Dr Alexis Kallio was appointed the Deputy Director (Research) of the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University (QCGU) in 2021, adding to her extensive experience in the field of music education. While many people appreciate music as a form of entertainment, there is the potential for a more critical examination of the study and teaching of music and the contexts that music operates within. In this Q&A, Dr Kallio discusses the interrelation between music education and politics, and shares her vision for the future of the discipline.
Q & A:
How did you become interested in the field of music education, and especially how it relates to diversity and politics?
Before my academic life, I was a secondary school classroom music teacher working in an all-boys public school. It didn’t take me long to realise that music was more than just a school subject for these young people, but an arena within which they explored and expressed who they were (and who they were becoming) and a means to figure out where (or with whom) they belonged. My first year of teaching was a crash course in heavy metal, punk, hip-hop and other musics that I didn’t learn a whole lot about in my music education degree, and questions arose for me as to how I could include these musical worlds as part of our classroom learning when many of them were explicitly anti-authoritarian and in opposition to ‘school life’.
These questions led me to a doctorate at the University of the Arts Helsinki in Finland, where I found out that teachers navigate complex—and at times conflicting—ethical frameworks in determining which musics are appropriate for whom and what music education ought to be for. Music was more than an artefact—and music education was not only about knowledge transmission or the development of musical technique or skill, but social action that carries with it histories and values and ideals. These ideas have gained nuance as I’ve worked together with young people, teachers, musicians and policymakers in Sápmi, Finland, Cambodia, Israel, Nepal and Australia. Each of these experiences and relationships has taught me something new, but the focus on equity and justice has remained consistent, while learning that the realisation of these ideals can look (and sound) very different for different people in different contexts.
‘Music education is always political.’
Can you explain more about how music education relates to systemic inequality, oppression and discrimination?
Music education is always political. It is always both inclusive and exclusive and is an everyday arena through which we exercise agency, negotiate power and explore who we are in relation to others. My work focuses particularly on contexts where music is positioned as transformative practice, such as schools and now juvenile justice centres.
On the one hand, music can provide an opportunity for dominant social groups to articulate their values very clearly through the legitimisation of certain musics over others, and be wielded as a civilising power by designating certain individuals as ‘in need’ or ‘less than’ and highlighting particular ideals of who we should be(come) in and through music education. For example, in societies such as Australia, where we continue to live within the genealogies of coloniality, we might ask why the music that continues to be prioritised in schools is at least 13,000 km and 200 years removed from our students’ lives and experiences. I don’t want to suggest that we stop teaching Mozart or Beethoven, but we should ask why we teach their music (and to whom) and what for.
Yet music is also incredibly powerful in bringing people together to disrupt the status quo, resist oppression and imagine (and voice) alternative ways of being and being together. It is very difficult to think of a social protest that has taken place without music, but these instances can also be on a smaller and more commonplace scale.
How can the study of music be improved?
Firstly, I think that music needs a secure place in our schools. Queensland has long held an amazing reputation as a world leader in offering music taught by qualified, specialist music educators to all children in schools. This is currently under threat and is really concerning. Secondly, trust. We spend a lot of time and resources training teachers, and I think that autonomy is essential if these teachers are to respond to the unique needs of the students and communities with whom they work. I think that sometimes in trying to ensure quality, we over-monitor teachers and over-emphasise the quantification of achievement. This often ends up restraining creativity and potential rather than supporting it. Thirdly, support and resources. Teaching is a never-ending process of learning (a lot like research). If we want to achieve an equitable and ethical music education (whether in schools or elsewhere), we need to create networks where we can continue to learn, grow, change our minds and be in conversation with others.
In terms of university education, I strongly believe in the value of inquiry. The last couple of years have made very clear that a focus on preparing students to be ‘job ready’ is risky—what many students imagined for themselves at the onset of their studies may no longer exist or the careers and livelihoods that they might pursue may not exist yet. But the ability to ask questions, listen to others, think critically and creatively, and engage meaningfully with other ways of seeing, performing, hearing and being in the world is more relevant than ever. This is highlighted in music. Leaders in many parts of the world are recognising the importance of the arts in social and cultural recovery, individual and collective wellbeing, and supporting or leading positive change—and I think that inquiry skills can lead us beyond education as training for qualification to a lifelong process of learning and exploring new, creative opportunities.
‘ … the ability to ask questions, listen to others, think critically and creatively, and engage meaningfully with other ways of seeing, performing, hearing and being in the world is more relevant than ever.’
You were recently appointed as the Deputy Director for Research at the Queensland Conservatorium. Congratulations! What kind of work is involved in your role and what are some of the upcoming projects at the Conservatorium that you are excited about?
Thank you! I am very excited to be taking on this new role at a time when the entire Queensland Conservatorium is looking towards the future, with the appointment of our new director Prof Bernard Lanskey as well as the establishment of our new Creative Arts Research Institute led by Prof Vanessa Tomlinson. This is really an opportunity to recognise the outstanding work that the QCGU research community are already known for (both within academia and outside of it) and to imagine what work we might do in the future. As Deputy Director (Research) I am committed to fostering a collaborative research culture—not only amongst faculty but all staff, HDRs, students and the communities that we work together with—and furthering our strengths in socially engaged, responsible and creative inquiry.
In your years of studying music education, what is one of the most surprising things you have discovered in your research?
In trying to not only do research on issues of equity or justice, but to research in equitable and just ways, one of the most surprising things to discover is how creative the inquiry process itself can be. Especially acknowledging that the university is part of the same structures of social reproduction and knowledge legitimation as any other social system, I am increasingly critical of research approaches that present methods as formulaic recipe books. Aiming to engage in responsible inquiry that is answerable to those I work together with, it seems futile to try to follow a set of pre-defined rules underpinned by select assumptions as to what constitutes knowledge and how I should extract it and repackage it for academic consumption. I am indebted to scholars outside of music education such as Elizabeth St. Pierre, Aaron Kuntz, Leigh Patel and Dylan Robinson, whose writings all inspire me to return to my artistic roots and approach inquiry as an equally creative (and fun) process as music.
For people who are interested in the politics of music education, are there any resources that you can recommend?
I have been privileged to write in exceptionally good company recently, and two collections that I (co)edited were published earlier this year:
- Kallio, A.A. (Ed.) (2021). Difference and Division in Music Education. Routledge.
- Kallio, A.A., Westerlund, H., Karlsen, S., Marsh, K. & Saether, E. (Eds.) (2021). The Politics of Diversity in Music Education. Springer.
Writings more specifically on research methods and the ethics of inquiry include:
- Kallio, A.A. (2021). Doing dirty work: Listening for ignorance amongst the ruins of reflexivity in music education research. In A.A. Kallio, H. Westerlund, S. Karlsen, K. Marsh & E. Saether (Eds). The Politics of Diversity in Music Education (pp. 53-67). Springer
- Kallio, A.A. (2020). Decolonizing music education research and the (im)possibility of methodological responsibility. Research Studies in Music Education 42(2), 177-191.