Perfection or Participation: The Music Education Dilemma


This morning, I became embroiled in a disagreement about the assessment of young musicians that got me thinking…

As music educators, what are we striving for? Perfection or participation? Are they mutually exclusive? Is one more important than the other?

There is a myth held by the general populace that you must ‘have talent’ to ‘be musical.’ Of course this is a myth in so far as everyone is innately musical, and everyone can enjoy and participate in music to some level. But it cannot be ignored that to make a career of music you do need ‘a talent’ for it in the same way that you couldn’t be an accountant if you didn’t have ‘a talent’ for numbers.

So as music educators, are we aiming for perfection with a handful of talented students, or are we aiming for participation with as many students as possible? Are we doing both? And what if we’re trying to do both at once in the context of the same lesson?

Is it possible to have perfection in participation?

I think it is. I think that we sometimes need to uncouple our understanding of perfection from the construct of talent.

Say we are teaching 30 children the violin. Maybe 5 of them go on to take Grade 8 and achieve distinction. Does that mean that the other 25 have failed to achieve ‘perfection?’ (Ooo look, maths! Maybe I could be an accountant after all!)

I think not. I think that if the other 25 were playing at the absolute top edge of their ability, then their contribution would be perfect for them.

So as music educators yes of course we are looking to widen the net of participation to, well, everyone! And of course we are looking to help our ‘talented’ students to excel towards a career in music. But we’re also looking to help each and every one of our participants to achieve their own version of perfection. And that is where the magic lies…

Dr Elizabeth Stafford
3rd August 2017