Zoltán Kodály’s Inspiration and the Challenges of the 21st Century by Gilbert de Greeve

Keynote speech given at the 2005 IKS Symposum

In line with the Conference theme I would like to invite you to some reflection about Zoltán Kodály and the Challenges of the 21st Century.

Before saying anything else, let me emphasise the fact that these “challenges” do not relate exactly to the moment that the century started.

Of course the turn of a millennium, whether it was on January 1st, 2000 or 2001 – who cares – is a reference point that appeals strongly to our imagination. And, without any doubt, it is a good moment to deeply think about the future, about what is coming up and how one can deal with it.
Looking forward is a necessary and positive move. But let us also not forget “to remember” what we “had” and what “was” good. It may help to better understand the forthcoming challenges and prevent future generations from “re-inventing” the wheel over and over again.

As I mentioned already, “new” challenges are not depending on “historical timing” but on “historical happenings”. Most of the times it were “revolutions” or –in the better cases– “evolutions” of one or another nature.

Since this particular Conference is focused on the 21st century, I would say that the most important happenings of the last 50 years, causing new and big challenges, were the beginning of the exploration of space in 1957, generating an enormous technical and industrial revolution in electronics and informatics; 1968, when the happenings in Paris and elsewhere inspired the whole world to reflect on spiritual freedom, resulting in a number of new philosophical and ethical approaches of life and society, and 1989, when the Berlin wall came down and the whole political world landscape changed. Most probably, a number of the educational challenges of today are more or less directly related to these 3 “evolutions”.

The exploration of space drastically speeded up the invention of powerful and more powerful computers and smaller and smaller computer chips. And one of the important issues to be addressed nowadays is “how” to use this technology in a meaningful way in education. I also think that it is no longer a matter of “whether” computers should or should not be used. That question is completely past time.

The pro’s and contra’s have been well known for many years already. I can have sympathy for both as long as the “pro’s” give a clear picture on the didactics of using the tool and the “contra’s” do not only start from ignorance or aversion.

But personally I am tempted to think that the use of new technologies cannot and should not be avoided. Furthermore, intrinsically a “technology” is not good or bad; it all depends on how it is applied.

It will be an important challenge to investigate whether there has been enough consideration given and reflection done on this issue. Consideration and reflection going beyond personal opinion and based upon serious and profound research.

Do not expect clear answers from me today. I do not have them. My goal is to raise the questions, hoping that it will provoke the necessary thinking. In fact the questions about new technologies and their suitability in education is a topic that deserves a Conference on its own.

But two things I can say with great conviction: (1) computers should never be a “replacement” for the teacher (unfortunately these tendencies exist) and (2), computer programmes should not create false expectations, such as pretending that a child can be a “composer” by pushing button A for an automatic second voice to a tune or – even worse – button B for a full orchestration.

There must be good and meaningful ways to use informatics in music education. But the danger is again that in the development of the programmes the “commercial” objectives strongly prevail above the aesthetic and educational ones. Perhaps we are not aware enough of what is going on in that field and should learn from Robert Schumann, for whom Kodály –as we know– had a great admiration and often pointed to as a source for his inspiration. Therefore let me quote Schumann for a moment. He wrote: “I am affected by everything that goes on in the world and think it all over in my own way, politics, literature and people, and then I long to express my feelings and find an outlet for them in music.” (Unquote).

Musicians and music educators should be “involved” in the development of educational computer programmes, instead of waiting on the sideline to see what will come out. Already in 1953 at the so important UNESCO Conference on “The Place and Role of Music in the Education of Youth and Adults” one of the commissions wrote: (I quote) “In view of the technical developments of means for the mechanical reproduction and diffusion of music, and because of the influence which these can have upon the growth of the musical taste of young people and adults, this commission recommends that through the intermediary of Unesco and its National Commissions, strong representations be made to those public and private authorities responsible for production and diffusion in these media of mass communication that: Greater consideration be given to the choice and transmission of works of the highest musical quality. Programmes and recordings be prepared in close consultation with music education specialists so as to assure the best interest of community music education”. (Unquote). It is clear that it is not a “new challenge”. And it is also clear that the right answers have not been found yet nor have they been implemented. More, much more research and engagement of the music world will be needed. Perhaps yet another task for the International Kodály Society: to take a lead in this process and to continuously raise attention that “quality” should never be “optional”…

When in 1968 students in Paris and subsequently almost everywhere else began their philosophical and ethical revolution, soon it became clear that the world would never be the same again. Many books were published –and many more will be– about the “raise and fall” of the world since then. But not even the most nostalgic people can deny that the “spiritual liberation” of the second half of the 20th century was a blessing in many ways. However, it has also led in certain areas to an unfortunate decline of established values. That is quite understandable because the process concerned a “reaction” against the whole “establishment”. But, as it was so often the case in history, some of these reactions exceeded limits that cannot be exceeded without paying a serious price for it.

One of the most unfortunate reactions concerned “ethics”. Suddenly the word “ethics” became the enemy, a meaning associated with parental and school authority, often also with dogmatic issues and respect for the law.

Nowadays, even the greatest protagonists of 1968 have to admit that a society cannot function in a total and unconditioned freedom. There is more needed. For instance self- and mutual respect or professional integrity, to name just these two.
Again we can turn to the inspiration of Zoltán Kodály who was, as Professor Alexander Ringer wrote it so well, a “Vir justus”, a “right man”. Let me refer to o¬ne passage of that article: (I quote) Kodály was unfettered by extraneous considerations, answering only to the firm commands of his unswerving conscience and creative impulse and thus a lasting blessing to all who believe in music as the crucial cornerstone of the entire humanistic enterprise. (Unquote).
The way in which Dr. Ringer describes Kodály does not only refer to his writings and speeches but also to his compositions and research. In fact it concerns his complete lifestyle. A lifestyle that was “inspirational” to those who closely worked with him, a lifestyle that gave him the authority to stand up and speak freely at a time when these “human liberties” were not at all evident in his world.
This is another big educational challenge for the future: to find the most suitable ways of teaching “ethics” to children, especially in a media-dominated world with an overvalued focus on material things. Besides, there is this most dangerous evolution of “social isolation” –people retiring themselves almost totally before a screen, be it a television or a computer– and the sometimes extremely refined indoctrination of the media, promoting programmes filled with complete emptiness or, even worse, with violent, disgusting – so-called – “reality”. These presentations thoroughly denigrate the thinking and questioning capacity of the masses.

On the other hand the situation becomes even more dangerous when it concerns “steered” programming to plant seeds of fanaticism and extremism of whatever kind they may be. Only “education” can change that negative tendency, and to live in a more peaceful world by 2025, the process must begin immediately.

Again do not expect concrete suggestions from me. It will be a long and difficult time. But the role of the educator will be crucial and, without any chauvinism, the music educator’s contribution will be even more crucial, because ethics and aesthetics have to go hand in hand.

Once, when Kodály was asked: “what is that, a good teacher”? His answer was strikingly short and clear: “a good teacher is an inspired personality”. Reflecting on that sentence, there are two obvious key words: “inspiration” and “personality”, and one “hidden” meaning: “example”. A good teacher must be exemplary to his/her students. But to be exemplary requires a development beyond methodological and didactical skills. It requires great vision and the courage of permanent and continuing study. It is an enormous responsibility, in particular in a society that rather inclines towards hedonism instead of idealism.
Nothing new of course. I remember a survey done in New York City in 1969. One evening around 10 pm, about 300 homes were telephoned with the intention to research whether the parents knew where their growing up children were at that moment. In more than 70% of the calls they got hold of growing up children that did not know where their parents were. Today, with both parents working, almost a necessity in the present society, it may be worse, transferring the responsibility of educating children even more to the school and the teachers.

And then 1989, when suddenly the whole political landscape changed. Even more surprising than the fact “that it happened” was “the way” in which the evolution occurred. When the euphoria was over it became clear how big the challenges were and, unfortunately, because of many promises that were not kept, most of the challenges are even bigger today.

A good friend, former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Belgium –and an excellent amateur musician– mentioned more than 30 years ago that the “problem” of the future would not be the West-East issue but the North-South one. How prophetic these words were can be witnessed today. A great part of the world’s population is living in poverty and every day thousands die of starvation or a lack of the most basic medical care. This situation would be terrible if it was unavoidable. But it is not, and that makes it criminal.

And again, the only way out might begin with “education”. Quality education for which –as so often stated nowadays by governments– is no more money available. In some cases it may be true; in other ones it is absolutely not. But in “all” cases it is certainly not the “only” problem.

Zoltán Kodály spoke wise words when he said that “not the emptiness of the purse is the problem but the emptiness of the mind”. Wise words indeed and a clear indication to the force of imagination and invention.

Long before CDs and DVDs were common goods, I attended a class of Music Analysis in the Antwerp Conservatory. The Professor, a composer and remarkable personality, had nothing but an old record player at his disposal. However, his way of illustrating a score, singing, humming, grumbling and whistling the different parts of the orchestra (depending on their timbre) whilst tapping with hands and feet different rhythmical patterns –all in real time– gave us, his students, a unique insight in the score. We became, as it were, “a part” of the performance. Whenever I hear Stravinsky’s Petrushka I am tempted to compare it with the one-man version of our Professor. And in many cases I am not sure who wins, thanks to his enormous enthusiasm that I remember.

All this said, it is time –I assume– to become very realistic. The Hungarian Music Education Model was –and most probably still is– an example for the whole world. It was and is the fruit of a vision and of great engagement of one of the most important composers of the 20th century: Zoltán Kodály. It was, and is also the result of those who were inspired by him –in Hungary and abroad– and carry on his educational concept, a process that has now spread all over the world.

The Hungarian model is built upon 3 major pillars: the use of quality materials, quality teacher’s training and frequency. It is “that” model that the whole world has wanted to copy after it became internationally known at the 1964 ISME Conference in Budapest. It is “that” model that has been implemented successfully in many countries –be it sometimes with a very different methodological curriculum. It is “that” model that is known as the “Kodály Method” or the “Kodály Concept” or –often also used– as the “Kodály Philosophy”.

I have never met one serious musician or music educator who questioned the value of the Hungarian model and I am sure that I will never meet one.

But there is a hard reality attached to it: it can only be optimal if the 3 pillars are intact. Every loss of quality (be it in the use of the materials or in the teacher’s training) or of the frequency will diminish the value of the Hungarian model. It does not mean that it becomes worthless. No, it can still be good, even very good, but it will “not” generate the “same” results as those that the Hungarian schools achieved for decades.

Interestingly enough, on 2 of the 3 pillars musicians and music educators can have a big impact: the materials and the teacher training. It is something where the involvement of the music world is direct and substantial. For the 3rd pillar however, the “frequency”, vision is needed of people outside the music world: politicians, administrators, school boards and principals and –not to forget– parents. Without any doubt it is the most vulnerable of the 3 pillars.

Of course, I know that there are countries that never had more than 1 or 2 music lessons a week. It is a mere “fact” and I have the greatest respect for teachers who achieve the best possible results in the given circumstances. But it should not stop the music world from advocating in every possible way the necessity of making music a “normal and fully-fledged school subject” of the curriculum, taught on a daily basis as an exquisite emotional counterweight against a more and more intellectual approach of smaller and smaller children. That was Kodály’s dream.

I am aware that in most places it might be a struggle for the next 50 years or more. But just imagine that there would be, somewhere, one enlightened politician –who knows– who would understand the crucial importance of a well-balanced “human” education and would have the statesmanship to pursue his conviction. It might be the first little snowball that could grow into something beautiful and extremely important for future generations. After all, when Zoltán Kodály launched his vision on music education, the situation in Hungary was worse than in many places today.

Therefore, Ladies and Gentlemen, one should not only be inspired by his method or concept or even philosophy – if you want – but also and foremost by the “man” the “whole man”, of whom Professor Dénes Dille once mentioned to me, that he should be considered as the greatest human personality of the 20th century.