Aesthetic Perspectives from a Musical Viewpoint

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Aesthetic Perspectives from a Musical Viewpoint

Chloë Kline, Community MusicWorks; Education Director and Resident Musician


The concept of art as an act of revolution – as a means to foment change, spur consciousness, and imagine new realities – is as old as art itself. For example, drums would sound to unseen others, and cave images explored individuals’ relationships to known and unknown animal species. Even so, it can be challenging to see how classical music, with its deeply established norms and traditions, may help us articulate a new vision for the world. Does a performance of a beloved, popular classical masterpiece performed by black and brown students from an under-resourced area, constitute imagining a new reality? Or does this perpetuate the troubling assumption of classical music as a vehicle for some kind of cultural ascension?

Perhaps it begins with viewing music as an action. Christopher Small describes a musical performance as “…an activity in which two or more people engage together… all those present, both performers and listeners, are engaging in the encounter, and all are contributing to its nature through the relationships they establish with one another during the performance.” In other words, if the act of playing music together allows the music makers and the audience to create an expanded vision of the world, perhaps this performance is an act of revolution. Maybe the question is, “How do we get the norms and traditions of classical music out of the way, in order to allow for this expansion?”

A new publication from Americans for the Arts, titled The Teaching Artist Companion to Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change, describes 11 strategies for successful arts for change approaches. Authors Dennie Palmer Wolf and Jeannette Rodríguez Píneda explore what happens when teaching artists bring commitment, communal meaning, disruption, cultural integrity, emotional experience, sensory experience, risk-taking, openness, resourcefulness, coherence, and stickiness into their work with young people. Though many of the examples come from visual arts, these attributes also apply to re-thinking music as a verb – an action bringing people together.

What would happen, for instance, if teaching artists focused on communal meaning, and exchanged the notion of implementing a conductor’s vision for the model of community players exploring shared meanings through music to deliver their message? What if students learned that a vital part of being a musician was the ability to hear multiple perspectives, try different possibilities, and build shared understandings?

At Community MusicWorks, students in our Daily Orchestra Program rehearse without a conductor. We teach and model music making as a collaborative, community-building exercise where all voices are important. Recently, when the group was writing lyrics for a performance, there was a near tie on which verse to use. “The other side got one more vote, so I guess we lose,” said one student disconsolately. Adrienne Taylor, CMW teacher, encouraged the students to think about other solutions. “It’s true that our democracy sometimes works that way,” she noted, “but there are other ways that democracy can work. In some parts of the world, if there is a split vote, the leading parties have to form a coalition, and both leaders or groups have to figure out how to work together.” This concept led to a conversation about other ways of reaching a decision, and after more discussion, the group wrote a new verse with elements of each previous verse. Rather than a “loss of valuable rehearsal time,” we saw this as a gain in shared musicianship.

Another strategy is disruption, or the use of art to make what has been hidden visible. This poses new ways of being, and models new forms of action. Who makes the ensemble’s meaningful choices? How can students and teachers invent new ways of practicing, rehearsing, listening, reflecting, and improving? Who are the voices missing from repertoire, and why? How can concerts be re-imagined to include student voices? How do we introduce students to performers like the PUBLIQuartet who build improvisation into their interpretations of works in the string quartet canon?

The 11 attributes are rooted in the practices of master teaching artists. They are strategies, not solutions. Their purpose is to invite teaching artists across disciplines to think about each and every detail of their practice as a possible lever for change.