BBC Radio 3 interview with Gilbert De Greeve

BBC Radio 3 interview with Gilbert De Greeve, then President of the International Kodály Society
Interviewer: Ms. Rachel Hopkin

In the following interview, Mr De Greeve addresses important questions and concerns facing Kodály educators in the 21st century. The future of Kodály music education is just one of many topics for discussion scheduled during the 17th International Kodály Symposium and 24th BKA Summer School, 13th-20th August 2005.

How did Kodály’s ideas come to international prominence?

The first question is WHAT does that mean: Kodály’s ideas? In fact, it is a “vision” (or it can also be called a “concept”) that ‘music ought to be an integral part of universal human knowledge” and that a thoroughly trained teacher, using the best available materials, should teach it on a daily basis as a normal school subject. It is very important to understand that the Kodály concept is not ONE specific method.

In 1964, when the world congress of ISME was held in Budapest, the international music world witnessed with growing astonishment the incredible results of Kodály’s vision on Hungarian schools and on the humanitarian upbringing of Hungarian children and youth. From then on it became a renowned example for the rest of the world. 1964 was 14 years after the first so called music-primary school had started in Kecskemét.

Immediately afterwards many musicians and music educators from abroad started to come to Hungary and to observe and study the, in the meantime, so called Hungarian Model. It resulted in study-groups staying in Hungary for a whole year and in the first Kodály programs outside Hungary. It also, necessarily, led to the first adaptations. To assist in these programs abroad very often so called Hungarian “master-teachers” were engaged for a certain period or sometimes even on a permanent basis.

That process emerged into the organization of the ‘First International Kodály Symposium’ in Oakland (California) in1973, followed by the ‘Second International Kodály Symposium in Kecskemét (Hungary) in 1975. It was at that Symposium that the foundation of the International Kodály Society took place.

Since then an International Kodály Symposium has been organized every two years: (1977 Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1979 Sydney, Australia, 1981 Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, 1983 Antwerp, Belgium, 1985 London, United Kingdom, 1987 Kecskemét, Hungary, 1989 Athens, Greece, 1991 Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1993 West Hartford, Connecticut, USA, 1995 Assisi, Italy, 1997 Manila, Philippines, 1999 Kecskemét, Hungary, 2001 Helsinki, Finland, 2003 Newcastle, Australia.) In the past 30 years many books about Kodály and his music education vision were published and numerous articles appeared in scientific- and music magazines.

The International Kodály Society is a worldwide forum bringing together all working in the fields of music, musical research and music education. It supports their efforts to ensure children and youth the so necessary, and too often lacking, balance between the development of intellectual potential and emotional growth, through education in general and through music education in particular. At this moment the International Kodály Society has members in 34 countries, but the concept is applied in many more.

A very important factor in the success of the concept is of course Kodály’s fame as composer and researcher.

How relevant (or not) are the ideas in the ‘global classroom’ today?

The methodological concept (the use of folksongs, good materials, the teaching always starting from the musical source, etc.) is used worldwide and on a large scale. Unfortunately the philosophical vision (that music ought to be taught on a daily basis and as a normal school subject) is less relevant, due to educational options, subsequently budget cuts for art education, of governments.

Are any cultures particularly suited (or not) to the ideas? It is again a matter of making a distinction between the philosophical and the methodological side of the concept?

Philosophically the concept is not at all Hungarian. It is simply ‘universal’ and suitable for any culture. However, the methodological part is so to speak “local”, the result of research on the specific elements of the culture. But that issue is a “technical” one that only requires capable authorities to draft it. I think that it is rather a question of “society” circumstances. For instance a society focused primarily on the material and the vocational, won’t be interested much in adapting an educational system that requires time and space for a daily music lesson.

And there is also the misunderstanding that the Kodály concept would not be suitable in countries that use the so-called “absolute solfege”. It is not correct but it is hard to convince those that do not want to or cannot understand.

With the right attitude and the professional know-how the Kodály concept is adaptable to any culture.

Difficulties encountered by trying to use the ideas internationally (for example, the mother tongue issue, particularly in mixed classrooms)?

The mixed classroom is a real challenge, but again, it concerns the methodological side and not the philosophical vision. In Hungary, great attention was paid from the beginning to introduce the children also to songs from other countries as well as to the “great” music.

By the way, the extensive report of the First International Conference on “The Role and Place of Music in the Education of Youth and Adults”, held in Brussels in 1953, sponsored by UNESCO and the International Music Council, already mentioned the following: ‘as a step towards understanding between the peoples, school songbooks should contain songs selected from all over the world’.

Thus it is a matter of finding the greatest common devisor among the various cultural traditions present in the class. As I said already it is a real challenge because it requires great craftsmanship of the teachers and their principals, as well as the flexibility to adapt their materials every year again. But it is not an insuperable problem.

Difficulties encountered by trying Kodály’s vision in modern music?

Well, the Kodály concept is not used IN certain kinds of music. It USES music to start up a process of music education. However, I assume that with modern music you are referring to the different kinds of pop; rock; etc., the so called “entertainment music” and that the question is whether this music (in fact we should rather speak of “musics”) can be used as materials to teach the Kodály concept. Strangely enough, and many may be surprised, I would say yes. But, for a number of reasons it would not be “wise” to use entertainment music for teaching purposes. For instance, because even the best of these “musics” are usually very “time-linked”, containing often one aspect of a fugitive musical expression. Besides these musics are usually conceived following commercial intentions and, certainly nowadays, rather focusing on rhythmical patterns than on genuine emotional expressions.

So, the question should not so much be whether it is good or bad to use modern music but rather how “suitable” this music is in a music education program. And then the answer is that much better materials can be found in the folk music and in the so-called “serious” music.

How do you decide what is good music?

Music nor art in general are exact sciences. It is impossible to define in a formula what is good and what is bad music. On the contrary music is subjective and whether it is experienced as good or bad is a matter of taste. It is perfectly possible – how unthinkable it may be – that someone does not like Beethoven, or Mozart or Bach, not to speak about Schoenberg or Hindemith.

The only trustable judge is time. We often seem to forget that Mozart and Haydn, for instance, to name just a few, had hundreds of colleagues’ composers. Yet their colleagues creations have not sustained the time in the same way. Folk music, however, often passed on orally before it was finally produced in written form, has been purified by the time. On top of it, it mostly has texts referring to historical, social or professional happenings, introducing the children to the history of their own culture and many of the songs for the very little children are also plays, facilitating the learning process. That is why they make so good materials.

So, I would not dare to say that this is good and that is bad music. In every genre are good and less good. And although there are certain criteria that cannot be neglected, it remains a matter of personal taste.

What kind of opposition does face Kodály’s vision?

Every creation always also creates opposition. If I would list the major reasons for criticism I would say that the top three are “ignorance”, “misunderstanding” and “envy”.

– For instance the thesis that Kodály’s vision could only prosper in a totalitarian regime, which is, of course, completely wrong.

– The discussion about what is the best, “relative so-fa” or the “absolute solfege”. There are even people who think that Kodály “invented” the relative so-fa or the so-called “hand-signs” or “rhythm-syllables”.

– One of the most incredible statements I recently heard is that the Kodály concept is an “historical” one that is not suitable for the modern time.

So, to answer your question, to my knowledge there is no opposition that is grounded on scientific research or that should be taken seriously. By the way, what opposition could there be against the idea that music should be a part of the general education of every human being? Opposition is nothing to worry about. The greatest danger for the Kodály concept, as far as I can see it is in its permanent evolution. Many outstanding ideas have been ruined at the end through so called “amelioration” and “personal interpretation”. The challenge will be to never loose sight on the sources of the concept, which can be found in the Selected Writings of Zoltán Kodály and, in a simplified form, also in ‘Music Should Belong to Everyone’, a recently published book by Ildiko Herbóly-Kocár and the IKS.

Where next?

Unfortunately that is a question that is depending on the statesmanship and brightness of many. It is not a favorable time for the arts and certainly not for art education. That is a great pity because the most important remains of any civilization are its expressions of art.

So, if “where next” means “quo vadis musica” I would like to quote one of my dear friends, the late Professor Alexander Ringer, who once referred to the famous sentence “can art save the world” as being totally wrong. It should be, he said, “can the world save the arts?” It will be an enormous responsibility for politicians and other responsible in the educational field to care for programs that not only develop the brains but also the human feelings. If that will be their concern, which it should be, the arts and music in particular will have to be taken as seriously as the ancient Greeks did it.

But if “where next” is referring specifically to the Kodály concept, I am convinced that the musical world will continue to have great interest in his compositions, in his unique research and in his humanitarian vision on the importance of music as a cornerstone of the entire humanistic enterprise.