An Interview with Wilfried Aigner

Wilfried Aigner, a senior scientist at the Department of Music Education Research, Music Didactics and Elementary Music Education, talks about music education’s status, lobbying work for the arts, and music teaching in times of crisis and beyond.
Wilfried Aigner © privat

What was your initial reaction when Education Minister Heinz Faßmann announced the cancellation of music teaching at Austrian schools for the remainder of the current school year?

Wilfried Aigner (WA): It wasn’t yet clear right then, since it was only physical education that got mentioned in the press conference; the first explicit mentions of music teaching’s cancellation came in the Ministry’s written declaration and phase-in plan. The fact that this announcement was made more or less in passing is a statement in and of itself … so the first thing that really hit me was the painful feeling that music education isn’t valued highly enough. It didn’t take long, then, to hear lots of reactions ranging from disbelief to outrage—from colleagues and mentors working in schools as well as from university students. The apparent underlying intention, here, that of “freeing up” time, personnel, and space by eliminating music and physical education, revealed how the decision-makers are oriented towards a purely cognitive understanding of learning and learning processes—one that’s contradicted by all available evidence from the educational sciences and seems to fall short of a holistic view that extends beyond report cards and completed years of schooling. Even if it’s precisely such a view that we need in light of this unprecedented crisis!

So this decision wasn’t really in response to any actual danger?

WA: Our sober realisation is that political decisions like this one—which, when you consider the complexity of all that’s at issue, here, must be extremely hard to make—have very little to do with thorough, objective considerations and relevant expertise and a lot more to do with messaging that’s easy to get across to the public. One segment of the populace is demanding that schools reopen, while another is against it because they fear the risk of infection—so they go and reopen the schools but disallow things that fit popular stereotypes of what’s an infection risk, like “sweaty kids wrestling for a ball” and “kids singing at the top of their lungs”. In truth, stereotypes like that represent gross oversimplifications of what’s actually the case: nobody will dispute that singing in and of itself presents a certain virological risk in the current situation, especially if it takes place under suboptimal conditions like insufficient distance between people or in enclosed spaces. But it’s absolutely grotesque to conclude that all musical activities need to cease.

What’s the significance of music instruction—in particular during a crisis?

WA: The fundamental value of being trained in music and its aesthetics along with music’s overall social and economic significance in our oft-lauded “cultural nation” of Austria with its equally oft-lauded “capital city of music”, Vienna, all goes without saying, as does the power of music as a timeless elixir of life—especially for children and adolescents, and particularly when things get tough. You can argue this philosophically or on the empirical basis of all the youth culture studies from the past two decades that document music’s importance in young people’s realms of experience.

What does this mean for teaching?

WA: Since the mid-March school closures, thousands of music teachers all over Austria have proven how they’re capable of bringing creativity, expertise, and innovative daring to bear in ensuring their students’ basic provision with music—as a “significant dimension of the human experience”, as our colleague Johannes Hiemetsberger puts it—even at a distance, thus affording them an at least partial “feeling of boundarylessness and togetherness” of the kind that music conveys in such an incomparable way. It’s especially opportunities to learn emotionally, to learn with one’s heart, brain, and hands, that are rare in home-schooling—and in this context, processes of aesthetic training can be especially valuable thanks to the ways in which they link cognition and emotion.

How can we learn from the present situation? And what measures need to be taken now in order to continue teaching music at all types of schools subject to yet-uncertain learning conditions this autumn?

WA: Even if singing, which has now been singled out as a potential coronavirus spreader, doubtless represents an unbelievably important aspect of school music instruction under normal circumstances, our basic notion of modern music education actually goes far beyond that. And what we’re learning right now is how important to us live music-making, singing together, and immediate doing as a collective are, and how painfully we can end up missing these things. It’s perhaps even more painful than it occasionally was before in view of the tough everyday lives of school music teachers, where it wasn’t unheard-of for a teacher to forgo the effort of jockeying with a vocally powerful herd of would-be choral singers in favour of the far less taxing option of simply handing out of a worksheet. So we’d do well to keep this realisation in mind and draw strength from it in the “post-corona era”. On the other hand, we now see more clearly than ever just what all is possible in music teaching—like the potential offered by media- and technology-supported modes of work, even if music education hadn’t exactly been among the pioneering school subjects in this regard (which is something that, as an expert in this field, I can tell you straight out!). So it’s all the more surprising and pleasing to see just how quickly and in how many ways the music education community—and I mean schools as well as music schools and universities of music, here—has used lemons to make untold amounts of the finest lemonade: we’re seeing practical music tutorial videos being produced in something like in a “flipped classroom” approach, people are giving online lessons, and they’re also working with music apps as well as initiating collective songwriting projects and trying out new methods of feedback and communication in creative working processes. It’s really pretty unbelievable just how much innovative and creative stuff is going on here despite how everyone is dealing with a high level of pressure, a burdensome overall situation, and exclusively digital options. If just a little bit of this can outlive the current crisis, we’ll be all the stronger coming out of it. As for this autumn: we’ll be able to continue building upon the digital experience we’re gathering now as well as continue using the diverse range of possible working methods that we’ve become newly aware of. Exploring different kinds of sound using everyday objects and creating graphic scores are two absolutely up-to-date and curriculum-compatible types of teaching content that adhere just as well to the necessary hygiene and distance-related measures as do things like body percussion and square dancing without physical contact in sufficiently large spaces or outdoors.

What are your impressions following the first few weeks of the Covid-19 crisis? And what’s the status of the arts and culture in this situation?

WA: I’m disappointed to say that its status in the public and media discussion unfortunately seems to be a very low one. It’s understandable that the first issue that got dealt with was ensuring people’s basic existences (and here, it’s interesting how terms like “propping up the system”—which had been negatively connoted up to then—were reborn as new key concepts), and the focus then turned pretty quickly to the economy; only much later on did they start talking about education, and it was long thereafter that the arts and culture finally came up. This stands in stark contrast to a creative explosion of new ideas and initiatives via which arts and cultural professionals have been striving to remain present and to share and keep providing the “basic staple” of the arts and especially music—with things ranging from balcony concerts to collective videos and on to living room sessions. It’s unbelievable to see just what all is possible and just how creative the current frenzy of activity is, here—even if one would be remiss not to note how, in some respects, it’s quite an existentially despairing frenzy. So at this point, our society and policymakers need to take a stand, which needs to include relentless lobbying for the arts and aspects thereof in education, just like we’ve also seen lobbying being done on behalf of sectors such as sport, the food service industry, and tourism.

What societal relevance—and what opportunities—do you attribute to music education as a part of general education?

WA: The essence of music as an art form and of music-making in groups consists in exactly what our society most urgently needs at the moment: perceiving others in a collective; listening and reacting to one another; giving others the space they need; being alert and improvising when necessary; and learning to combine the highest degree of concentration and (rehearsal) discipline with instant situative reactions and being in flow. Music requires all this. We musicians are capable of all this. And music teachers can teach all this to their students. Which is why we’ve got to have music instruction in our schools—now more than ever, and in the future.

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