A thought provoking article from The Guardian, written by Charlotte C Gill.
‘Music lessons have become increasingly hard to access in schools. To enable more children to learn, we must stop teaching in such an academic way. Like artists, musicians vary immensely in their tastes, tools and learning mechanisms.’
“Music education is deteriorating around the country. Despite the enormous contribution of the music industry to the UK economy, with the creative industries overall estimated to generate £85bn net a year to GDP, the government remains placid about its importance in schools. The Conservatives are too focused on the English baccalaureate, introduced to boost the number of students studying science and languages, to care.
This is a great shame, as research has shown the huge benefits that music brings to children’s happiness and learning. Interestingly, the government does care about psychological development in schools, and recently announced plans to trial mental health training for pupils, but it has not dawned on politicians that this, and more, can be achieved through the arts.
Music education has become harder and harder to access since 2010, when the baccalaureate was introduced, and since when the number of students taking music at GCSE and A-level has dropped by about 9% as teachers homed in on “academic” subjects.
Increasingly, the onus has been on parents – and children – to take up private tuition, putting those who cannot afford such lessons at a disadvantage. Indeed, in 2014, the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain found that out of its members aged seven to 13, nearly 70% of those at state school received private education. In 2012-13, only 10% of music students at universities came from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
But that’s not the only problem. For a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement. While there are routes into musical careers for the untrained, and many pop, rap and grime artists have never studied music formally, there are also dozens of choirs and amateur collectives that put a huge focus on musical notation.
This is a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education. Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.
I know this because I struggled enormously to read notation as a child, meaning that my enthusiasm for music was not registered at primary level. At secondary school, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who picked up on my passion. One day he pulled me aside, and said “you like music, don’t you?” before throwing me into two choirs, as well as singing and piano lessons. I learned Mozart, West Side Story and can now sing in Latin, German and Italian, eventually getting my grade 8.
Still, I cannot sight read. This is something that means I cannot join the many choirs around the UK that name this as a requirement. The patterns and figures of music don’t easily unravel in my mind. I suspect that’s the case for many other children and adults; some get notation, others don’t. Neither is indicative of talent, but while we do not find lateral, inclusive ways to engage people – as well as loosening our ideas of what constitutes musical ability – we are losing masses of would-be performers.
We may not all be able to tell the difference between the clefs, but we can play our favourite songs
The insistence on theoretical understanding is underpinned by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, which sets the most widely-used music exams. To meet its requirements, pupils must work through limited repertoires of old, mostly classical music, focusing most of their efforts on mastering musical literacy, above song writing, composing, or even enjoyment.
And so there is not only a wealthy elite presiding over music, but an academic one too, which gets to decide what sort of knowledge, and ability, make children competent – even though, like artists, musicians vary immensely in their tastes, tools and learning mechanisms.
Not every student will benefit from notation: some can learn aurally; others through letters or shapes. I play the piano through reading letters alone (D/F#, for example), churning out chords as if it were a guitar. In the US I have seen children pick up songs through tablature alone. Sure, we may not be able to tell the difference between the bass and treble clef, but we can play our favourite songs. That is all I ever wanted from music.
I worry that the current state of play means many children are, quite literally, locked out. As a discipline, music needs to attract a bigger crowd. Diversity breeds diversity, and teaching is where this needs to start.”
If you’d like to read more, please click the link below to read a related article also from The Guardian called ‘Laura Mvula warns school cuts will leave music as preserve of the wealthy’