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On receipt of an OBE for services to psychology and music

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Fri, January 26, 2018 05:50:54
On 29th December 2017 it was made public that I had been awarded an OBE in the UK New Year's Honours List for services to Psychology and Music (see On 23rd January 2018 Nicholas Kenyon (old friend and Director of the Barbican Arts Centre) and Lynne Williams (Principal of Guildhall School of Music & Drama), hosted a reception in my honour, attended by colleagues, friends, and family. These are the remarks I made in thanks.

Can I thank you all for coming, and thank Nick Kenyon and Lynne Williams for co-organising this lovely and unexpected event. It’s great to see so many people here from different areas of my life. I’ve also been touched by sincere apologies from a number of well-wishers who are too far away from London to join an event such as this.

There’s a somewhat fuzzy protocol about what prior honours or achievements are allowed to stand after one’s name alongside a national honour. One thing is completely clear. Fellowship of our national academies survives comparison with any other honour. That is why I now proudly carry 6 letters after my name, FBA, OBE.

My OBE citation is for services to psychology and music. Similarly, and in expression of its own interdisciplinary ethos, the British Academy admitted me to membership of two of its sections, Psychology and Music.

In another similarity, both announcements came as complete - and indeed overwhelming - surprises.

However, there were differences too. In the case of the British Academy I knew exactly who had put my name forward - the 40 or so existing Fellows of the psychology section, with support from Music Fellows. I also knew exactly what achievements had prompted the election, since at a splendid inauguration ceremony a formal citation was read out, a citation I will always treasure.

In the case of the OBE, my nominators are unknown to me. What precisely they wrote to the honours committee will also remain a secret. But I am very indebted to these secret admirers who laboured on my behalf. Having been part of the nominating group for other recipients, I know that this is not a trivial job.

The absence of a detailed citation leaves a space for well-wishers to fill, and I have had so many touching messages from individuals as well as organisations. What has struck me forcibly about the messages from my professional world is that my fellow psychologists see this honour as upholding and and validating the wider enterprise of academic psychology, as well as my specialist sub-discipline, music psychology.

For all its popularity, psychology remains a curiously unselfconfident and peripherhal discipline within the academy. Only introduced into our universities on any scale in the 1960s, it has struggled to attain the solid self-assurance of, say, physics, or history. And Psychology of Music is even more peripheral! The vast majority of psychology departments contain no music psychology specialists, and the topic barely figures in major psychology textbooks.

Where music psychology has fallen on hugely fertile and welcoming ground has been within the discipline of music itself. Almost every music undergraduate in Britain these days has read some music psychology; and I remain astonished at the extent to which bits of my own books and papers are quoted back at me by the musicians I meet. Conservatoires around the world have started hiring music psychology specialists, and have increasingly placed psychology at the centre of their research strategy.

Many of you will know that recent world events have pulled me into new fields of endeavour, trying to grapple with the huge human cost that military adventures around the world have created. These new concerns led me to say goodbye to Keele University, who had given me, and music psychology, incredible sustained support over more than three decades. I returned to London to become more fully engaged in the task of speaking truth to power.

At that point I could well have left psychology and music completely behind were it not for the inspired and persuasive intervention of a few key individuals connected to Guildhall School. They completely understood and accepted that the majority of my intellectual and emotional energies were elsewhere, but found a way to make an offer I could not refuse, a fractional research post with almost none of the burdensome teaching and administration that weighs so heavily on career academics.

And so, this last decade has allowed me a new lease of life, bringing my intellectual concerns to bear on the dreams, preoccupations and dilemmas of the professional musician, whether at the height of an international career, or puzzling out what such a musical career should or could mean in the 21st Century. I remain incredibly grateful to Lynne’s predecessor Barry Ife, and Helena Gaunt, my constant champion and support within the institution, for offering me this unique home, with all its creativity and potential - drawing also on its close reciprocal relationship with the Barbican, Europe’s largest and most diverse arts centre.

Just at this moment, as Nicholas and Lynne know, I find myself at the centre of a new collaboration between the two institutions, a jointly funded and supervised doctoral studentship on the changing role of arts centres against the backdrop of current social and political dynamics. This is a new and exciting area of endeavor for me, and illustrates something about the environment in which I have found myself, always inviting, even pushing, people such as me to go beyond our comfort zones into new territories.

An event like this is not just about the professional world, but also about the network of family and friends without which no professional achievement would be possible or meaningful. There are people in the room tonight who have known and loved me since long before I did anything that attracted public attention, not least my dear sisters Clare and Ann. Thankyou all for the essential friendship and nurturing support you all bring. It is an additional delight that Ann is now a colleague as well as a sister, heading up activity here at Guildhall in the related field of Music Therapy.

As many of you know, there is one person who would have been utterly delighted and proud to have been here, had she not suddenly died literally days before the announcement was made public. Our mother Mary, who turned 90 last year, shares this honour in a very real way. As all good parents do, she (and our late father Mietek) held out for their children the confidence that they could succeed in whatever they chose to do, and supplied the practical day in day out support which laid the foundations of later success.

So in raising a glass to this honour, do also raise a glass to her memory

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