An ode to music education

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 kind 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 happy nerd), 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 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 to the music. 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.

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 kind to me

I owe the world a huge debt of gratitude!

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 lessons in order to draw out some kind of innate musical ability in children, or provide fun experiences as therapy
  • 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. 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.

We also need a change in mindset to happen. Firstly, the belief that musical ability is naturally occurring rather than the result of years of practice and dedication 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 scholarship needs to be encouraged. Further, the view that music lessons in primary school should have a more therapeutic purpose, 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’ experience and away from the more challenging and rewarding canon of traditional music, music reading and instrument playing that then leads to true creativity. 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 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 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. You know, I really feel that the responsibility for the revival of music GCSE actually lies in the hands of primary educators.

If I were running a SCITT course, I would firstly seek to uncover and break down these beliefs that lurk in the minds of new primary educators!

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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