Why “Do” Philosophy? Some Reasons and Resources for Music Educators

PlatoIn this post, I give some reasons  for the potential importance of philosophy in the field of Music Ed, and link to some helpful resources for those interested.

[This post was edited for brevity on 8/22/13 -SH]

You shouldn’t feel that you need a lot of specific, formal training in philosophy before getting involved as a music educator. It’s my belief that many in the profession could stand to benefit personally and professionally from increased exposure to the subject.

Here are some recent thoughts I’d like to share about why I think the practice of philosophy can be both useful and important to current and future students and practitioners in the field of music education.


Five reasons music educators may want to practice philosophy:

1. Developing and improving critical thinking skills – Constructing rational arguments, analyzing and critiquing the arguments of others, and responding to critique of your own arguments may be the single most effective way to improve one’s ability to think critically and rationally.
2. Exercising writing abilities – As distinct from other types of writing assignments and exercises, philosophy papers require logical arguments and clearly stated positions. This can encourage more thoughtful (and perhaps more creative and persuasive) writing.
3. Additional avenues for publication and scholarly discourse – Most scholarly writing and presentations are rightly focused on the presentation of empirical evidence. While this is obviously important, it does not always allow for the exploration of all possible interpretations of the evidence, nor does it always allow for alternate and possibly productive ways of forming questions or looking at questions already asked. As an added bonus, professional opportunities exist for scholarly publication of philosophically motivated work.
4. The development of a relevant voice in the profession – Throughout its history, our field has drawn its leadership at least in part from scholars who practice philosophy. Specific and obvious examples include James Mursell, Bennett Reimer, Estelle Jorgensen, and David Elliott, but that is obviously not the end of the list. Additionally, academics who engage primarily in research activities of an empirical nature may find themselves better able to defend or advance their own thinking through philosophical discourse.
5. The potential to develop more nuanced positions – Rather than valuing a simplified and mechanistic “right/wrong” way of viewing all questions, philosophy seems to be a particularly robust to the accommodation of multiple viewpoints and multiple ways of looking at the world. While intense disagreements can and do often occur, the discourse is typically more conducive to open-ended discussions.

This list comprises only a partial look at why students and practitioners both may want to dive in to the world of philosophical discourse, even without previous training –  you have to start somewhere, right?

Here are a few resources to help you get started:

The book “Doing Philosophy”, by Joel Feinberg, is written for the undergraduate-level student attempting her first philosophy paper. It is a very clearly written and useful text.

Here’s a pdf of some slides I compiled as a brief a summary of the above-mentioned book “Doing Philosophy”. It is very brief, as it was prepared for a 10-minute in-class presentation for non-philosophers.

Some important texts in the field of music education:
Democracy and Music Education: Liberalism, Ethics, and the Politics of Practice (Counterpoints: Music and Education) by Paul Woodford

A Philosophy of Music Education: Advancing the Vision (3rd Edition) by Bennett Reimer

Pictures of Music Education (Counterpoints: Music and Education) by Estelle Jorgensen

Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education by David Elliott

The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy in Music Education (Oxford Handbooks)

Here are a few major journals publishing work pertinent to the philosophy of music education:

The Philosophy of Music Education Review (PMER)
The Journal of Aesthetic Education (JAE)
Action, Criticism, and Theory (ACT)

In the philosophy of education, the work of John Dewey remains very central, especially in North America. Here are two very good entry point into his thought:
Democracy And Education

Experience And Education

If you are interested in some introductions to the larger world of philosophy, here are some good places to start:

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers, by Will Durant

The Partially Examined Life is a very entertaining and engaging podcast dealing with seminal texts by a wide range of philosophers throughout history. Be mindful: it is intended for adults, so the language is often not appropriate for a classroom context or for children.

Here’s an interesting book for children:
Philosophy for Kids : 40 Fun Questions That Help You Wonder About Everything!, by David White

Have Your Say in the Development of the National Core Arts Standards

There is one week left to contribute to the National Core Arts Standards document.

We all have the opportunity to chime in before July 15th, and everyone involved in the music education endeavor (especially in-service teachers) ought to take this opportunity.

The standards are currently being drafted for grades PreK-8, and are organized under the headings “creating”, “performing”, and “responding”. There are instructional videos and background documents on the website.

Follow the link to contribute.


The Politics of Practice: a Response to Mark O’Connor’s Recent Articles Regarding the Suzuki Method

Mark O’Connor has recently written a series of articles in an apparent attempt to discredit the Suzuki Method of violin instruction. From what I’ve seen thus far, it seems we can summarize O’Connor’s arguments against the Suzuki method as being comprised of the following five points:

I would like to preface any further discussion with a few words about myself, and why this topic is of interest to me. I’m a music teacher who specializes in string teaching, and am currently working towards being a teacher educator and researcher, hoping to establish and maintain some kind of harmony between these endeavors and the other facets of my professional career. I have no formal affiliation with either the Suzuki program or the O’Connor method, though I have attended a number of Suzuki institutes both for teacher training and as a parent – in fact, my own daughters have all been involved in Suzuki playing as either violinists or pianists since their preschool years. Personally, however, I see the Suzuki “method” as just a part of my children’s overall music education; it is not, by any means, “the whole story”. In other words, I don’t believe anyone can conceivably accuse me of being a member of a “cult”.

In short, I don’t identify myself as a “Suzuki Teacher”, “Suzuki Parent”, or “Suzuki Practitioner”. I do, however, have a great admiration for many Suzuki practitioners and the methods they use. I’ve often found myself defending “Suzuki methodology” to others in the world of music education, as I’ve had some very good experiences with the program and have tried to incorporate some aspects of it into my own teaching. Also, as mentioned earlier, I’ve made a conscious choice to involve my own children in Suzuki instruction with private teachers and at institutes since they were very young, and my wife and I are generally happy with what they’ve gotten out of this involvement.

Rather than responding directly to any of Mr. O’Connor’s specific attacks on the Suzuki method as summarized above, I’d like to mention some of the salient features of the Suzuki program that I believe are positive and unique contributions to the field of instrumental music education:

  • The intentional creation of a peer-driven social context for learning an instrument. Through the practice of learning a common repertoire and participating in group lessons, the students become socially invested in learning to play and improving on what they’ve already learned. They don’t learn a solo merely for the purposes of one performance or evaluation, only to put it away forever (a problem I believe we’ve all observed with traditionally trained school musicians of varying levels).
  • The intentional involvement of the student’s family in instruction and practice The concept of the “triangle” between student, parent, and teacher is, to my mind, a very useful model for encouraging successful home practice. We’ve all experienced the difficulties inherent in teaching students with inadequate parental involvement, and I believe that the concept of teaching the parent to be the student’s “home teacher” can be a productive approach in many circumstances. At the very least, it’s generally a good idea to involve parents in being accountable for the amount and quality of practice.
  • Game-like, child-friendly approaches to teaching musical and instrumental skills Suzuki teachers I’ve observed (and I have observed hundreds of hours of Suzuki instruction) usually have a wealth of clever and stimulating games and activities to encourage good habits of posture, tone production, motor skills, and musical content.
  • The idea of a sequential solo repertoire, independent of technical exercises, where each new, embedded skill builds on the ones previously learned
    While I’m not convinced that the Suzuki sequence is perfectly structured, the idea of progressing from one piece to the next, with each piece having embedded, skill-based teaching points, is a good one. I think the idea of using actual concert repertoire in this manner was a unique contribution of the Suzuki approach.
  • The fundamental concept that “every child can” Until the Suzuki method popularized this idea, performing classical music was considered to be an exclusive activity reserved only for the best performers with the highest level of skill and training. I have to agree with the egalitarian principle that, given support, materials, and instruction, all children can benefit from playing, and can progress musically.

I maintain that all of the above principles can (and maybe should) be adopted in some measure by other instrumental programs and teachers – they can’t be copyrighted and thus aren’t “owned” by any of the Suzuki associations or Suzuki practitioners. However, I also believe that these principles were pioneered, or at least brought to the general attention of practicing string teachers, by the Suzuki program. Those involved with the past and current development of the program deserve their due, and it’s unjust to characterize them as “cultists” or to label their method as “faulty” or “dying”.

Mr. O’Connor is right to claim the strengths of his own method – his materials, camps, and teacher training sessions are clearly producing some very good results that are worth getting excited about, and there’s no doubt that he’s an excellent player with a unique concept. However, I’m not convinced that this recent series of ad hominem attacks against Shinichi Suzuki, the Suzuki program, or Suzuki practitioners is productive or necessary. It’s not evident to me that the success of one program relies on any demonstration of the failures of the other.

In conclusion, I’d like to articulate my own position regarding any commercially produced music “program”, be it Suzuki, O’Connor, Kodaly, or any other. We need to be careful to note that the acts of teaching and making music are both more important than are formalized teaching methods or programs. Involving students with music, as opposed to aggrandizing a program or its founder, should be the primary goal of any good “method” of music teaching.

Good teaching is good teaching, regardless of methodological or ideological affiliation.

Publications, Presentations, and Works in Progress



  • “Gradually adaptive frameworks: Reasonable disagreement and the evolution of evaluative systems in music education.” Philosophy of Music Education Review (in press, 2013).
  • “Making the grade: Using rubrics as an assessment tool in the music class.” Florida Music Director, 65(8), 10-12, (2012).


  • Everyone Can Improvise! Strategies for Incorporating Improvisation in the Traditional String Ensemble. Presentation to the American String Teachers Association National Conference. Louisville, KY. (forthcoming, March 2014).
  • Do They Know What They Look Like? Research-Based Conceptualizations of Teaching Styles and Teaching Behaviors. Research and Best Practices Poster Session for the Society for Music Teacher Education. Greensboro, NC. (forthcoming, September, 2013).
  • Teaching Improvisation in the School Ensemble or Instrumental Studio. Presentation for the Florida Music Educators Conference. Tampa, FL. (11 January 2013).
  • Strategies for teaching improvisation for teachers of traditional ensembles and instrumental studios. Workshop presented to the University of Miami Undergraduate Forum. Coral Gables, FL. (8 February 2013).

Works in Progress

  • “Affluence of spirit” revisited: The continuing musical lives of past participants of the El Sistema music program in Venezuela. Research project in progress.
  • Developing student musicianship through improvisation in the instrumental ensemble. Research-based practitioner paper in progress.
  • Toward a critical discourse in the curriculum of collegiate schools of music. Philosophy paper in progress.
  • The metaphysics of Henri Bergson and connections to the developing aesthetic of Impressionism in turn of the century Paris. Philosophy paper in progress.