Education & Philosophy

Stephen Gould: The Music of Leadership

Stephen Gould speaking

Stephen Gould speaking at the 2012 Ikeda Forum

Stephen Gould is assistant professor at Lesley University, where he directs the Educational Leadership Program — in which practicing K-12 school leaders pursue doctorates in educational studies. In addition to his more than 30 years experience as a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent, Dr. Gould has worked as a musician, songwriter, and composer of film scores. This interview, which explores the many connections between effective music making and successful school leadership, is drawn from a series of conversations that Dr. Gould and the Center’s Mitch Bogen engaged in during late 2011 and early 2012. 

Before becoming a professional educator you were a performer and composer of music. How did that set you on the course to your present vocation?

It’s interesting how you can start down a road not knowing where it’s going to take you. You walk down a path and one thing leads to another and sometimes you end up in a strange place or certainly a place that you didn’t intend on, which was the case for me.

My path to the education world started when I was living in New York City and hired to write soundtrack music for documentary films that were being created for educational purposes. The guy who was the head of the company really had a great concept, one that is still pretty unusual. His idea was to produce films for use in schools without narration. The films would have visual images, live sounds, and music and the teacher’s task would then be to use these as a means for discussion. The films were about other cultures and people living in far away places — Afghanistan, Africa, Russia. And so, in doing these film scores I got introduced to an intersection of music and education that I found quite interesting.

Later I found myself living in central Massachusetts, teaching film scoring at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and also working in New York City. Tired of commuting to Boston and New York, I decided to take a job teaching music at an elementary school nearby my home. The job afforded me the opportunity to teach music theory, chorus, instrumental lessons, and band.

I used my music background as a composer and performer to think about what a professional musician needed to know and be able to do and what a good music education should look like. What I did was create and teach a curriculum that allowed kids to perform at a very high level. I employed the same concept as Duke Ellington. Ellington knew his players and wrote music that brought out the unique skills of each individual. Using that concept I wrote music specifically for the kids in my school: music that responded to different levels of proficiency. I wrote music that could be played by all students at different levels simultaneously. So it was not uncommon to have as many as 300 kids on stage acting, singing, dancing, soloing and accompanying each other on a whole range of Orff instruments*, band instruments, guitars, keyboards, and just about anything anyone wanted to learn how to play. The music program became a source of pride in the community and built a sense of community in the school. Ultimately it became a kind of community building activity in which I was engaging with the whole school community, including not only students but teachers and quite a lot with parents, too.

As a result of all that community building, when the principal was getting ready to retire, he said “Look, I’m going to retire in about two years. You should be the principal here.” I had never really thought about it, but then I started getting these ideas that, well if I could do it with kids and music and get them to these high levels of proficiency, then I should be able to do this with the whole school and the entire academic curriculum. And that’s what I said to the community when I was being interviewed and considered for the job.

What are some of the common themes that run through your experience with both fields?

Well, one reason I’ve been satisfied as a school leader and as a teacher of music is that I’ve always been able to engage with people to make something real and positive happen, be it a composition or a curriculum. The same is true in my leadership position at the university.

As a musician you are always trying to create something that moves people, something that causes them to reflect. As a composer you are always organizing sounds to produce a desired effect, or to create a product that is potentially engaging of others. This is very much the same as creating an effective educational organization. How do you make a classroom, a school, or an educational leadership program involve people to create a really great composition? So whether it’s developing curriculum or whether it’s developing an organization, it’s just another aspect of musical experience for me. I see the similarities and they both give me the same sense of enjoyment.

While listening just now, it occurred to me that you were talking about organisms, and not just organizations or compositions.

Well, if you think of organisms as systems, then I think it’s fair to say that I’m really talking about building systems and developing the capacity of schools as an organization to serve the needs of students, parents, and teachers. A musical composition is a system in which players are interacting and creating together. The classroom is also a system. It has a bunch of key elements that all need to align and interact with each other in order to create an engaging learning environment. How the classroom is set up for whole group learning, collaboration, one-to-one interaction and personalized learning is really important. How multi-leveled materials are made available, aligned with the curriculum, and arranged for easy access and self-directed learning are important elements of an instructional system.

You know, whether you are creating a composition, a curriculum, a learning environment, or a university program it’s really a matter of understanding the elements of systems and aligning them into a cohesive and coherent whole. And the truth of the matter is that there’s a huge amount of time that I spend with the school leaders in my program talking about how to align systems within the greater system of the school. Because the classroom community is a system; curriculum, assessment and instruction are a system; and engaging parents requires a communication system, the challenge of the school leader is to build the capacity of an organization and the people in it so that all systems function really well.

And here it’s similar to what I think the best jazz is. In music, and in jazz in particular, you have a collection of people who have some common values, have some basic underlying understandings, whether it be style, the choice of chord progressions, tempo, or whatever, functioning as a community, as a system, but they also have an opportunity to shine individually in the spotlight as a soloist. And then they go back into the group and continue to make important contributions, but now as a group member. And it’s the same dynamic regarding schools. Schools need to be that fluid, that flexible, creating opportunities for individuals to come into the spotlight, to be who they really are, to make their contribution as an individual while also contributing to the greater good — the greater good being the society at large beyond the schools.

Jazz could only have morphed into what it is in a democratic society.

Stephen Gould

Let’s talk more about these ideas. It is often stated that the jazz art form is an exemplar of democratic expression. What are the various dimensions of this idea? 

I agree that jazz is the manifestation of democratic principles, especially insofar as democracy is about freedom with responsibility — freedom to express yourself, freedom to choose your own pathways, but at the same time understanding that you have a responsibility to contribute to the well being of others. Democracy is about listening to the voices of others, building community, and taking responsibility for working with others for the common good. Democracy is about doing what is right when nobody is looking. Jazz also calls for freedom with responsibility. In jazz you are free to choose your own pathways for self-expression. But jazz is also about listening, responding, and contributing to the efforts of others in the group and connecting to those listening. Jazz can be a powerful community building experience for the musicians who play it as well as for those who listen to it. This makes sense when you recall that jazz has its roots in communal African societies. But jazz could only have morphed into what it is in a democratic society.

Or we might say that jazz could not flourish in any place other than in a democratic society. One of the reasons why it has been so appealing in countries that have had a history of dictatorship or totalitarianism is that people intuitively understand that jazz represents a kind of individual freedom that is lacking in their society. And so, yeah, jazz is a democratic experience. The key for democracy and jazz alike is that you have the freedom to be who are and say what you want to say. But you still have a responsibility to the other members of the group.

A case can be made that in jazz the core responsibility is listening and responding appropriately.

The trick is to be self-aware but also to be aware of others. And how are you aware of others other than by, you know, looking and listening? Unfortunately many leaders, in music and elsewhere in society, have an agenda and it’s not built on an approach of “Tell me what you’re thinking.” It’s more a matter of “I’m telling you what I’m thinking and this is what you’re going to do.” So the importance of listening can’t be overestimated; it’s critical. And of course, where jazz is a dialogue, unless you’re listening to what someone else is saying, you don’t have a conversation, you just have parallel universes. And those kind of parallel universes usually don’t make for interesting listening!

I recently saw a quote saying that for saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman jazz is more of an attitude than a genre or an idiom. What is your fundamental attitude toward teaching and learning?  

Jazz styles are hard to categorize. There are so many manifestations — Dixieland, big band, bebop, birth of the cool, fusion, free jazz. In spite of the diversity, the various iterations of jazz all have something in common; they are generally collaborative efforts that have opportunities for spontaneous contribution. My fundamental disposition regarding teaching and learning and also leading is that they are at their heart social activities and must have opportunities for collaboration and contributions from group members. There must be enough flexibility in classrooms and in schools so that when a teachable moment presents itself time is taken to engage all in the learning process rather than ignoring it and pressing on.

Dewey, Tyler, Vygotsky, Bahktin, Makiguchi, Ikeda** were all against transference of information as a pedagogical strategy. Dewey, Tyler, Makiguchi and Ikeda in particular were clear as to the role of democracy, experience, and community in education. Instead of a didactic approach to instruction they promoted the importance of knowing the interests of students and creating conditions in which students could learn what the schools were expected to teach by exploring their interests. Opportunities were provided for students to construct their own learning.

Our theme at the Ikeda Center during 2011 was “Cultivating the Greater Self.” In Buddhism the “greater self” is seen as synonymous with our true self, which is expansive, joyous, and compassionate. This self, says Daisaku Ikeda, is nurtured by a “humble willingness to learn” from others and exhibits an “unlimited capacity for empathy.” For you, what does it mean to educate for the greater self?  

To me the greater self means going beyond one’s self interest; considering the needs of others and helping others because it is for the greater or common good. The global economy is a great example of how we are all interconnected and how something happening in another part of the world affects us all. Martin Luther King Jr. said “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It seems to me that exhibiting a “humble willingness to learn” from others and an “unlimited capacity for empathy”  is the definition of good teaching and good leadership. 

Without these attributes it is difficult to truly understand others and for that reason it’s difficult to be an effective teacher or leader, or for that matter, a productive member of a democratic society and, ultimately, a fully actualized human being. For me, educating for the greater self means how we might go about learning how to empathize with others and then turning that learning into contributions to the well being and happiness of others. It means taking other actions as well that help develop a more harmonious world. 

The bottom line is to go beyond your own self-interest. Self-interest is natural and important so it’s always a matter of determining the degree to which you put self ahead of others or the degree to which you consider others before self, and so on. But getting that balance right is necessary and given the way the world is operating, I think education should be focusing more on the “soft skills” that can help with that.

For me, it’s about giving of yourself, and if you’re in a situation where you’re a teacher or you’re a school leader, it’s about helping others understand that education above all is about contributing to the greater good. It’s about creating learning contexts where people have opportunities to practice being more human and more humane; where they can interact with each other and in the process discover ways to go beyond themselves to make contributions that are best for the community at large.


* During the 1920s classical composer Carl Orff and his collaborator Gunild Keetman developed a musical pedagogy in which young children could learn and perform music in a relaxed, playful atmosphere. The specially designed Orff instruments aid in that process. Many of the instruments resemble small marimbas or glockenspiels, or wooden African instruments.

** These influential philosophers, psychologists, and educators are the Americans John Dewey (1859 – 1952) and Ralph Tyler (1902 – 1994), the Russians Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) and Mikhail Bahktin (1895 – 1975), and the Japanese Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944) and Daisaku Ikeda (born 1928).