In a delightfully self-conscious philosophical "mash-up," Randall Everett Allsup provides alternatives for the traditional master-apprentice teaching model that has characterized music education. By providing examples across the arts and humanities, Allsup promotes a vision of education that is open, changing, and adventurous at heart. He contends that the imperative of growth at the core of all teaching and learning relationships is made richer, though less certain, when it is fused with a student's self-initiated quest. In this way, the formal study of music turns from an education in teacher-directed craft and moves into much larger and more complicated fields of exploration. Through vivid stories and evocative prose, Randall Everett Allsup advocates for an open, quest-driven teaching model that has repercussions for music education and the humanities more generally.
About the Author
Randall Everett Allsup is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Music Education at Teachers College Columbia University. He is past chair of the International Society for the Philosophy of Music Education (ISPME) and the Philosophy Special Research Interest Group (SRIG) of the Music Education Research Council.
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Remixing the Classroom
Toward an Open Philosophy of Music Education
By Randall Everett Allsup
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2016 Randall Everett Allsup
All rights reserved.
Toward Open Encounters
I don't care how you're gonna take it to your people and flip it and dip it and serve it.
— Snoop Dogg
The form of the question was gotcha. In an interview published in the New York Times Magazine, writer Jon Caramanica asked Snoop Dogg, the producer, rapper, and musician, what he thought about "this suburban streak in hip-hop, like Iggy Azalea and Macklemore." The provocation, I think, was supposed to expose a fault line around issues of race and authenticity, or maybe the question was meant to elicit some kind of codgerly reproach from rap's old-school Dogg-father. "Rap is supposed to grow," Snoop responded. "One thing about Iggy and Macklemore: They got soul. They're inspired by hip-hop. I don't care how you're gonna take it to your people and flip it and dip it and serve it." This chapter is about generosity and the laws of musical practice. It's also about flipping and dipping and serving, an option that music educators may too infrequently employ when teaching others. What characterizes an open music education? What principles define its ends? My inquiry starts with the rule of Law. Who gets to make it? Who gets to break it? I return, over and again, to the twin themes of border control and border crossings in an appeal to a more venturesome vision of music teaching. A breach, a general failure to act in required ways, is taking place in the field of music education. Tired of closed forms of life and living, we want to break free — we are longing for openings.
Making and Breaking the Law
I start my telling of open and closed forms in a way that music-education scholar Estelle Jorgensen, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and rapper Snoop Dogg might approve of, mashing up metaphors and strange illustrations with personal insights that together deal with possibility, access, and control. I begin with the story of Dapper Dan, Harlem's underground haberdasher who repurposed hip-hop fashion in the late 1980s in ways that anticipated today's DIY aesthetics. After this, I turn to a Kafka tale that finds figure in a great Master teacher called Goldmann. Then, the Japanese sushi Master Jiro Ono, the titular subject of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, becomes an example of an agent who opens a closed form but then closes it again, deciding context and codes for another generation. Dapper Dan, a Lawbreaker; Goldmann, the Law personified; and Jiro Ono, a Lawbreaker turned Lawmaker: all are subjects of their lives, and their lived choices speak to profound ways of operating within differing aesthetic structures. In my hands, their stories become contemporary parables of possibility and control in which the construction and performance of an aesthetic form is just as important as what the form does to and for its practitioners. We are more than the objects we make, they warn us; we are made by the objects we make. And as the Law concerns issues of power and authority, we implicate others in the objects we make. These parables provide points of comparison for the inquiry that concludes this chapter. In the spirit of an ongoing and unfinished tale, I start with Dapper Dan.
Dapper Dan, a Prophet of Open Forms
Today, on the corner of 125th Street and Madison Avenue in New York City sits a new experiment in public schooling, the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy. This shiny-new brightly colored building is an exemplar of one of several chains of charter schools that operate using private, philanthropic, and public money in an explicit effort to disrupt the entrenched interests that prevent neighboring public schools from achieving excellence. The Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy is organized according to an exacting business model, operating from a top-down structure that makes no excuses when it comes to success and achievement. All children are expected to meet certain benchmarks at certain grades, and they can be pressured to leave if they do not. Students are tested and compared at every stage of learning. We are told that they learn grit and self-control, presumably because they come to school lacking self-concern. Externally mandated examinations, created and administered by for-profit testing companies like Pearson, drive curricula and afterschool activities. The African American founder and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy, Geoffrey Canada, is said to be a fundraiser, visionary, consultant, philanthropist, and celebrity. His performance, the success of his school, and the evaluation of his teachers are based on whether his young, mostly African American students can outperform their peers on the basis of comparative scored learning outcomes with neighboring public schools. In this high-stakes arena, predictability is a premium, and little is left to chance. In the context of contemporary American public schooling, this kind of strategy is known as "reform."
But in 1988, before it was condemned and demolished, there stood on this very same plot of land a different kind of social and aesthetic experiment, a different kind of "reform." Here was Dapper Dan's Boutique, a locally owned haberdashery that catered to the tastes of the burgeoning hip-hop community. At this moment in New York City history, there was very little philanthropic interest or private investment in the Harlem community. There were no chain stores or chain schools on the famous 125th Street thoroughfare. Some shops were black- owned, but most were not. It was here, in the neighborhoods of central Harlem (institutionally neglected but rich in history) and the Bronx (cloven into fragments by the expressway-obsessed urban planner Robert Moses) that a certain socio-aesthetic mutation was occurring, a break from fixed categories in life and art. Black youth were resisting the assimilationist discourses of commercial popular culture, with its appeals to and portrayals of a "rising" black middle class (recall Michael Jackson's We Are the World campaign, The Cosby Show, and the media-safe Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls). In opposition to the dominant codes of what black America should be, uptown youth began reconstructing and reasserting a local identity, one that refused and repurposed the inevitability of a melting pot America. Here begins the story of Dapper Dan's Boutique as remembered by locals and as told by Kelefa Sanneh in "Harlem Chic: How a Hip- Hop Legend Remixed Name-Brand Fashion." And so here stand two moments in Harlem history: the (re)forming of American fashion and the "reforming" of the American public school.
The story of Daniel Day, a.k.a. Dapper Dan, is the story of an appropriation artist, a fashion bricoleur, a master of pastiche and reinvention. Something of a career hustler, Dapper Dan muddled in and out of many jobs until, without formal training or apprenticeship as a tailor, he began designing original fashion for rappers, hip-hop artists, black celebrities, and athletes in uptown Manhattan. Working out of an acquisitioned fur and leather workshop, he created made-to-order luxury goods, mixing pieces from brands like Gucci, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton and their counterfeits with whatever materials he had on hand. "One of his favorite tricks," Sanneh writes, "was to use designer-leather trim to turn a generic garment — even a generic mink coat — into a name brand one." Say a rapper wanted a Gucci parka with a Fendi hood, lined and cuffed with mink, with large inside pockets: a one-of-a-kind piece would be designed and assembled on-site, made to fit. "Part of his success had to do with the way his clothes fit. Because he knew his customers' bodies and preferences, he could create jackets and trousers that were baggy without being oversized. ... And, by creating flamboyant pieces that were both glamorous and streetwise, Day [Dapper Dan] helped lay the groundwork for the modern hip-hop aesthetic, in which the distinction between onstage and offstage is always blurred." Like Marcel Duchamp's readymades and the punk movement of the 1970s, ordinary manufactured objects were reconfigured as a kind of cultural antidote to bourgeois hegemony.
Duchamp's famous urinal was art because he said it was art, in an effort to move art's relationship away from the sublime and serious and toward a new, typically modernist, "grammar" of art. Punk was likewise a revolutionary project that sought to bring about a rupture in English and American middle class values. I position Dapper Dan's work closer to the punk aesthetic, as decidedly postmodern in intent and (re)formational, not revolutionary. The making of early hip-hop is the story of a methodological field in which the production of activity was paragrammatical, "woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages ... antecedent and contemporary, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony." Politics in early hip-hop were likewise contradictory, both embracing and contesting the symbols of capitalism and stereotypes of race and gender.
Trafficking in the status that brands like Fendi signify, yet aware that European fashion houses were averse to associations with black culture, Day repositioned and repurposed the very language of fashion (not its grammar, but its language) in such a way that it communicated an overflow of meaning, layering new intensities over original intentions. The job of traditional fashion is to clarify the primary relationship between a sign and its signification (e.g., Gucci = money). Instead, Day jammed its frequencies, amplifying certain bounded relationships (class, race, power, wealth) and garnished them with second-order sig- nifiers that were more slippery (black youth culture, street credibility, assumed criminality, sexuality and empowerment). The resulting incongruities confused once-stable relationships between high and low, effectively redistributing power and access.
"The Louis Vuitton logo pattern, which looked sensible on a valise, seemed surreal on a knee-length coat," writes Sanneh. "For Day, that was part of the excitement — he wanted to improve venerable brands by hijacking them. 'I Africanized it,' he says. 'Took it away from that, like, Madison Avenue look.'" Audaciously, when Day discovered "that Bally, another of his favorite brands, didn't have a sufficiently regal crest, he went to the New York Public Library to research the families of its owner, so he could supply one," a presumably more sumptuous and grand regal crest. The proponents of early hip-hop didn't seek out a cohesive or stable aesthetic, preferring to repurpose a language rather than invent a new grammar. For Sanneh, Dapper Dan's approach reflected "two contradictory impulses, both essential to hip-hop: a desire to claim traditional status symbols and a desire to remake and redefine those symbols — to 'Africanize' them, perhaps, or to sample them, the way hip-hop producers sample their favorite records."
We are talking about appropriation, sampling, and the power of (re)fusing and (re)forming filial terms. We are also talking about opening closed forms of communication. The question that Day's aesthetic provokes for the music educator may be this: for the purposes of self-expression and the assumption of an alternative political identity, when and how can a community violate establishment norms and contexts? What are our obligations to traditional norms if they are embedded with meanings that contradict local or even broader humanist values? High fashion — let's be clear — is not democratic. It communicates through closed terms. This form of broadcast is its currency. Control of who wears what, on what occasion, and for what purpose is meant to distinguish one category of people from another.
What is remarkable about Dapper Dan is that he broke open a system that had no use for his neighbors and his neighborhood. Rather than participate in a closed hierarchical field, where a singular creative genius from a faraway place makes a lasting work of fine and elevated taste, where elite connoisseurs consume said work with appreciation, and where boutiques are expected to take and sell, not remake and rematerial, Day repositioned those external standards and norms that were at odds with his community, and kept the ones he liked. A bricoleur, a bandit, a master at regifting, he riffed on the rules that did apply, changed the ones that did not, and created something irreducible, something that was right for one place, at one moment in time, never to be repeated. Marjorie Perloff might call Day's method "unoriginal genius," the invention and reinvention that comes when preexisting material is retailored to fit unique bodies in time and space. In a way that I recognize as democratic, Dapper Dan destabilized the authority of the Master-designer and transformed it to the wearer, allowing the wearer a say in what looks good and what doesn't.
But there is more to say about this story of curiosity and exploration. Dapper Dan was a different kind of expert, a different kind of innovator. His genius, if we choose to use that word, was participatory and flexible, an ideal I explore in more detail in chapter 2. The quality of his work could not be judged by standards that were external to his community. Involvement in his methodological field — his form — required a sensibility for adventure that could move knowingly across open and closed landscapes. Surface and depth coexisted in his laboratory space, as described by Sanneh:
In the convivial atmosphere of the shop, Dapper Dan was a friendly but serious presence. He took measurements and drew up designs, leaving most of the sewing and cutting to African tailors. ... [He] wielded several different kinds of authority, depending upon whom he was talking to: he could be a self-taught philosopher, a refined couturier, a gruff salesman (no discounts, no matter what), or a local guy who found subtle ways to remind people that he knew a lot of other local guys. ... He cultivated a sense of mystery about the trademarked materials he used, and about himself.
Several things strike me. Day's shop was a reconceptualization of what a shop could be; its operations were horizontal and vertical, authoritative and shared, formal and informal, traditional and innovative, serious and playful. He moved knowingly across and within a continuum, from the very creative to the very secure. His art was enriched by the strange and nonstandard. This sensibility constitutes my ideas of what makes a good school. But unlike the schools I know, it appears that at Dapper Dan's Boutique, surprise was valued much more than predictability. This was a space in which the construction of value or "quality" was negotiated. In the making of a tracksuit or the retrofitting of the leather interior of a BMW convertible, the client took part in its redesign, in the transforming of a new but contingent norm. The client did not need special expertise, beyond personal taste and imagination, to be creative. Each innovation was momentarily right, contingently indigenous in a paradoxical way; what made one piece "right" for the wearer was unrepeatable from one client to the next. And unlike today's schools, measurement and assessment, essential aspects of the creative process, were reached through qualitative, idiosyncratically defined means. In Day's shop (in this laboratory, in this parable of an ideal music classroom) risk, uncertainty, and pleasure were involved. There was adventure, too.
It deserves asking what kind of education could prepare today's Dapper Dan for such an open and imaginative life? What kind of education could foster risk taking and courage, innovation and happy surprise? What kind of learning environment could assist the novice tailor in finding the skills, knowledge, and disposition to succeed at making his own ineffable haberdashery, using the resources, people, and talents that surround him? In an age of accountability and standardization, is there a space within the university or public school to recognize and then amplify the diversity of skills represented at Dapper Dan's Boutique? In an age of competitive rankings and winner-take-all stakes, can the university school of music seek out the bricoleurs and bandits and provide means for their flourishing? On some level, this is an emancipatory process, one that takes the lingua franca of global power, hierarchy, and oppression and bends it to local needs.
Excerpted from Remixing the Classroom by Randall Everett Allsup. Copyright © 2016 Randall Everett Allsup. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Toward Open Encounters
2. Music Teacher Quality and Expertise
3. Learning in Laboratories
4. Looking, Longing for Moral Openings
What People are Saying About This
Better than anyone else in the field, Allsup explores what a more open, less top-down and hierarchical approach to music teaching and learning (and musical meaning) might look like.
Writing carefully and compassionately, Allsup’s argument is exquisitely nuanced, playing out slowly, lightly, in a Turneresque pastel watercolor of light and inference. This book is unequivocally an important and essential contribution to music education scholarship.