Composing Democracy: Collective Identity Formation in Small Group Composition
Swanson, Matthew Stephen
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The teaching and learning of music, and its relationship with the practice of schooling, has been variously defined through the centuries. While a long view of history reveals common aims between music and general education such as morality, citizenship, and social harmony, over the last half century the fixation on discrete skills and measureable outcomes in math, science, and reading has created a considerable wedge between music programs and the educational system they occupy. As educational policy matures into the twenty-first century, there are opportunities for rekindling a sense of common purpose based on broad democratic, societal principles. This study is based on the hypothesis that music education, particularly the practice of small group composition, possesses unique capacities to cultivate collaborative skills that are essential to the functioning of a democracy. Exploring these capacities holds the potential to build an important bridge to the broader sphere of educational practice in the transformations ahead. Toward this end, this study investigated a composition project with 52 fourth and fifth grade children at one school in the Pacific Northwest. Children formed 14 small groups and met for an hour weekly over the course of four months, endeavoring to compose and perform an original piece of music. Ethnographic techniques were employed, and data collection was built upon a combination of observations, audio recordings, interviews, written surveys, and material culture. From the data, the process of forming collective identity, or a shared definition, emerged as integral to the children’s musical and collaborative success. Forming such an identity, which took on average nine weeks to accomplish, encompassed a multitude of dynamics, including the establishment of roles, the navigation of discrepancies in musical ability, and the interface of gender and musical decision-making. The interplay between these dynamics shaped the trajectory for each group, defining their collective sound and in some cases driving their decision to “start over” or even “break up.” Many aspects of this process were seen to be quite novel for the children compared to their prior experiences of collaboration in school: The degree of freedom, the scope of time, the necessity for mutual participation, the emphasis on musical rather than verbal forms of communication and leadership, and the democratic nature of performance. The unprecedented and profound ways in which many of the children engaged with these factors suggest that small group composition may indeed be a rich and unique platform for cultivating collaborative and democratic dispositions.
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