Elitism versus Popularism in Music Education
Author: C.M. Sunday

Galamian Principles Prior to the first thirty years of the 20th century, music education retained an elitist view; at around that point a more egalitarian attitude gained acceptance, influenced by writers such as Whitman, Emerson, William James and John Dewey. These newer attitudes were predicated on the notion that the culture which enriched the upper classes had little significance if it did not serve a function for all. Progressive thinkers felt that too much attention had been given to the education of the bright, that social cohesion suffered as a result, and that education for all would be more appropriate for a democratic society.

If education has a two-fold aim, that of instruction and that of training in good conduct, then an enlightened educator may well have to hold simultaneously two rather contradictory views in order to best serve all their students. Like it or not, herd instinct is an important element in democracy, but contradicts on many levels the personal development of the individual student. This range of possibility is illustrated by the great violin pedagogue, Ivan Galamian, who cautioned that a music teacher must be wary of judging students as incapable of development, since some students are slow developers, and yet, on the other hand, remarked that it was impossible to start a fire "where no flammable material exists." 1

A primary conflict in education is that between those who feel that education should serve the aims of the individual psyche versus those who wish education to serve the needs of the community—the question of whether education should train good individuals or good citizens. In the Hegelian sense, there is no conflict, since there is no antithesis, but in practice the cultivation of the individual mind is not the same as the production of a useful citizen. Dispassionate searching for truth may lead down avenues that contradict an indoctrination aimed at producing future tax payers:

Absence of finality is of the essence of the scientific spirit. The beliefs of the man of science are, therefore, tentative and undogmatic. But in so far as they result from his own researches they are personal, not social. They depend, that is to say, upon what he himself has ascertained by observation and inference, not upon what society considers it prudent for the good citizen to believe. 2

This dichotomy is mirrored in the conundrum of an elitist academic view as opposed to the methodology and philosophy of Shinichi Suzuki, who developed and founded a school for talent education that teaches violin to very young children. Talent education is based on the mother tongue method wherein infants are exposed to music in the home, consistently and progressively. At age three the child enters the world of the music school, and mother and child begin together to learn the instrument, in the company of a group of children and Suzuki parents. A carefully developed system of group lessons, literature, recordings, and violin pedagogical methods moves the child swiftly to fine violin literature at a very high level. These methods have been Americanized with some success, and are often the basis of string programs in public school, though far from faithful to the original, and thus far less successful.

I cannot emphasize firmly enough and often enough how wrong it is to judge an already trained child and to say that its abilities are due to superiority or inferiority at birth. This kind of thinking should be abandoned. We must put an end to this misconception. There is no telling to what heights children can attain if we educate them properly right after birth. Should we not investigate the possibilities? Good environmental conditions and a fine education cannot help but bring children genuine welfare and happiness, as well as promising light and hope for the future of mankind. 3

Galamian Principles Dr. Suzuki's methods are child centered, and based on the notion that all children are capable of a high level of development, given significant personal attention and intensive training at an early age. This practice works very well, though less so in America where children are far less obedient and parents have far less time to devote to them. This methodology contradicts the notion that certain individuals are gifted from birth; environment, not heredity, is the key focus. Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is a midpoint, somewhat, between these two views, but does not take into account the great accomplishments that can be garnered by early childhood immersion in an art.

An older, elitist view, is that education based on a desire to create good citizens, if it wisely designed, can retain what is best of individual culture, yet has an inherent danger in that the result might be merely to make the students convenient tools of the prevailing orthodoxy:

There is an idea that rubbing up against all and sundry in youth is a good preparation for life. This appears to me to be rubbish. No one, in later life, associates with all and sundry....In later life a man's occupation and status give an indication of his interests and capacities. I have, in my day, lived in various different social strata; diplomatists, dons, pacifists, gaolbirds and politicians; but nowhere have I found the higgledy-piggledy ruthlessness of a set of boys....If you walk through a farmyard, you may observe cows and sheep and pigs and goats and geese...all behaving in their several ways: no one thinks that a duck should acquire social adaptability by learning to behave like a pig. Yet this is exactly what is thought so valuable for boys at school, where the pigs tend to be the aristocracy. 4

According to this position, clever children would be spared a lot of pain if they are not compelled to associate with stupid contemporaries. The advantages of schools for clever children are great: exceptional children can be spared social persecution and emotional fatigue, they can be taught much faster, avoiding the boredom of having to listen to materials which they already understand. Their interactions with one another are likely to be fruitful; clever children often feel odd in the general populace.

Thus the contrast between a focus on all children and their inherent capacities and on those few who have, by environment, heredity, or fortuitous birth, developed at different rates than the norm. Children who read a great deal tend to be in this later group, and sympathy for them is expressed by Russell:

The man who holds concentrated and sparkling within his own mind, as within a camera obscura, the depth of space, the evolution of the sun and planets, the geological ages of the earth, and the brief history of humanity, appears to me to be doing what is distinctly human and what adds most to the diversified spectacle of nature. 5

Thus a cultured and enlightened educator must tread a path between the needs of a democratic society and a devotion to the best in art, science, literature and human thought. Certainly this is not an easy task, but worthy of effort, since the happiness and welfare of children, of all abilities and from all backgrounds, is at stake.


  1. Ivan Galamian. Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, ed. Sally Thomas. Dover Publications; Reprint edition (February 21, 2013) Kindle and paperback eds.

  2. Bertrand Russell. Education and the Modern World. W.W. Norton, New York. 1932. p. 22.

  3. Shinichi Suzuki. Nurtured by Love. Exposition Press, New York. 1969. p. 25.

  4. Russell, ibid. p. 166-67.

  5. Russell, ibid. p. 11.

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