The aim of undergraduate popular music education is to provide a space for indulging in pursuit of one’s art and craft. It’s a handful of years to focus on ‘me’. Who am I musically, socially, and emotionally, and how can I turn that into a meaningful life and career? At the institution where I teach, we also offer a master’s degree in popular music performance on which “you can focus on realising your unique identity as a musician”, unencumbered by too many external distractions. This virtuous obsession with the righteous destiny of one’s eminently deserving self is embedded in the essence what it means to be American (since the arrival of European settlers, anyway) and in what it is to be a successful citizen of the wealthy global north. We can trace it back to Aristotle’s ethics of “eudaimonism”, a model for those of us who, like this writer, “are quietly and decisively living their lives according to their own inner imperative”.[1

Along this journey of self-centredness, we are increasingly encouraged to be ever more ‘mindful’, to be exclusively and fully present in the moment. I have instinctively resisted that trend, except sometimes when I am drumming, writing, or teaching (Ruth Whipmann calls mindfulness out as unhelpful in this recent New York Times article), and only then because I can’t help it – I prefer to be distracted, I like to keep multiple plates spinning. But there is something toxic, I think, about this relentless pressure to focus on me, my time and my goals. With notions of musical success – however we might try to convince ourselves otherwise – so intrinsically interwoven with financial, commercial, and competitive ambitions, it starts to feel like so much navel-gazing, selfishness, and greed. There is a lot going in the world around us, and we have a duty to pay more attention to it

The most moving success story of a former student to come to my recent attention is not that of the guy I’d taught drums for five years who just debuted at Carnegie Hall; honestly, I fought jealously and resentment when I heard that, albeit tinged with that guiltiest of protestant pleasures, Pride. I was moved to tears last month, however, reading a message from Chloe, a young woman I admired for her innovative, hi-tech “post modern trip hop/psych soul” music. Her email was a long, warm communication, oozing joy, compassion, and humanity, relaying how she had discovered something she finds as fulfilling as making music – her work with refugee children in the Calais ‘jungle’ in northern France (since razed by the authorities, causing the disappearance of over 100 unaccompanied children).

After all of the marvellously clever rhetoric, musical insight, and drumming technique that I’ve shared with hundreds of students over 20 years of teaching, Chloe broke through the façade that I and others like me maintain, by actually making a difference to the world outside (although, paradoxically, inside) of our big, comfy bubble full of global capitalism’s victors and benefactors. Of course, she gained personally from her charitable work too – there may be little action that is purely altruistic – but this does not diminish her work, either in music or among refugees. Did I help her on that journey at all? I don’t know.

I recall being struck by the words of Cambridge scholar, Mark de Rond, who during a conference presentation at the University of York, warned that in ethnographic research one always ends up betraying someone – either oneself or another. I wonder – with concern, some shame, and yet hope – if the same might be true of working as a professor in popular music education. I never aim to betray any of my students, the college, my responsibilities to my fellow humans, or myself, but I wonder about my priorities, and about those of the system that I love and which we serve. How to achieve the balance I am confident I am missing, is really anyone’s guess. For now, I’m looking to Chloe.


[1] Norton, David L. 1976. Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.




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