A&HHE Special Issue August 2016AHHELogo-300x300

Community music and the curricular core

Glen B Carruthers

Wilfrid Laurier University


This essay considers how best to prepare students intent on becoming professional musicians for sustainable and socially responsible, community-centred careers. Specifically, the role of community music in higher education is examined, with reference to the author’s home institution, Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada.

In the late twentieth century, conservatories and university performing arts programs, including performing arts programs in Canada, rethought their vision, mission and purpose. Learning outcomes, program content, teaching methodologies, and governance models were substantively revised. Nonetheless, research by Hennessy et al (2014) indicates that only half of the Canadian universities offering degrees in music include something other than theory, aural skills, musicology, studio instruction and ensembles in the curricular core. Although music curricula are evolving after remaining largely static for more than a half-century, and new courses are being introduced slowly but steadily, much remains to be done that reflects new employment foci and societal expectations. An important challenge lies in the fact that new courses reflecting a changing world cannot simply be added to extant curricula. Programs overall then become unwieldy and unfocussed. A successful curriculum cannot present an array of seemingly unrelated courses for students to absorb and digest, but must be purposefully greater than the sum of its parts.

In order to make progress introducing community music into the core of higher music education, several possible curricular models are considered, including independent degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and community music elements integrated across existing undergraduate programs. In this connection, the essay broaches issues of accountability, program prioritization within institutions, and program differentiation between institutions.


Community music, curricular reform, curricular core, program prioritization


In recent years, many conservatories and university performing arts programs have rethought their fundamental mission and purpose. Changes have come more quickly in the UK, for example, than in Canada, but many universities in Canada are now undergoing curricular review processes. Everything from program content and teaching methodologies to learning outcomes and governance models is under review. The motivators are numerous and varied, including financial exigency, globalization, technological innovation, student demand, government legislation and changes in performing arts industries and cultural landscapes. Pragmatism is at play. In some cases, shrinking enrolments and budget cut-backs, and in other cases, calls for greater inclusivity and higher participation rates in post-secondary education, are driving curricular reform.

In Ontario, for example, where Wilfrid Laurier University – my home institution – is located, the government set a very ambitious goal of 70% participation in higher education (see Ontario Ministry, 2010). This is up from the actual participation rate of 63% and far exceeds the national average of 56%. The average participation rate across OECD nations is 37% (Statistics Canada, 2010). In other words, Ontario’s goal is more than 40% higher than the average worldwide. Although a new government was elected in 2013, and the goal and time to achieve it are less clear than before, it is evident that greater participation in post-secondary education is also the aim of the current government. Music programs, whose intake has always been predicated on competition and selectivity, face unique challenges in this regard. Inclusive programs and programs with pronounced interdisciplinary components can serve an important function, and community music is certainly one field that answers the bipartite call for greater relevance and inclusivity.

Over the years, community music components have been incorporated into degree programs worldwide, and the Canadian context is illustrative. Most music programs include community-based outreach projects that take students off-campus or bring community members or groups on-campus. These sorts of outreach and engagement activities have proliferated in the past ten to fifteen years. But higher participation rates in post-secondary education, employability as a metric of success, and societal expectations that higher learning will be relevant to the population at large, demand more than outreach elements embedded in extant courses. Core curricula need to be rethought to incorporate the many facets of community music, from participatory music making that is organized and facilitated by a seasoned practitioner (e.g., a workshop sponsored by a community agency) to music making that emanates from peer-to-peer learning with public performance as the goal (e.g., a garage band preparing for a weekend gig). Community music, which by definition is experiential, and the critical reflection that advances meaningful interactions with and within communities, can inform the undergraduate curricular core. Although in this paper I draw particularly on my own experiences in Canada, the challenges and opportunities are – as other contributions to this volume make clear – relevant to institutions of higher learning in music globally.

Higher Education – the Canadian context

Expanded participation in post-secondary education is not a matter of lowering the bar and/or admitting students who are unlikely to succeed. Nor does increasing focus on employability, and inculcating students with a sense of social responsibility, necessarily mean adding courses that appeal to a wider and more diverse student population. What is required is rethinking both the kinds of students admitted to our programs and the kinds of programs we offer to them. This is a complex challenge as the Canadian context makes clear.

Canadian universities had been a proud bastion of elitism with respect to music study for almost two centuries. Sieves and funnels kept out all but the most capable students and capable, in this instance, meant the most accomplished performers. These performers would, more often than not, come from a background of private studio instruction over a period of many years (see Carruthers 2012: 34ff). There can be no question that studio instruction and privilege go hand-in-hand, since this educational paradigm is expensive and requires considerable dedicated time and energy. Neither money nor time and energy are abundantly available in a single-parent family, for example, where child-rearing responsibilities are shared between a parent and older siblings. The practice whereby admittance to music programs favours students from advantaged backgrounds, and one-to-one instruction is the preferred instructional model both before and after admission, is not sustainable except in private institutions where tuition fees can cover instructional costs. But even if this model is sustainable in some instances, does it remain the right or ethical thing to do?

The requirement for more open participation in post-secondary education leaves music programs, like other fine and performing arts programs, in a difficult position. In Canada, whether a student ultimately specializes in music theory, music history, music therapy or music education, an acceptable and often high performance standard is required for entry to all Bachelor of Music programs. Those applicants who had not attained a sufficiently high performance standard were channelled into other programs but allowed to take music courses specifically tailored to them. These ‘outsiders’ were placated by appreciation and rudiments courses, which were later replaced by populist offerings in popular music, including courses like History of Rock and Roll and Women in Music which would attract large numbers of students without requiring a formal background in music. (Carruthers, 2012: 34).

While other countries have different approaches, the fact that most post-secondary music programs in Canada are housed in universities and not in conservatories necessitates entrance standards that are partly academic and partly musical. In effect, these programs combine the university and conservatory models that exist in Europe and elsewhere. I coined the term ‘Universatoria’ (Carruthers, 2012) to describe this hybrid post-secondary instructional model in Canada.

As the doors to greater musical diversity have opened and curricular silos have been systematically dismantled, a new purpose has emerged in higher education that, interestingly, aligns with long-suffering school music programs. From the historical perspective,

In schools, among learning outcomes personal, social and cultural objectives take precedence over and sometimes supersede musical objectives. In universities [and conservatories], among learning outcomes, musical objectives often take precedence over and often supersede personal, social and cultural objectives. (Carruthers, 2008b: 130)

This school music model can form the basis of the university music model, but only if the curricular core is substantively revamped.

Prioritizing programs internally and externally

It is by shifting weight from personal to social and community/cultural capital that universities and conservatories have found their footing in a newly democratized teaching and learning milieu (see Carruthers 2008a). This repurposing of publicly funded institutions in particular – more on this later – required a great deal of critical reflection. Retreats were held, committees were formed, and disaffected faculty members retired precipitously. Processes were promulgated to help institutions assess and realign their programs, partnerships were forged at interdisciplinary nodes, clusters and hubs, and entrepreneurship migrated from outside to inside the curriculum at major performing arts institutions. In Canada, change was not confined to curriculum, but encompassed the entire network of diploma and degree offerings at colleges and universities.

On the external front, all post-secondary institutions in Ontario were required to negotiate a Strategic Mandate Agreement with the provincial government. The avowed purpose of this exercise was to determine institutional priorities with the understanding that government funding would flow for the duration of the agreement – three years – to programs within each institution that were determined to be historical strengths or areas of strategic growth. ‘Music: Creative Practice and Critical Perspectives’ was identified as one of Laurier’s nine strengths, along with Business and Management; Cold Regions Water Science and Policy; Community Engaged Health – Individual and Community Well-Being; Community Engaged Health – Lifespan Sciences; International Policy and Governance; Crime and Justice; Education – Professional Development School Model; and Communications and Digital Media Studies (Ontario Ministry, 2014).

Program prioritization (internal to institutions) and differentiation (between institutions) provided, if not the answer, at least touch points along the way towards redefining the role of the fine and performing arts in the post-secondary sector. This prioritization is ongoing in Canada, with some universities having completed the process, others engaged in the midst of it, and still others yet to embark on it. In most instances when prioritization is undertaken it involves the entire institution and encompasses both administrative and academic functions. Parking lots and on-campus convenience stores are compared and contrasted with academic offerings to determine overall efficacy. The results will inform future budget and other decisions. This is the point of Dickeson’s methodology, which, with a wide variety of names and adaptations, was adopted by many Canadian universities (Dickeson 2010) – to examine core and ancillary functions to determine which programs and areas should, at one extreme, be curtailed and at the other, be promoted and advanced.

In my home institution, a Dickeson-inspired model was adopted that placed each of 176 academic programs in one of six categories – Enhance, Transform With Additional Resources, Maintain Without Additional Resources, Transform Without New Resources, Transform With Fewer Resources, and Phase Out or Minimize. In the end, music was one of only 6% of Laurier’s academic programs slated for Enhancement (Laurier’s Integrated, 2014: 26). On what basis were Laurier’s priorities determined? The answer is complex, but key issues of student demand and relevance to societal needs were tied to both internal and external prioritization processes. Of critical importance is that where the music program could and should be enhanced was left for the unit itself to decide.

Community music

Broadly speaking, community music denotes music made by a community for itself. It embraces other liberal arts disciplines and practices, and dance and visual art may be part of the interdisciplinary mix that members contribute to the shared community experience. Community music is by its nature participatory and inclusive, and although experiences may be facilitated, the process is at its core egalitarian. Like group musical improvisation, outcomes are negotiated from within and not imposed from outside the community.

It is in answering fundamental questions of student demand and societal relevance that community music is moving from the periphery to the centre of newly updated curricula at Laurier and elsewhere.  The student demand is there. Enrolment intake in Laurier’s MA (Community Music) is twice this year what it was two years ago and is easily exceeding targets and projections. A full-time option to complement the current part-time option is now in development.

There are many reasons why community music’s time has come. The single-minded cultivation of personal capital that once typified conservatory and university instruction falls short of contemporary societal needs and expectations. At Laurier, we are attracting more and more students to our music therapy and community music programs because, entrance and exit interviews corroborate, they want to apply their talents to better the world around them. This is not to suggest that aesthetic values are eschewed. Aesthetic value has always been and always will be a valid end in itself. But it is true that incorporating music into clinical and community contexts is of considerable interest to many young people today.

Students want their learning to align with opportunities that will await them upon graduation. Institutions themselves want to ensure that what students are learning will pay dividends over time – dividends for the students and for the society in which they will live and work. It is for this reason that conservatory and university boards of trustees, administrators and relevant government agencies strive to ensure the continuing and broad relevance of programs and institutions under their purview. They require more and more that relevance be documented by means of verifiable metrics with respect to learning outcomes, student satisfaction and graduate employability.

Because of this emphasis on relevance to students and to society community music within the academy is on the ascendant. At some institutions, programs in community music are now complemented, for example, by centres for community music research and collaboration. The Laurier Centre for Music in the Community was established in 2008 and the International Centre for Community Music was inaugurated this past year at York St. John University. The peer-reviewed International Journal of Community Music, founded in 2008, has published eight volumes of three issues each. The book Invitation to Community Music Therapy by Brynjulf Stige and Leif Edvard Aarø was published in 2011, Community Music: In Theory and In Practice by Lee Higgins appeared in 2012, both volumes of the Oxford Handbook of Music Education contain important articles on community music, the Oxford Handbook of Community Music is in preparation, and Lee Higgins and Lee Willingham are preparing a new book for Routledge on community music. Simply stated, the community music discipline is burgeoning, particularly within higher education. In fact, it seems likely that the discipline will become professionalized and regulated at some point in the future; not everywhere and not always, but in some places and some circumstances. There is considerable irony to what seems to be this inescapable outcome of intense institutional interest in community music. Universities and conservatories (once bastions of privilege) and community music (once a grassroots movement) now seek common philosophical, moral, ethical and pedagogical ground.

It goes without saying that the wealth of musics that occur in the community must be usefully reflected in what is taught and learned within the academy. Although complexities surround the institutionalization of any music study – classical or turntable, p’ansori or death metal – this should not be a deterrent to curricular innovation. The democratization of music learning and teaching, aided and abetted by technology, has made music performance and creation more accessible than ever and the academy must adapt to change. We may not yet be certain where we are going, but we know what we are leaving behind. Emphasis on product, on a discrete aesthetic entity with profound intrinsic value, is being complemented by emphasis on musical process as a contributor to individual and community health and well-being. The aesthetic value of the latter may be less than the aesthetic value of the former, but that is no reason for the academy to remain resolutely uninvolved.

Public funding for higher education in music

The reconciliation of what once seemed to be fundamentally oppositional standpoints plays out in any number of ways, particularly when it comes to issues of arts and arts education funding. We have, on the one hand, opera companies and symphony orchestras that have historically received public funding scrambling to attract new and younger audiences. On the other hand, we have art forms that appeal to new and younger audiences clamoring for public funding. Somewhere between the scrambling and clamoring lies a model for delivering and funding the arts that can be replicated in arts education funding.

It is easy to make the case that publicly funded institutions should develop programming that is widely available to a varied population. The following observation about the funding of orchestras in Berlin in the 1930s raises questions a propos arts education funding in the post-secondary sector today:

By comparison with its more prestigious city neighbour [the Berlin Philharmonic], the Sinfonie-Orchester was a local orchestra, performing at community events, playing popular and school concerts. In many politicians’ eyes, these activities were more valuable to the public good than the Berlin Philharmonic’s elite following and international reputation. Inadvertent rivals struggling for share of an ever shrinking pool of municipal subsidy, both Berlin orchestras became embroiled in a polarising political debate of the merits, standards and aims of public money for cultural institutions. (Aster, 2012: 39)

The subtext to this particular quotation is inescapable – that favouring some arts and artists and providing funding for them means excluding others, leaving them largely to fend for themselves. Being inclusive of some aesthetics and the populations associated with them means being exclusive of others. The anti-intellectualism of Nazi Germany is a particularly tragic case in point. When governments favour the lowest common denominator in the arts, the fall-out can be disastrous. Nonetheless, the question whether public funds should support elite arts organizations can be asked of all publicly funded institutions. The real or imagined tension between elite and populist artistic purposes plays out daily on local, regional and national levels. Popularity and quality do not necessarily equate to one another and commercial interests and community interests are sometimes at odds.

An example is in order. In my own community, a city-owned arts centre was recently the focus of intense public debate. The City of Kitchener needed to decide whether Centre in the Square, a 35-year-old concert hall and art gallery, should be driven primarily by commercial or community interests. The question is more layered than it appears at first; perhaps the two interests are not mutually exclusive or perhaps the community itself favours commercial interests. Whatever nuances might apply, it remains true that favouring commercial interests would generate much-needed income while favouring community arts organizations carries with it much greater risk of financial uncertainty.

A consulting company was hired and after more than 200 interviews and 8,000 surveys were collated and analysed city council made a decision.

After hours of deliberation, Kitchener councillors voted to pursue a new mandate for Centre in the Square, opting to have the venue focus on local community and cultural groups instead of adopting a commercially-driven outlook. (CBC, 2015)

The backlash was immediate. Joel Rubinoff, a columnist for the Waterloo Region Record, considered the revised mandate a 35-year step backwards to when the Centre was built to cater to two pillars of the arts community, the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery (Rubinoff, 2015). Rubinoff’s reasoning was that in today’s diverse, multi-ethnic community surely greater cultural breadth should be encouraged and supported by public money.

The questions raised by this debate are no less relevant to arts education than to the arts in general.  What kinds of arts and arts education institutions should receive public subsidies? How are artists, and arts education institutions, held accountable for the funding they do receive?

There is not space here to consider these questions in detail, but a general observation is possible. Just as the local arts centre should support community well-being (however that might be defined), so the local Faculty of Music should intentionally serve the same end. Put another way, if the public purse is intended to encourage musical activities meaningful to the population at large, then the litmus test for arts education institutions should also be relevance. The realization that performance skills honed to a professional level on a single instrument are largely irrelevant to most professions in music, that the careers of the vast majority of music graduates will embrace myriad paid and unpaid activities in fluid ratios, and that protean careers demand transferable skills, points to an  increasing role for community music in higher education.

Models for community music in higher education

Possible models for community music in conservatories and universities include:

a) Community music as an elective component within other degree programs – this has the advantage of reaching a large and diverse student population;

b) BA in Community Music – this has the advantage of early specialization. There is propensity to link community music research to practice to advance both causes. This link occurs naturally at the graduate level but can occur, too, at the undergraduate level by means of community placements and capstone projects;

c) MA in Community Music – this has the advantage of a mature and experienced student body, likely from diverse disciplinary backgrounds

d) PhD in Community Music – this has the same advantages as the MA, but could attract a seasoned student body with strong advanced prior learning;

e) Community music across an undergraduate music curriculum – this has the advantage of reaching the greatest number of music students possible, but requires radically rethinking the curricular core.

The focus of the remainder of this essay is on the fifth option – community music across an undergraduate music curriculum.

Core curriculum

The core curriculum cannot overlook the central role musicianship plays in meaningful musical interactions. To achieve success as a music educator, therapist or theorist a student must first be or become a high-functioning musician. To this end, many post-secondary music programs have a one- or two-year curriculum that is designed to be foundational. It must cover a breadth of topics and prepare students solidly for upper-level courses. The reasoning is that all students, no matter what their ultimate specialization might be, should achieve competency across a spectrum of core areas like music theory, history and performance. This thinking was at one time so pervasive that the Canadian University Music Society issued a set of guidelines specifying the mix and ratio of required courses representing approximately half of the degree program to which all post-secondary music programs nationally should aspire:

  • three or four years of individual applied study in an instrument or voice (preferably a one-hour individual lesson per week);
  • three or four years of active participation in an ensemble;
  • two or three years of music history and literature, including Canadian music;
  • three years of music materials, including writing and analytical skills, sight-singing, aural comprehension, and twentieth/twenty-first-century techniques;
  • keyboard harmony for all students, as well as basic keyboard skills, if necessary, for students whose major instrument is not keyboard;
  • the assurance of basic music technology literacy. (Canadian University, rev. 2009).

It is this kind of thinking and the stalemate that stems from it (there is no room to make a curricular move when the core is so strictly prescribed) that would have left community music on the outside looking in only a decade or two ago.

During a panel discussion entitled ‘What is the Value of a Bachelor of Music Degree?’ at the 2014 meeting of the Canadian University Music Society core music curricula at thirty-five Canadian universities were compared. Only nineteen programs included something other than theory, aural skills, musicology and applied study (including ensembles) in their curricular core. Overall, ‘other’ occupied a tiny part of the curriculum even where it did play a role (Hennessy et al, 2014). The core curriculum is already so packed there is little or no flexibility to accommodate emergent areas of study (Drummond, 2012). Drummond made this point with respect to universities in New Zealand, but his observation is relevant to Canada and elsewhere as well. There are many possible solutions – including modular and negotiated curricula, and curricula in blended formats – that require reconstructing the legacy curricular core to include greater emphasis on context and community.

Music in its contexts

Certain trends are readily apparent. Reproducing music written by others is becoming less central and improvising and creating new music in community is becoming more central to new curricula. One of the basic tenets of earlier curricula in most fields of music – that ‘the work in itself’ could be isolated and analysed intelligibly – has given way to a more contextualised approach to the study of repertoire. An artwork is not static and cannot be usefully divorced from its historical, socio-economic, political and other contexts. It changes over time and means one thing to one person and something different to another. Exchanges between composers and listeners, mediated by performers constitute the artwork itself. Nor is a musical event – a jam session or concert – without social meaning. The social dimension of any musical interaction is not the by-product of an aesthetic event. Rather, the aesthetic and social dimensions are closely correlated. It is these two factors – that music exists in particular contexts and that it carries with it social meanings – that, among others, have inspired rethinking the curricular core.

In response to this changing perception of the role of art and artworks, new courses that stress context over content have been developed widely. One such course was added to the Laurier curriculum in 2011. Music in its Contexts, which constitutes the introductory course in the music history sequence, is required of all first-year music students in their first term of study. It comprises a general introduction to music-making in social and cultural contexts and includes lectures and seminars on presentational musics, participatory musics, improvisation, identity, ethnicity, transmission, appropriation, nationalism, politics, religion, faith, money, conflict, media, advertising, theatre, therapy, communities, boundaries, film, visual art, theatre and dance. This course is a step towards bridging a curricular chasm and designing a socially responsible curriculum that includes community contexts at its core.

Community music across the curriculum

As curricular renewal becomes ubiquitous after more than a half-century of comparative inaction, the role of a fast-developing discipline like community music comes under scrutiny. The challenge is to develop a curricular whole greater than the sum of its parts, with community music permeating, not supplementing or complementing current core curricula.

Of course, community music across the curriculum is not new. Community service learning has been offered for credit at most institutions for a couple of decades, as has co-curricular and prior learning assessment recognition. In each of these instances, involvement in community music-making can be formally recognized. But is this enough? Is two or three years of music theory, for example, more important than community practice for the vast majority of aspiring young musicians?

The tide is turning in this regard. I expect that, soon, augmented sixth chords or the birth of opera will no longer supersede issues of social justice and community engagement in core curricula. There is growing awareness that the legacy curricular mix is wrong, that we have the pyramid – what is basic and what is not – upside down. No one would reasonably expect a student to specialize in musicology in graduate school without having first studied music history and theory at the undergraduate level. We would not say of music theory or music history, ‘students can learn this on their own.’ But we do precisely this with respect to community music. ‘Students will find their way’; ‘students will learn by doing’; ‘students can choose to become involved in the community or not’. This way of thinking, implicit in post-secondary core curricula rings hollow today as it should have long ago.

The typical core curricular mix will continue to evolve as community music assumes an increasingly important role, bringing with it rich interdisciplinary perspectives. Done properly, community music will not become a new curricular silo, but will incorporate a spectrum of liberal arts, business, and health studies subjects in addition to other fine and performing arts disciplines. The integration of community music with other disciplines is inevitable. The intersection, for example, of community music and music therapy in community music therapy is fertile ground for innovative program development. At Laurier, a doctoral program that combines these two disciplines is currently in development. And although there is only one graduate degree in community music in Canada at present – at Laurier – there will be many more soon and undergraduate programs will inevitably follow. Most importantly, though, community music will inform the undergraduate curriculum, not as an independent stream or topical add-on, but as an integral part of a revamped core. This responsible course of action is, in my estimation, ineluctable.


It is clear to me that despite myriad opportunities the challenges community music presents to the academy are enormous. But the funders that make higher learning in music possible – private, corporate and government contributors, and students and their parents who pay tuition – are anticipating a return on investment that is measurable in terms, not only of personal and professional development, but of social and community capital as well. This brings us full circle to public accountability and to the belief, which is central to community music principles, that arts and arts education funded with public money should benefit the greatest number of people possible at risk and in need in any community.

In Canada, higher education in music has always been ensconced in universities. Tuition fees cover only a small portion of program costs and the remaining funding derives from government grants. The cost of educating music students is borne largely by taxpayers who have an expectation that communities will be enriched by their investment. What is evolving is widespread awareness that fine and performing arts disciplines in higher education must articulate their relevance, not by reference to aesthetic values, nor to the arts as an economic driver – two popular rationale in the 1990s – but in terms of the quality of life in a civil society and the enduring values of peace, respect for difference, and care for the vulnerable. For conservatories and universities to relegate community music to any place other than the undergraduate curricular core is to abjure responsibility to create sustainable programming that fosters and furthers the public good.


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