In referring to Aesthetics A and B, notice the ways in which the components of each contrast with one another. Some key aspects are worth noting.

Process is emphasized in Aesthetic B (based primarily in a community singing model)13 and product is emphasized in Aesthetic A (based in the standard music education aesthetic.) Musical ability is not emphasized in Aesthetic B as opposed to Aesthetic A where it is much more emphasized. In Aesthetic B, there are no singer/non-singer categories as opposed to Aesthetic A where both categories exist. Aesthetic B emphasizes participation, fun, and recreation while Aesthetic A stresses performance, skill building, and educational value. Shifting the ways singing is perceived and implemented in a broader framework is subtle but transformational, particularly for those who believe they cannot or simply will not sing.

One place to begin this shift is during all-school sings. For example, the leadership can be shared. Classroom teachers, students, and administrators as well as the music specialist can lead songs. It is important to establish that the purpose of the gathering, as noted in Aesthetic B, is not to reinforce musical skills but to build community and simply experience the joy of singing together. Participation, among all else, is valued. The attainment of skills and musical ability are secondary in this setting. The repertoire, as suggested in Aesthetic B, is based in vernacular song, with easy to learn verses and choruses.

Creating a safe atmosphere by setting up the room with a circle of chairs, so each member of the community is equally seen and heard, fosters a feeling of inclusiveness and fellowship. When singing is reconsidered in broader terms that equally value aesthetics, the entire school community benefits and the music program is enhanced.

Singing from not one but two aesthetics effectively supports the most basic music learning standards, that is, singing with others and learning varied repertoire.14 In addition, it is my experience that students are even more engaged in singing when they observe that their teachers and administrators are singing too. Recognizing and valuing two aesthetics for singing provides the opportunity for all educators to experience singing in new ways.

Over the past twenty-five years of teaching classroom teachers who initially consider themselves "nonsingers" and do not sing with their students, I have consistently witnessed that these "non-singers" change their attitude about singing once it is redefined in broader and more inclusionary terms.

Moreover, I have noticed a remarkable change in music specialists who in the past have approached singing primarily from one perspective. When they expand their approach and recognize the value of approaching singing through a wider lens, they too witness the transformation of the non-singing classroom teachers, something they hitherto dismissed as impossible or unimportant.

More importantly, they quickly notice the benefit of supporting these former "non-singers." The transformation occurs without having to add anything to an already full music curriculum. This is simply about shifting perceptions and philosophy about what it means to sing. The result of this shift is opening the possibility of creating a school community where everyone sings and everyone values singing, and thus music education is even more appreciated and valued by everyone.

Singing and other forms of music-making have intrinsic value in education with far-reaching benefits when an approach that includes more than one perspective is adopted. Shifting the paradigm allows every individual voice to be heard. Diverse cultures and ethnicities can be recognized, valued, and genuinely supported. This new model of embracing two aesthetics embraces a wider perspective, providing a venue for expression of the personal voice and the group voice, and recognizing that singing and music-making is rooted in the history, culture, and society of all people.


Singing together in school allows for every voice to be heard both literally and metaphorically. Singing together requires listening to one another. Singing literally creates harmony and, metaphorically, builds a harmonious environment wherein the school community tends to be more cooperative, understanding, tolerant, and appreciative. Cooperation and teamwork are enhanced when singing voices are blended together. A middle school teacher witnessed important benefits when she implemented singing: I noticed that creating the proper environment for singing makes a big difference. Every voice is accepted. Singing guarantees success. Singing helps to fulfill the important goal of education that is to create a community of learners where everyone contributes something.

Singing in the classroom, in the music room, and in all-school gatherings enhances the learning environment and strengthens the school community. Group dynamics are affected as well when people sing together and there is a positive change in the way the group as a whole works together. The spirit of the group is lifted. This more positive environment results in enhanced cooperation and teamwork, a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself and one's immediate family.

A first grade classroom teacher realized that singing transformed her teaching: I now realize that singing is an essential creative avenue for students. As I develop my lessons I integrate music into all subject areas. I continue an ongoing dialogue with the music specialist to ensure musical integrity and inspire further incorporation of music into my classroom.

As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, so do our schools. Many classrooms today are composed of students from "a mosaic of cultures." Singing is an important way to begin the work of honoring and including the richness of this diversity in our teaching and learning. Songs emphasize individual cultures and positively value them. Fortunately, in today's global society there is a rich source of world music available in local music stores. And, of course, the students themselves are a source of culturally diverse music from which the music specialist can draw.


At its most basic level, my examination of the meaning of "singing" shows that everyone, in fact, is a singer. "Singing" must be broadened to include those who sing for recreational purposes and community enjoyment as well as those who sing for performance and to entertain audiences.

I support creating schools where everyone sings, where it is possible to build more humanistic educational communities that encourage finding, recognizing, listening to, and celebrating every voice. In conclusion, singing, when embraced through the wider lens of two aesthetics, dispels the myth of the non-singer and creates the possibility of creating strong, vibrant musical school communities.

Singing, as it currently exists in music education, is rooted in a traditional belief system and its meaning is taken for granted, rarely questioned, named, or subjected to examination. Again, Greene reminds us that it is not in the "main text" but the "margins" of the main text, where imagination flourishes, where questioning, wonderment, and communication across boundaries can occur.

In order to open doors in the domain of singing and transform the places where singing occurs and with whom and for whom it is created and experienced, we must move away from the conventional "text" and into the "margins."

Singing in education is a construct growing out of our particular society and history but we can view it through a wider, more critical lens. We are headed in the direction of isolation when singing is separated and relegated only to the music room. John Dewey warned educators about creating an educational system that isolated subject matter from life experience, ignoring the human aspects of learning, the social aspects, particularly in the arts.

When everyone shares in learning a song and singing together there is a "participant kind of knowing" with music itself. This leads to an experience that can become more reflective and critical for everyone involved. There is much to gain for everyone in the school community when cultural and societal boundaries are broken down, our minds are released and our creativity enlisted. For more inclusive education, we must go beyond those boundaries and embrace the multiple voices and multiple realities that our educational communities comprise. When that occurs, transformation is possible and teaching and learning will be shaped and driven by imagination, inclusiveness, and passion.



NOTES 1 K. Gillette, fifth grade teacher, final paper, March 25, 2001, Boise, ID. 2 Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts and Social Change San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1995), 138. 3 Edward B. Birge, History of Public School Music in the United States (Reston, VA: MENC, 1937); Michael L. Mark and Charles L. Gary, A History of American Music Education (New York: Schirmer Books, 1992). 4 I use the metaphor of a taproot to represent the historical development of music education and philosophical beliefs about singing. A taproot grows initially as a typical root and, like any root, brings stability and nourishment to a plant. It is small at first but continues to grow deeper and deeper into the soil. Taproots, unlike other roots, rarely encourage secondary root systems but rather gather their strength by growing vertically into the depths of the earth. The taproot of American music education is deep-seated and sufficiently anchored into the foundations of American public school education. 5 John Blacking, How Musical is Man? (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1973) John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility, Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1979). 6 See also, Get America Singing. . . Again! (Milwaukee: MENC, Hal Leonard Corporation, 1996) and Moon Joyce, Bodies that Sing: The Formation of Singing Subjects, paper presented at The Phenomenon of Singing Symposium, St. John's, Newfoundland 1999, for other references to the term "non-singer." 7 Louise M. Pascale, "Dispelling the Myth of the Non-Singer: Changing the Ways Singing is Perceived, Implemented and Nurtured in the Classroom," Doctoral Dissertation, Lesley University, Cambridge, MA, 2002. 8 Nick Page, Music as a Way of Knowing (York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 1995); Robert Winslow, Leon Dallin, and Shelly Wiest, Music Skills for Classroom Teachers (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001). 9 Excerpt from an interview with Onika, by author, 11/15/99. 10 Christopher Small, Music, Society and Education (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1980) reminds readers that by the post-Renaissance period the major philosophical shift that occurred was the creation of a logical perspective of man's relationship to the universe. This manifested itself musically through logical metric rhythms and tonal harmony. Small further suggests that the idea of music as the conscious articulation of time is an assumption that should be rejected in order to understand African music on its own terms (20-21). 11 Ibid. Small presents an example of a Western musical approach: "In a traditional western classical approach, the listener, audience and the performers receive a product and have no involvement with the creative process. The performers must be content with recounting the composition rather than directly experiencing in the creation of it. The audience passively receives it (30). This example provides important insights into the framework of music education. 12 Ibid. 7. 13 The "Community Singing Movement," as referred to by music educators, occurred over an approximately thirty-year period, beginning right before World War 1 and continuing through World War II. Singing in this movement was done simply for enjoyment and for bringing people together. There was great support for this particular type of group singing from leaders in music education who recognized the value of introducing this type of singing each in public schools and highly encouraged music teachers to support the concept of community "sings" in schools, e.g., Peter W. Dykema, I Hear America Singing! 55 Community Songs (C.C. Birchard & Company, Boston, 1917); Augustus Zanzig, Community and Assembly Singing (M. Witmark & Sons, New York, 1933); Harry Wilson, Lead a Song! (Chicago: Hall and McCreary Company, 1942). By the micl1900's, the leaders of music education officially recognized the value of community singing by creating by singing by creating a pedagogical framework that blended community singing and the traditionally-established approach to singing. The new combined philosophy focused on showing that children could learn to read music without destroying a love for singing. Unfortunately, through this blending process much of true philosophy of community singing was lost. 14 Content Standard #1, National Standard for Arts Education: Students will sing, alone and with others, and learn varied repertoire. 15 Middle school social studies/English teacher, North Attleboro, MA, March 1999. 16 First grade classroom teacher, North Attleboro, MA, March, 1999. 17 Victor Cockburn, "The Uses of Folk Music and Songwriting in the Classroom," Harvard Educational Review, 61 no. 1 (1991): 64. 18 Greene, Releasing the Imagination, 135. 19 John Dewey, Art as Experience, (New York: G. P. Putnam's Songs, 1934), 9-10. 20 Greene, Releasing the Imagination, 137. 21 Ibid. 185.

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