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On music and mentorship

By Trevor Wiggins


As part of my freelance existence, I mentor a number of musically gifted teenagers. They operate in a varied and difficult-to-negotiate world, especially if they possess a great talent but are not in a highly protected ‘hothouse’ environment. As musicians, they are expected to behave with total professionalism, changing from kids having fun on a beach to soloing in front of 10,000 people in a few minutes. (I have seen them do just that on many occasions.)

Yet as teenagers they are not accorded much degree of autonomy. They are ordered around by bells and beeps, and given a regimented life with its constant requirements to do things well and in a timely manner while showing creativity and learning. Any failure to meet deadlines is generally met with public reprimand and possibly punishment. This is all with the best of intentions of course; the teacher knows that there are various grade exams that will arrive and underperformance in these will quickly result in the student learning the meaning of the consequences of actions or inaction.

However, teenage musicians create music that is expressive and personal and sometimes not bounded by any ‘rules’. They perform and practice sustaining a performance persona that can communicate, taking control of a ritualized social situation. They wear their music like they wear their clothes – available at any time to structure and communicate their mood.

It was expected that this ‘born digital’ generation would have their musical lives ordered and organized too by the proliferation and integration of digital tools. Their music would be sorted into playlists to match their mood. They would never lose their contacts backed up automatically by cloud computing. They would use the Internet to source whatever they needed.

My experience and research shows that the teenager’s creative space lacks such regimentation. A teenager’s bedroom is a pretty good model: it is highly personal, comforting, unstructured and creative. It may contain uneaten food, dirty clothes, and various things that an adult would think embarrassing but it is a place for experimentation, slipping seamlessly (and frustratingly for adults) between that responsible adult world and the tiny tantrum.

We adults struggle to understand this world. It seems irrational, self-centered, indulgent, and full of music that is mostly too everything. But from the teenager’s perspective, they are at some arbitrary point, suddenly expected to conform, to act their age, and even like their parent’s music perhaps!

In the past four years, working on a project to bring together the widest range of writing about the musical world of children has provided a unique opportunity to see the world from their perspective. We have only just begun to ask about this world in terms that the teenager might recognize and respond to, to see how music is integral to so many aspects to becoming adult and expressing who and what we are. Our theories and models will struggle as children struggle with the incredible variety of social settings, cultural expectations, opportunities, and requirements they encounter.

Trevor Wiggins, co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Musical Cultures, with Patricia Shehan Campbell. Trevor Wiggins is a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London and an independent musician and music educator. He has a particular interest in the interconnections between Ethnomusicology and processes of pedagogy and music education, drawing particularly on his long-term fieldwork in northern Ghana. He has published numerous articles, CDs and pedagogic materials that explore this area and has delivered lectures and workshops on these topics in many countries. He is currently co-editor of the journal Ethnomusicology Forum.

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Image credit: A young Asian woman with her clarinet. Photo by tmarvin, iStockphoto.

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