Common Artistry and SMS

Common Artistry

The term Common Artistry (West, 2012) derives from working with adults, particularly teachers, who are afraid of music making because they believe themselves to be unmusical. As the name implies, Common Artistry means that artistry is common, not rare, in humans. It is based on evidence from academic literature and, to a certain extent, on popular media as well, although in both cases there is mixed information. Even academic literature may display aspects of the confusion evident in popular media where the messages about the common nature of human artistry can be mixed (West, 2007). On the one hand, we claim that artistic behaviour is normal human behaviour. On the other hand, our educational methods seem to suggest that artistic behaviour requires serious training and possibly special talent as well.

One may ask why the term Common Artistry? Since the term developed in relation to observation of a problem in music, particularly singing, why not Common Musicianship? Or, if the problem relates specifically to singing, why not Common Singing, or the like? The answer lies in the experience of working with adults afraid to sing. Usually an adult’s opinion of his/her1 vocal ability has its roots in childhood. As indicated by researchers such as Asmus (1986), a child’s belief in his internal ability to improve himself gradually mutates into a belief in the fixed nature of his skills – being a ‘bad’ singer becomes an unchangeable part of his identify. We cannot alter his belief about his singing voice by telling him he has a good voice. Trying to help individuals overcome their lack of belief in their musicianship or singing ability through, as is often the case, exercises designed to ‘improve’ one’s ability to sing is part of what I label ‘buy back’ into the very problem we are trying to overcome. In the first instance, we not only don’t need exercises to ‘fix’ people’s voices – we need to not focus on ‘fixing’ the voice at all. We need to first help each individual begin to understand that he is an artistic person in general, and that his artistry may be expressed in any number of ways. If singing holds particular fears, there are other ways of being artistically expressive. Indeed, each individual may already be, or see themselves to be, artistic in other ways. Linking that sense of artistry with the possibility of artistry in music builds on a strength rather than a weakness. If other forms of artistry are, for whatever reasons, less frightening than music, particularly singing, then starting with those forms is a step in the right direction.

Common Artistry, then, is designed to indicate that human beings are artistic in range of ways including, but not limited to, musical ways. We cannot insist that every adult actively attempts to be musical and the more we might focus on such a goal, the less likely we are to achieve it. If, however, every adult can accept their basic artistic compulsion and behave artistically in some way, any way, we are already having an impact on his/her view of him/herself, which might, in time, lead to musical behaviour as well. We use the term Common Artistry because it is designed to be less confronting to all our fears of artistic and creative behaviour.

Asmus, E P. (1986). Student beliefs about the causes of success and failure in music – a study of achievement motivation. Journal of Research in Music Education, 34(4), 262-278.
West, S., (2009). Selective Mutism for Singing: Conceptualising Musical Disengagement as Mass Social Dysfunction, Conference Proceedings, Australian Society for Music Education Conference, Launceston, url: http://musicengagementprogram.org/resources/research/
West, S., (2012). Common Artistry: releasing the musician within us all. International Society for Music Education conference, Greece, url: http://musicengagementprogram.org/resources/research/

Selective Mutism for Singing (SMS)

The concept of Selective Mutism for Singing (West, 2009) is derived, as the name implies, from the recognised psychological condition Selective Mutism. An original definition of the latter – ‘the child’s speech and language abilities remain intact but are not used in particular circumstances for psychosocial reasons’ (Carr, 1999, p.249) – is altered to provide a related definition for the former – ‘the individual’s singing ability remains intact but is not used in particular circumstances for psychosocial reasons’ (West, 2007). One of the signs of SMS, as I am defining it, based on the evidence for adult participatory music making, particularly singing, is that it takes an opposite trajectory to SM. The latter, Selective Mutism, is considered to more prevalent in children (Sharp, Sherman and Gross, 2007) while the former, Selective Mutism for Singing, is more prevalent in adults (West, 2007). Both have in common, however, their situation in the broader field of anxiety disorders – in this regard, SMS may also be considered a form of Social Phobia like SM (Anstendig, 1999, Carr, 1999) where individuals will function in appropriate and normal ways except when placed in situations that give rise to the phobia (SMG, 2008).

Two important points emerge from the concept of SMS. First, it is easy to function as a ‘normal’ adult in Western society without ever having to be heard to sing. Secondly, it is perfectly possible that even those who consciously refuse to sing publicly, may inadvertently break into some sort of musical behaviour in private situations where they believe themselves to be alone. If we accept that Common Artistry represents a compulsion to behave in artistic ways, particularly musically, then it would not be surprising to find that no-one is completely mute in SMS. At the same time, cultural considerations suggest that no-one is completely free from it.

While Selective Mutism rarely includes a complete cessation of speech, it is possible to conceptualise Selective Mutism for Singing as having a range of possible ‘levels’, up to and including complete cessation of singing. The ultimate ‘test’ for SMS is the absence of any anxiety when singing alone in front of a room full of adults, since this scenario appears to be the ultimate fear for most adults. While singing in groups is an excellent mechanism for group music making (and central to the Music Outreach Principle described here) it is possibly to be a fluent and enthusiastic choral singer and still harbour fear of having one’s voice heard. Yet few five year olds have such a fear: indeed, the experience in the MEP is that even children who might suffer from Selective Mutism may be perfectly willing to sing alone. Within the concept of Common Artistry, having one’s singing voice heard is considered important and as ‘normal’ as having one’s spoken voice heard, not necessarily as a means of exhibiting skill but as a means of expressing one’s full self in the world.

It may be argued that defining a ‘condition’ like SMS would feed into the fear problem, thus creating more of that problem, rather than relieving it. Experience suggests the opposite, particularly when the term is used in conjunction with the basic operating principle of the MEP, the Music Outreach Principle, discussed here. The problem of SMS is one that everyone can relate to – not just those who lack musical training. The competitive nature of music making, where level of skill is assessed and tested in exams and competitions at all levels, creates a hierarchy which can influence all types of music making, even those designed to be non-competitive. The concept of SMS provides a level playing field, particularly with regard to singing. The experience in the MEP is that accomplished musicians will admit to their discomfort with singing, even to the point of suggesting that playing an instrument allows them to avoid singing, particularly singing alone.

And if one were to ask what we do in order to solve SMS the answer is simple: we just sing a song. If even that feels too difficult, we suggest that the singing is for someone else, using what the MEP calls the Music Outreach Principle.

Anstendig, K. D., (1999). Is Selective Mustim an Anxiety Disorder? Rethinking it’s DSM-IV classification. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 13 (4).
Carr, A. (1999). The Handbook of child and adolescent clinical psychology: a contextual approach. USA: Routledge.
SMG Selective Mutism Group (2008) Definition retrieved from website 25 May, 2008 at: http://www.selectivemutism.org/about-smg/what-is-sm
West, S., (2009). Selective Mutism for Singing: Conceptualising Musical Disengagement as Mass Social Dysfunction, Conference Proceedings, Australian Society for Music Education Conference, Launceston, url: http://musicengagementprogram.org/resources/research/