In the state of Victoria in 2013, the Education and Training Committee of the Victorian Parliament conducted an “Inquiry into the Extent, Benefits and Potential of School Music” (Education and Training Committee of the Victorian Parliament, 2013) and noted the important contribution of music and the arts to student learning. The committee found that opportunities for all primary school children to access developmentally appropriate and sequential music learning vary significantly across the state, with rural and regional schools less likely to offer comprehensive music programs. The committee also noted that it was “hindered by the lack of data on primary school learning collected by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development” (Education and Training Committee of the Victorian Parliament, 2013, p. xvii). Little is known of schools’ repertoire choices, how schools and teachers interpret curriculum documents, and the nature of the music learning that occurs in primary schools.

In this paper, I will offer some insights into the current implementation of primary school music curriculum gleaned from my experience of participation as a music teacher/researcher with a Victorian school in The Regional Schools Music and Movement Festival.

Public Pedagogy

Children’s learning does not only occur within the context of the school. Theorists including Giroux (2004, 2010), Sandlin, Schultz and Burdick (2009) and Savage (2009) contend that schools may not be the most influential sites of teaching, learning and curricula. Cultural institutions and the broader social and cultural environment have a vital role to play (Hickey-Moody, 2015, 2016; Maudlin & Sandlin, 2015; Morrison, 2001; Sandlin et al., 2009). The writings of Giroux (Giroux, 2004, 2005; Giroux & Pollock, 1999) have been influential in theorising the intersection of cultural studies and education, which is described by the term ‘public pedagogy’. Giroux’s understanding of pedagogy goes beyond the social construction of knowledge, values and experiences. He contends that ‘it is also a performative practice embodied in the lived interactions among audiences, educators, texts and institutional formations’ (Giroux, 2004, p. 61). The distinctions between the worlds of children and adults are becoming increasingly blurred (Giroux, 2010; Kenway & Bullen, 2001; Regelski, 2012) as are the boundaries between education, entertainment and advertising (Woodford, 2014). Allsup describes the amalgam of culture and entertainment in contemporary western society and contends that it “appears to touch all branches of life, from the classroom and home to the presidency and the papacy” (Allsup, 2003, p. 9).

It is within this educational and cultural context that The Regional Schools Music and Movement Festival is conducted. The festival is an annual week-long event that aims to give children from Foundation to Year 12 in government and non-government schools throughout the region an opportunity to perform in a professional theatre in a non-competitive context. Schools may choose to perform any style of music and or movement. The festival has been running for over 60 years and is one of the oldest continuously running school music festivals in Australia.

The research study

The festival took place during the implementation of a music learning and teaching research study at King Street Primary School. The aim of the study was to explore the meaning of the development of teachers’ and children’s musical agency. King Street Primary School is in an established suburb of a regional centre in Victoria. It is home to the peoples of the Kulin Nations, who are recognised as the traditional custodians of the land. The school is below average in the index of community socio-educational advantage as measured by the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2014). All children at the school participated in the intervention music-learning program. However, only the Year 3/4 children were participants in the study. There were three generalist teacher participants—Kylie, Laura and Holly. Kylie is the school principal and the classroom teacher for the children in Foundation to Year 2. She is a competent musician, and takes responsibility for music and visual art in the school. Laura identified that she had not had “exposure” to music learning, and she was “not very musical”. Holly, the other generalist teacher had sung in choirs and played recorder. She was able to read music but needs to “hear it played by someone else before I can put that into practice”. Her musical background has not facilitated her ability to play by ear or relate the sound to the symbol.

The school music program

At the time of the research study, King Street Primary School was unable to offer a formal classroom music program. There was a non-auditioned voluntary choir, and approximately 12 children participated in a Salvation Army brass instrument learning program. Term 4 is devoted to the “Performing Arts” during which the school presents an annual concert. Repertoire consists mainly of popular songs learnt from YouTube. Upper primary students, assisted by teachers, select the repertoire for their year levels.


Action research methodology was the lens through which the implementation and development of music learning was explored. Action research involves the development of knowledge and understanding for change, and it integrates research and action, often in a series of flexible cycles. It encompasses an integration of theory, a high level of reflexivity, and situates the inquiry within larger historical, political and ideological contexts (Cain, 2008; Pine, 2009; Somekh, 2006). Inherent to action research should be a “questioning of the terms and conditions that shape practice”(Elliott, 2003).

Research design

The research study was conducted over two school terms—20 weeks. During that time, as the music teacher/researcher, I implemented and developed a music-learning program in collaboration with teachers. Data were derived from the teachers and children’s participation in three semi-structured individual interviews, teachers’ reflective journals and twice-weekly staff meetings. Children also expressed through painting, the meaning of their participation in music learning. My music teacher/researcher’s reflective data included journal and field notes. The coded data were organized into categories and from these, two broad themes emerged—personal and professional meaning. Analysis of the children’s data revealed that the children derived personal meaning from festival participation.

Theoretical framework

Critical pedagogy provides the theoretical framework through which the festival and King Street Primary School’s participation are explored. Critical pedagogy is regarded as a means of changing and shaping society and alleviating human suffering (Darder, 1991; Darder, Baltodano, & Torres, 2009; Freire, 1970; Giroux & Jandric, 2015; Greene, 2009). Inherent to it is moral and critical engagement with the essence of democracy, and awareness of the contexts in which politics, power and pedagogy intersect. My exploration of the festival will draw on Gramsci’s identification of cultural hegemony (Gramsci, 1971).

Cultural hegemony

There is no neat and succinct definition or theory of hegemony in the writings of Gramsci (1971). However, he sought to explain how physical force is less important as a means of social control than the ways in which institutions and those in positions of moral leadership (including teachers) attain dominance over others. Gramsci contended that attaining cultural dominance enables an entire society to be permeated by particular philosophies, values and tastes. Speech, language, rhetoric, cultural activities and organizations, religion, leisure, as well as educational institutions are all powerful mechanisms of the dominant class’s hegemonic control. Education is crucial for the maintenance of hegemony (Mayo, 2014) and educational relationships in the broadest sense are at the core of hegemony. Gramsci contended that mechanisms for social control are reinforced in ways that appear as “common sense”. Common sense is a term he uses to mean “the uncritical and largely unconscious way of perceiving the world” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 322). Unanalysed conformity and uncritical acceptance by educators of curricular practices is termed “pedagogical violation” by critical pedagogue, Shirley Steinberg (Steinberg, 2007, p. ix). She urges critical pedagogues to be constantly alert to the contexts in which politics, power and pedagogy intersect. Dialectical thinking is concerned with questioning and searching out the contradictions, and is inherent to critical pedagogy. Although education is a form of hegemony, it nevertheless offers potential for empowerment that was noted by Gramsci. He viewed domination as a “a complex combination of thought and practices in which also could be found the seeds of resistance” (Darder et al., 2009, p. 7).

Participation in the festival: Setting the scene

The following narrative from my music teacher/researcher’s journal offers insights into the educational context of music learning at King Street Primary School, and serves to illuminate some of the current issues in primary school music education in the state of Victoria, Australia.

It was the last Wednesday of term, and all the students and teachers at the school had squeezed into the Year 5/6 classroom to share the repertoire they had learned during the term. We finished the afternoon by singing Swing Low. The children sang with enthusiasm and were projecting their voices in a way that they would not have felt confident to do several weeks earlier. Kylie sat at the back of the classroom with Jordan on her lap. Jordan is a Year 1 student whose behaviour can often be quite challenging. Today, he looked completely engrossed.
Kylie too looked moved by the energy of the children and the depth of meaning of the song. The cultural tradition, the lyrics and the melody all combined to create a powerful song to which the children were responding. In the staff meeting afterwards, she commented: “Swing Low – that song does it for me every time. The children sounded beautiful. Can they sing at the Festival”? I understood Kylie’s enthusiasm for participating in the Festival. This was an opportunity for the children to develop musical skills and self-efficacy. It could be a particularly valuable experience for the children, who like many others in government primary schools have very limited opportunities for music learning.

However, at the same time, my heart sank. I knew that a performance in a professional theatre would determine the repertoire and the depth and breadth of music learning and teaching for the forthcoming term. This style of public performance also made it likely that a teacher-dominated learning process would prevail and that developing a shared vision for music learning in the school would become secondary to focusing on the quality of the musical outcome. It was likely that generalist teachers’ limited musical confidence and competence may deter them from initiating pedagogical and musical decisions. Nevertheless, despite my concerns, I believed that it could potentially be a positive experience for the children. I felt unable to say no to Kylie’s request.

A week later, I received the following email from Kylie, the principal. “Having a lovely time cleaning up my desk and tidying up a few things. Just wanted to share with you something that happened yesterday. We took the children to the performance of Beauty and the Beast, which they all loved by the way! We arrived a little early so we took them for a run in the park. We lined up in the park to go back across the road to the theatre and suddenly this beautiful singing of Swing Low erupted from the line. They sang as they walked across the road. I was in tears! It was so beautiful and so spontaneous”.

The festival program

At the time of the research study, the festival reflected a trend towards the use of recorded music from the North American mass entertainment industry, meaning that children’s singing voices were less likely to be heard than the voices of popular artists. Of the 65 non-government and government Foundation to Year 6 schools that participated in the festival, 19 performed items that featured children playing instruments or singing. The remainder devised movement and dance routines to backing tracks. The following are examples of the recorded music to which schools devised dance routines during the five days of the Festival;

  • Year 1/2 dance routines to a medley of ‘Austin and Ally’ Disney songs; ‘A Billion Hits’, ‘I Got That Rock and Roll’, Can’t Do it Without You’
  • Year 3/4 dance routines to theme songs from ‘The Great Gatsby’ movie; ‘Bang, Bang’, ‘A Little Party Never Killed Nobody’
  • Year 3-6 dance routines to ‘The Wall’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Pumped up Kicks’, ‘Moneymaker’

The children at King Street Primary School sang three songs, including Swing Low. Repertoire choice was a compromise between the physical and time constraints imposed by public performance in a professional venue, and repertoire that the children had already learned, and which could realistically be prepared for public performance in the short time available.

Research findings

Children’s interview responses and paintings indicate that their participation in the festival had personal meaning. The following responses from the children are typical.

Curtis: There’s also happy in it because it’s my first time performing.

Sophie: The reason it’s enjoyable is because we get to perform on stage with so many people watching us.

Karla: When we were playing songs I felt that we could just get back and do it all again because we had such a great time and the embarrassment actually went away.

The teachers at King Street Primary School felt that participation was a very positive experience for the children, largely for its instrumental rather than intrinsic musical benefits. Kylie, the principal expressed it in the following way:

Kylie: “For me it was the fact that pretty much all of our kids went gladly, and were so excited about it. Because that’s huge. That is a huge step. All the big boys went. And I think the kids are really proud of what they have done and excited. And I think we probably don’t realize what a big thing it is”.

Laura, the Year 3/4 teacher identified the value of whole school participation rather than music being seen as valuable only for the minority of children perceived as talented.

Laura: “I think it gave a sense of the kids learning to work together and to respect and be part of something. They were not just individuals. I know that we’re a small school, but a lot of the other small schools didn’t send along the whole school: there were just a select few children who were chosen”.

The majority of primary school performances at the festival revealed limited acquisition of demonstrable musical skills. They reflected a view of children as music consumers rather than music producers. Tim, one of the Year 3/4 students encapsulated it in the following way:

Tim: “They had the music on in the background and they were moving their mouths. They made it look like they were singing”.

The teachers at King Street expressed disappointment at the lack of music learning at some schools.

Holly: “A little bit disheartened I guess at the lack of music—made music that the rest of the schools had. There was a bit of singing and stuff but a lot of backing tracks”.

Kylie: “That whole get up and dance to music just leaves me cold. And I mean, I love dance, but”.

Laura: “A lot of other schools actually don’t have singing and dance together. The day before, (at the Thursday performances) a lot of the children were just running around to music. There was nothing”.

Repertoire choices at the festival revealed a limited understanding of the breadth of popular music. There was an absence of musical and cultural diversity, a reliance on a limited range of repertoire from the North American mass entertainment industry, and little sense of the children’s own agency in terms of singing and playing. There was no evidence of primary school children improvising or composing. There was implicit learning—learning that is unintended. Eisner suggests that the implicit curriculum is more likely to endure than the explicit curriculum (Eisner, 2002). Apple and King contend that “the tacit teaching of social and economic norms and expectations to students in schools, is not as hidden or ‘mindless’ as many educators believe” (Apple & King, 1977, p. 341). Children’s implicit learning from the

Festival may have included the following;

  • Disney songs and familiar popular music from the mass entertainment industry are schools’ preferred choices of repertoire, and popular music from diverse cultures and traditions is of lesser value
  • The voices of recording artists are valued more highly than children’s own singing voices
  • Children at most primary schools don’t play or sing
  • School music is something that happens once or twice a year for public performances


The Regional Schools Music and Movement Festival program offers insights into the way music and music learning are conceptualised in many Victorian primary schools. Initial reflection on the festival program suggests a need for the use of live music instead of backing tracks, more thoughtful repertoire choices, and changed festival organisation. However, deeper reflection on schools’ participation reveals the pervasive role of consumer media culture, the silencing of certain voices and values, and the blurring of education and entertainment.

In this paper, I contend that if primary school music learning is to be inclusive in ways that nurture the artistic, cognitive and humanitarian potential of all children, there needs to be an understanding of the pedagogical function of the festival and other school music festivals. Analysis of the values embodied in music from the North American mass entertainment industry can facilitate understanding of the implications for democracy of its uncritical acceptance. There are more than just musical implications of a diet that consists solely of commercial mainstream music that is ‘intended to infantilize rather than provoke or otherwise encourage thought’ (Woodford, 2014, p. 29). Woodford contends that over-reliance on movie, commercial, and educational music that is intended primarily as entertaining and advertising undermines democracy. Conceptualising music education as entertainment erodes the idea of it being a common good that has pedagogical integrity. Music learning must bring about consequential benefits and it has an ethical responsibility to meet the life-long musical needs of all students (Jorgensen, 2007; Regelski, 2012; Rickson & Skewes McFerran, 2014).

The assumptions that are made about music and music education in western society are termed by Regelski (2013) as music education’s “default settings”. Default settings can include “exclusionary mechanisms that bypass consciousness” (Darder, 2015). The festival reflected the hegemony of the “presentational performance” paradigm, identified as a form of music-making by Turino (2008, p. 26) in which “one group of people, the artists, prepare and provide music for another group, the audience, who do not participate in making the music or dancing”. Turino also identifies the “participatory performance” paradigm which he sees as “a special type of artistic practice in which there are no artist-audience distinctions, only participants and potential participants performing different roles, and the primary role is to involve the maximum number of people in some performance role” (p. 26). Turino contends that in western society, presentational performance is more highly regarded than participatory performance because the values associated with it such as artistic and technical quality, are more easily understood than the values associated with participatory forms of performance. Importantly, Turino notes that the way we engage with music making is habitual.

Because presentational performance is often more highly regarded than participatory performance, it is likely to define the nature of music learning in many schools. Presentational performance reinforces the performer/audience distinction, the notion that a minority of people are musical (Blacking, 1995), and the importance of musical talent (Rickson & Skewes McFerran, 2014; Scripp, Ulibarri, & Flax, 2013). These factors contribute to many adults feeling “musically disabled” (Lubet, 2009) which is also at the heart of inadequate generalist teacher musical competence and confidence—a theme commonly identified in the literature (Biasutti, Hennessy, & de Vugt-Jansen, 2015; de Vries, 2013; Holden & Button, 2006; Wiggins & Wiggins, 2008). The hegemony of presentational performance is also consistent with the perpetuation of the status quo, and teachers’ conservatism (Gates, 2006; Hargreaves, 2010) and need for control (Bandura, 1995; Flammer, 1995). In an educational climate that is increasingly influenced by the neoliberal discourse of managerialism and efficiency (Connell, 2013; Metcalfe, 2015; Prest, 2013; Smyth, Down, McInerney, & Hattam, 2014), presentational performance that utilizes mass entertainment industry repertoire and formulaic dance routines for impressing audiences, provides visible evidence of “product”. It is more easily measured and understood than are forms of musical participation that contribute to self-efficacy and to the growth of community. Further, it enables schools to assess themselves and other schools on the perceived quality of the “product”. Presentational performance can potentially demonstrate teacher control which is often regarded as synonymous with teacher quality (Davidson, 2004). Control may help lessen teachers’ feelings of vulnerability, which has been identified as a significant factor that negatively affects teachers’ professional self-understandings (Bullough, 2005; Bullough & Pinnegar, 2009; Kelchtermans, 1996, 2005, 2009; Vanassche & Kelchtermans, 2016).

It is important to emphasise that I am not denying the value of presentational performance for children in certain learning contexts. However, when the time allocated for music learning in many government primary schools is already inadequate, the hegemony of the presentational performance paradigm often results in a constricted music curriculum—a curriculum that is dominated by school events, and the goal of rehearsing for a distant performance. Other ways of engaging with music are marginalised. Children and teachers are denied opportunities to experience a diversity of musics, to compose, improvise and develop life-long understandings and skills that could potentially be enriching and provide life with meaning and purpose (Rickson & Skewes McFerran, 2014). Critical pedagogy theorists (Darder, 1991; Freire, 1970; Kincheloe, 2007) highlight the need to be aware of injustice that is invisible. Children who are already disadvantaged by factors including socio-economic status, and whose family circumstances make difficult their ability to access formal music learning beyond the school, can become limited to a very narrow range of personal music expression when school music privileges impressing audiences over the acquisition of life-long musical skills. McPhail (2016) contends that the privileging of experiential, short-term music learning devoid of “powerful knowledge” (Young & Muller, 2013) disadvantages the most those children whom critical pedagogy seeks to advantage. It could be argued that it is the hegemony of the mass entertainment industry and the blurring of education and entertainment rather than the presentational performance paradigm that influence how music learning is conceptualised at festivals such as The Regional Schools Music and Movement Festival. Undoubtedly, the values of consumerism are very pervasive. However, educators can choose how to respond to rapidly changing cultural contexts. Uncritical acceptance of North American mass entertainment industry music and the values associated with it validates it. Unquestioning acceptance of the presentational performance paradigm can endorse the infiltration of entertainment into every sphere of life (Allsup, 2003; Regelski, 2014).

The dialectical thinking inherent to critical pedagogy suggests the need for all curriculum areas to engage with consumer media culture (Hickey-Moody, 2015, 2016; Kenway & Bullen, 2001; Maudlin & Sandlin, 2015) and to explore the contradictions and gaps in current hegemonic practices. Pedagogies should not polarize education and entertainment. Instead, they should be playful, pleasurable, and engage with the inherent nature of children (Hickey-Moody, 2016; Kenway & Bullen, 2001). Kenway and Bullen describe pedagogies of “jouissance”, meaning pleasure and satisfaction, and suggest it is a way to “rescue childhood from the enchantment of consumer culture, by re-enchanting the classroom” (p. 161). Further, it offers a “challenge to the rational, instrumental, authoritarian forms of schooling” (Kenway & Bullen, 2001, p. 166).


Music by its nature has transformational potential. However, for its potential to be fulfilled in the lives of all children, additional values to those associated with the hegemonic presentational performance paradigm need to be communicated and understood (Boyce-Tillman, 2000; Jones, 2007; Jorgensen, 2003; Regelski, 2014; Rickson & Skewes McFerran, 2014; Turino, 2009). Giroux (2015) contends that an increasingly globalized world needs students who are more than music consumers and participants in the status quo. Instead, they need to be life-long cultural producers who are able to engage with diverse forms of musical praxis (Abrahams, 2007; Giroux & Jandric, 2015). Music learning needs to reflect understanding of the ways in which unexamined and uncritical acceptance of presentational performance and North American mass entertainment industry repertoire can influence values and identities, and shape and dominate human consciousness. Children have increasingly complex social, emotional and spiritual needs (Boyce-Tillman, 2000; Rickson & Skewes McFerran, 2014; Wright & Pascoe, 2015) and it is vital that they have opportunities to participate in enlivened and diverse music learning that can nurture growth and development and in which democratic beliefs, values and practices are developed. Critically reflective music education pedagogy can contribute to children being confident, independent thinkers who understand their own social context and the larger global context, and can engage in activity based on their understanding.


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Susan Buchan
Date Published: 7 August 2017

Susan Buchan is a music educator who has taught music at all levels in a variety of government and non-government settings. Currently, she is a sessional teacher at Deakin University. Susan's research interests include the contribution to children's growth and development of accessible music-making approaches that include that use of specially designed marimbas. One of the themes of her doctoral thesis was the exploration of public pedagogy and its implications for music learning and teaching.

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