Review: Josephine Miller’s “Community-based Traditional Music in Scotland”

Image: the John Wheatley Building and Community College, Haghill, in East End Glasgow, used as the venue for many classes described in this book, opened in 2007.

This study, extensively grounded in ethnomusicological and sociological theory and reflective methodology, uses an ethnographic description of teaching and learning in a traditional music community group to suggest wider lessons about music participation, transmission and pedagogy in ‘post-folk-song-revival’ contemporary Scotland.  It’s relevance to Scottish music history lies in its detailed description of how ‘traditional music’ has developed as a community of practice since the mid-20th century folk-music revival. Since political narratives of Scottish cultural identity attract public funding, as the study at various points mentions, some attention to the ground-roots presence and meaning of ‘tradition’ is timely.

Josephine Miller herself is a folk-fiddler, with a long-standing connection with community organisations such as the Glasgow Folk-Music Workshop (also known as the Glasgow Fiddle Workshop or GFW), the group whose activities she describes in this book.  Her formulation of ‘a pedagogy of participation’ is based on a collection of social markers: “a community-based organisation, designated but flexible roles for tutors, organisers and participants, a curriculum of core skills and shared repertoire and participant-centred learning practices.” (introduction, xiii).

The GFW has a large participation base, but mostly teaches adults over the age of 16.  A similar pedagogical approach seems to have been used in teaching a wide range of instruments (fiddle, ukulele, guitar, mandolin, accordion, whistle, banjo and song), and Miller suggests that practice here is reasonably reflective of what happens in community groups around Scotland. I found myself also wishing that the ethnography might have included rather more detailed ethnographic information about the particular social background of the GFW participants, perhaps acknowledging how the intersection of wider social factors pertinent to Glasgow’s East End might impact on pedagogy: the study was rather light on that additional layer of narrative, although it did lightly touch on groups elsewhere in Scotland, as comparators to this core group.

Introductory sections define Miller’s terms of engagement.

  • She notes that the term ‘pedagogy’ is conventionally used to describe child-centred teaching rather than adult learning. Despite which caveat, she elects to use that term, arguing that in this particular community of practice, the same philosophy applies across the age range.  Some readers might find that assertion problematic, as (perhaps) young learners and adult learners bring different expectations of what a ‘teacher’ might offer them, and the nature of that relationship.
  • Traditional music’ – which Miller feels to be a term more relevant to what she has experienced than the term ‘folk’ which has become more associated with music of the 1960s and 70s – raises questions about transmission as well as of repertoire.  ‘Traditional’ musicians may be interested in the music not only of their own community but of other communities (p.4), providing that these diverse repertoires might be taught using similar (non-literate) techniques, in social group settings.  For many participants, it is the social setting rather than simply the sound that is most appealing to them: they value the process of music-making as much as if not more than the simple musical objects.
  • Scotland has a long tradition of community-based music making, from town and workplace bands and choral societies, to strathspey and reel societies, many originating from the civic structures of the 19th and 20th centuries.  These have been reinforced by ‘revival’ groups such as those associated with the Gaelic movement and by extra-curricular extension of publically-funded education policies which have encouraged traditional music learning in schools. Engagement data gathered by the Traditional Music Forum (p.7) clearly shows that these community groups are where many people ‘learn’ musical skills today both during and after formal schooling.  Miller acknowledges that different groups have different levels of skill requirement and formality.  This reviewer wonders whether adult learning may tend towards the informal and social, particularly in areas of multiple social deprivation such as Glasgow’s East End.  Community groups catering for adults who are making independent rather than parent-led choices, and whose priority might be relief from the pressures of everyday life and/or work rather than any kind of qualification acquisition, will tend to have different priorities from school curricula which tends in practice to be more assessment-orientated. Miller is, however, on the nail when she suggests that ‘playing’ rather than ‘learning’ may be what participants feel is happening in these community groups wherever they exist, even if both happen concurrently.

In the contexts Miller describes, the tutor is a model member of a community of practice (see the work of Kenny), and learners aspire to be ‘more like them’, or, more competent group members.  The author asks, in an environment where ‘traditional music’ learners are likely to value oral and informal methods of learning, how do teachers position themselves as expert? What are the pedagogical tools and methods at work?

Four key elements of a successful participant-led environment are highlighted in the book:

  • Flexible use of both oral and literate methods of transmission, recognising that notation has been part of the tradition of transmission of Scottish music from at least the 18th It could be asked, in what prior learning context participants might be expected to learn about notation, and case studies show literacy acquisition happening almost by stealth eg. pp.56-7.
  • An emphasis on events that facilitate live music participation over more goal-directed presentational performances. The model of the ‘session’ in contrast with the ‘concert’ is explored in chapter 4. Even the session is shown not to be simply spontaneous; the author describes various structured preparation steps that might be necessary to make these experiences enjoyable for all concerned, levelling up skills gaps as far as possible between players and listeners.
  • Responsiveness to what the learner brings into the workshop environment – although the case studies show clearly that listening to and imitating the tutor is core to learning, with the expert needing to “break down” and then build up a tune into manageable fragments, until the group could successfully play together the whole flow e.g. p.50-55). Chapter 5 discusses individual musical journeys within the group framework, with some useful thoughts on the kinds of tutor comments that might encourage participants to recognise they have a role to play in developing independent musicianship. Miller wrote this book during COVID19, and speculates on how that period of enforced online engagement might have brought to the fore fresh ideas about self-led learning;
  • Respect for social musicking, and interest in facilitating familial, friendship and/or location-based models to welcome people whose own background may lie outside these paradigms; clearly, friendly, familiar people and places, are important. Chapter 6, on creating a sense of shared identity, develops these points. Despite being rather overly wrapped in theory, the take-away points seem to be that ‘friendliness’ and peer-to-peer learning opportunities helped participants to identify with the most successful groups: “atmosphere, chat and playing” (p.117) help people to build relationships alongside and in addition to the core tutor-learner binary. In other (Turino’s) words, in these groups, music is social life.

So, what should a tutor teach?  How is repertoire organised in such an environment?  Miller acknowledges that this in practice is tutor-led, and that organisations might have some core material (common tunes that everyone at a session or event might play together), but argues that tutors can also encourage suggestions from participants, and that different tutors might bring diverse tunes to the table.  What is important is not a single canon of repertoire, so much as a ‘canon of social belonging’ (p,128).

Quibbles aside, this book has two great qualities and points of relevance to historical Scottish music studies.  Firstly, its ethnographic method demonstrates how traditional music in Scotland has continued to evolve as a profoundly social phenomenon since the mid-20th century folk revival. This is, clearly, a living tradition, and attention to the means used to maintain and create music within the framework is welcome and timely. Secondly, Miller is refreshingly pragmatic, recognising – once we strip away some of the denser passages of theory – that what matters is letting people play together cooperatively, using their peculiar talents and aptitudes to explore music together, rather than implementing a single model method.  The method is to be open to change and development. This, in the context of traditional music, is a helpful intervention, and suggests that historical research into particular organisations and cultural leaders still has a part to play in the historiography of Scottish music.  More, please, on the peculiarities of place and person.

Further Reading / Information

  • Josephine L Miller, Community-based Traditional Music in Scotland: A Pedagogy of Participation (Abingdon: Routledge, 2022 (2023 on title page)
  • Glasgow Folk-Music Workshop –
  • Ailbhe Kenny, Communities of Musical Practice (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016)
  • Thomas Turino, Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation (Chicago University Press, 2008), on the categories of ‘participation’ and ‘presentation’ in music.

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