Why music education shouldn’t be left to chance

I thought I’d write a little blog post in support of Nick Gibb’s intention to raise the status of music education for younger children. I’m really pleased that a model music curriculum will be created because, at the moment, so much is left to chance – more so than other subjects, perhaps. So, allow me to tell you a story about how I came to be musical and let us consider how we can give all children a chance, not just a few who, like me, were just lucky.

Although we were technically disadvantaged, in many ways my upbringing put me squarely in the advantaged category. My mum was a big fan of giving myself and my sister all sorts of interesting experiences such as gymnastics, ballet and books galore and she had also made the wonderful decision to toss the TV up the end of the garden and deny us that form of entertainment till the age of 18, thus forcing my sister and myself to create our own imaginary world and language to try and survive the sheer boredom of living in the countryside. The boredom was great for developing my imagination, curiosity and openness to new experiences, so when I was given a recorder and a ‘How to play recorder’ book on my 7th birthday, I naturally devoured it in a couple of hours and was soon given part B to learn.

Looking back, that kind of behaviour was not exactly normal (I was a bit ‘different’), so you could probably say that my musical luck at that time also extended to being able to focus without adult direction from a very young age. A short while after that, our year group was given a musical aptitude test at school and I was one of about 4 children in the whole year group who passed the test and therefore given the opportunity to learn an instrument. This was good for me, of course, but about 90% of the children in the year group had been denied a musical education, all because of a narrative that made everyone believe musical ability was somehow a ‘natural’ thing, encoded in the DNA of a chosen few and in need of spotting and drawing out. Of course, for those of us who are enlightened and evidence-informed, we know that there is no such thing as natural ability and all it takes is explicit teaching and masses of practice with acquisition of subject-specific knowledge to become an expert. Unfortunately, the resultant violin playing didn’t go well because I couldn’t stand the sound of myself during home practice (I actually caused my own sensory overload) and I stopped within a few weeks. I still played recorder and was invited to play in a very good recorder ensemble run during school lunchtimes by a couple of teachers.

A few years later, I was given yet another opportunity to learn to play the violin, for free. I was about 12 and spent every term time Saturday (9am – 1pm) for the next 5 years at a music school, learning how to play in an orchestra and sing in a choir. This was in East London where most people’s musical ability extended to singing ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ at the end of a rowdy night at the Queen Vic. I used to walk past the old West Ham stadium on the way to Saturday school and attract all sorts of comments from crowds of football supporters such as ‘Is there a dead body in that, luv?’ and ‘Go on, play us a tune on your guitar!’ Good times. That music school became the a constant in my life as our housing situation turned a bit hairy and I eventually moved into a hostel. I loved that place and one of my enduring memories was my first day there: I was so worried, but then I met the music director who was stood in the foyer holding a cup of tea in a bone china cup and saucer that had numerous biscuits perched around the side, fag hanging out his mouth; he was a kind Welshman who made me feel at home even though I was so nervous. Also, he had a great singing voice despite being pretty much a chain smoker. You’ve got to respect that.

Anyway, the kind of concentration you need to follow a conductor, read music, get those notes in tune and keep your bowing the same as everyone else’s requires you to dedicate all your RAM which has this wonderful side effect of crowding out life’s worries. When you learn an instrument and play in an orchestra, you learn to submit completely. Also, all music teachers are slightly mad/different and that’s a good thing because, let’s face it, who wants to surround themselves with boring people? When I was 14, a friend of my mum gave me a violin. He had found in his attic and being a Christian, felt compelled to give it to me because I was approaching the point where I needed a better quality violin to play those trickier pieces of music. It turned out to be a rare antique English violin (most, at the time, were made in France or Italy) and it is now around 250 years old and worth thousands.

Let me count the ways in which I was lucky:

  • Being given, on multiple occasions, opportunities to learn and play music for free
  • Being the sort of person who could concentrate and work hard without adult direction
  • Going to a school that ‘spotted’ musicians and provided musical education
  • Being taught by teachers who happened to be musical and who voluntarily gave up their lunchtimes to running a recorder ensemble
  • Being given a violin that could produce such beautiful sounds
  • People generally being quite kind to me

Subsequently, the children that I have taught have also been lucky because they have learned how to read music, play instruments, perform to an audience and appreciate the best that has been arranged and composed. Most primary schools don’t even have one class teacher who has benefited from that kind of musical education and even if Nick Gibb’s initiative becomes the status quo in many primary schools, it will be a whole generation before primary schools can take for granted that at least one class teacher is a Real Musician. What usually happens in primary schools is a combination of the following:

  • Assembly singing involves more modern songs and the old-fashioned, vocab and knowledge-rich religious/traditional songs are fast becoming a distant memory
  • Primary teachers are either not teaching music, or are resorting to more experimental and ‘relevant’ lessons in order to draw out some kind of innate musical ability in children, or provide fun experiences as a type of therapy to help children cope with the expectation that they will work hard in maths
  • Schools sometimes buy in musical experts to teach music as PPA cover, leading to an awful lot of African drumming
recorder book
A classic – who remembers this?

What can be done? Well, there’s a lot that is easier said than done, such as requiring leaders in schools to take into account the balance of degree subject specialisms when shortlisting candidates for interview. At the moment, many ads show a preference for BEds (particularly in Scotland, Wales and in international schools) rather than academic degrees + QTS, so unwittingly drive away many with the kind of knowledge and expertise who could really make a difference to children’s musical lives. I wonder why that needs to be the case? Schools could also, if necessary, choose a willing teacher and give them the opportunity to learn music and to play an instrument in order that they share that knowledge with children. Is it possible? Yes! You can learn anything at any time of your life – you just need to submit yourself to the cause.

Ah yes, submission. This is a tricky one because those of us who know about music education, know that a certain mindset needs to be inculcated both in children and in teachers. Firstly, the belief that musical ability is naturally occurring rather than the result of years of practice, dedication, tears even needs to be proven wrong in the minds of new teachers, so that they do not, by accident, disadvantage those disadvantaged children further. There also needs to be an understanding that the ability to submit completely to learning is a good thing, an old-fashioned scholarly attribute that needs to be encouraged rather than destroyed – again, many new educators would struggle with that concept because they have grown up in a world of ‘do what feels good’. We need courageous educators who think about the child’s future rather than allow a possible strop or tantrum to curtail the learning. Further, the view that music lessons in primary school should be an antidote to the hard work of the morning’s learning, or perhaps an opportunity for ‘less academic’ children to gain confidence also needs to change because in its current form, it drives curricular decision making towards the ‘relevant’ and the ‘fun’ Damian Hinds-esque experience and away from the more challenging and rewarding canon of traditional music, music reading and instrument playing. Further, it risks those ‘less academic’ children internalising that reading, writing and adding up is not for them, and that they should perhaps consider becoming famous YouTube singers and performers instead when what they needed was to be given extra teaching and opportunities for practice. The result of all this underlying thinking is what causes music lessons in year 7 to end up being a hellish and noisy free-for-all, ultimately leading to the withdrawal of GCSE music provision because most secondary pupils simply cannot access it. The lucky ones who could access it can simply use their ABRSM qualifications instead of GCSEs and A levels anyway.

If I were running a SCITT course, I would firstly (well, after the safeguarding spiel), seek to uncover and break down these beliefs that lurk in the minds of new primary educators. This would probably be quite a painful psychological process for many SCITT students because it would cause them to look at their own educational trajectory and realise that the reason they are not ‘naturally’ good at maths, music, writing, whatever was because they probably didn’t listen, focus or do enough practice when they were given the chance. Also, being told that you can’t view certain lessons as a chance to kick back and enjoy, possibly get your children to like you more because of the super-duper noisy and experimental fun you’ve got lined up for a Friday afternoon would also be quite a rude awakening, possibly uncovering underlining tendencies towards unhealthy co-dependency.

So, changing mindsets during SCITT training, thinking about academic expertise during the hiring process as well as providing CPD and a great, sequenced curriculum to follow should help to give all children the chance of a great music education, rather than a lucky few who, like me, were simply in the right place at the right time when the opportunities were handed out. Wouldn’t it be great to have a musical revival and to see our children go on to compose and perform great music?

Who’s with me?

 

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8 thoughts on “Why music education shouldn’t be left to chance

  1. This is a very important blog post and I am completely with you. What is even more scary is so many of your experiences are exactly the same as mine including recorders, violins and even walking past West Ham stadium. My grandfather was a barrow-boy in Plaistow market and I used to live in a tower block around the corner. Like you I was also given a violin, but mine was by my great-grandmothers toy-boy (she was 90, he was 75). Like you, being given that recorder with the notes in was one of the most important things that happened to me – without it, I doubt I would have the career I have now. To add to your blog I would say that early reading is very important as luckily I could read well so I wasn’t frustrated by the folded sheet that came with the recorder. Also the culture of the school was important, we had a lunch time recorder group with two parts and I remember I was on the second part because I couldn’t play B flat and we were playing “Pat-a-pan” for Christmas when I was in Year 5. I learned B flat PDQ. I don’t like criticizing my fellow music teacher colleagues but I am afraid you are right – there are many, many out there who still believe it is all about natural talent and selecting children who are “musical”. This needs to stop but we are talking about a massive change in perceptions. I’m really excited about the minister’s idea and I hope we can all support him and not get politically partisan about giving children some of the advantages we had as kids.

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  2. To your list of desiderata (“go on to compose and perform great music”) I would like to add “appreciate”. The ability to appreciate the arts should be the primary attainment, available to all. Performance for an audience (rather than just singing and playing for your own enjoyment) is a more difficult accomplishment, and composing more difficult still. I would like to see kids taught ABOUT music — the history, the theory — as well as encouraged to do it.

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  3. Yes, yes, and yes. I’m with you. Music is vital, not optional, nice-to-have, entertainment. Learning is a scholarly, valuable – and when catalysed and cultivated carefully, it is even ‘fun’ – pursuit. Thank you for writing this!

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    • There’s a lot to be said for the classical music… I’m used to it with church, though, and readily connected with its concept when I discovered cantatas and oratorios. It has its place and used to on the radio at 89.9. Only poor people would be at a disadvantage.

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  4. There is much wisdom here, but I would take issue with you on one minor point: some people have loads more musical talent than others, and some have none at all. No amount of teaching will bring out any results from a tone-deaf person. Still, such should also have an opportunity to try.

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