How We’re Making Music, 2021

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The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has published the 2021 edition of its ‘Making Music’ report, based on data collected in 2020.  It offers an insight into the music education landscape in the UK and how this compares with the findings of the last report in 2014.  The report makes for interesting reading, highlighting trends that will be of interest to both MI retailers and manufacturers.

The central message of ‘Making Music 2021’ is that approaches to teaching and learning music have changed and this change is ongoing.  It acknowledges a widened range of musical experiences and a movement towards student-led learning, where the musical interests of students play an ever-increasing role.

This is encapsulated simply and effectively by the opposing fortunes of the descant recorder and the ukulele, the former seeing further dramatic decline in take-up and the latter becoming increasingly popular in line with its use in Whole Class Ensemble Tuition (WCET).  I often see posts by teachers in music education Facebook groups referring to their use of ukuleles, and there is an immediate reward for children in learning an instrument on which they can play versions of their favourite songs.  Some non-specialist press has focused on these changing fortunes and I’ve seen some people decrying the shift, but if the key focus is on engaging young people in making music the popularity of any instrument can only be a positive.  Ukelele is not only an instrument in itself but also gives pupils an access point to learning guitar, opening up a vast range of musical genres and styles for exploration.  The report says:

“Today the choice of learners to play contemporary styles of music is high, to the extent that applying any labels to musical genres may soon become impossible due to the kaleidoscopic nature of the way in which music from every corner of the globe and period is fusing and interacting.”

There is a sense here of a living, creative art which can inspire and excite learners, and anything which breaks down boundaries between musical styles is more likely to bring people to all genres than holding some of them in an impenetrable ivory tower. The report emphasises this in the commentary on learning statistics:

“More than anything, children and adults are motivated to play an instrument for the enjoyment and love of music. Role models also clearly have a significant influence over a child’s desire to play music, with a fifth of children also reporting that seeing someone else play is also a reason for starting to play an instrument. Adults appear to be slightly more motivated by the influence of their parents than children.”

There is something in this for retailers and manufacturers to build on: If you bring music to life for your customers they are more likely to engage with you and buy from you as part of their music-making journey.  In-store and streamed performances, teaching, staff sharing their passion, representatives of suppliers and manufacturers supporting and organising product launch events… All these things can make a difference both to learners and to the health of your business. Creating an engaging experience in-store and online separates specialist retailers from the box shifters.

The report identifies an overall reduction in the number of people progressing beyond the beginner stages of playing an instrument, and perhaps this is worthy of consideration in planning MI industry activity so that we can play a part in retaining learners.  Also vital to note, and disappointing is that issues of accessibility remain a problem, with the pandemic further exposing the gap between wealthy and poorer households.  There is clearly much work remaining to be done.

The ABRSM acknowledges the importance of emerging technologies:

“More broadly, the rise in new technologies have had a dramatic impact in access to music from every corner of the globe which, in turn, has fed the appetites of music learners and creating new imperatives, and a broader palette from which classroom and one-to-one teaching draws.”

There is recognition of the divergence in learning routes, with online platforms and even YouTube videos playing an increased role in making music accessible to everyone.  This has of course been expedited by the pandemic, with even teachers who were previously focused on traditional delivery methods turning to live virtual tuition and retaining it alongside in-person lessons as restrictions have been eased.  Exam boards, including the ABRSM, have utilised recording and online technology to conduct both instrumental and theory assessments, and it seems this widening of options is set to stay.

I asked Tim Bennett-Hart of RSL Awards what his thoughts are on the ABRSM report:

“Music is vibrant and exciting in the UK, and many other countries. However, the continued rhetoric of music being in decline simply by measuring the uptake of GCSE and the learning of instruments that don’t appeal to young people is giving a wrong impression to policy makers. What the ABRSM report nearly says is that Music Making is evolving and those people who are evolving with it are going to have a fantastic future.”

The need to be ‘…evolving with it…’ stretches beyond educators and exam boards to the MIA members who make and retail instruments which is why reports such as ‘Making Music 2021’, read alongside other publications by the likes of Music Mark and ISM, are more relevant to our industry than ever.

Speaking for myself, with a traditional background of musical learning, I still value the development of skills in notation, harmony, analysis and the in-person guidance of a specialist instrumental or vocal teacher who can ensure the correct development of posture, technique and musical understanding.  I also acknowledge and support the argument that this approach isn’t appropriate or necessary for everyone and that forcing it on every learner simply reduces the numbers of people engaging with and playing music.  The alternative approaches are every bit as valid and a growing awareness of this for those bringing new learners to music is, to me, the crux of the findings reported in ‘Making Music 2021’.

You can read the full report here, and I’d be interested in any thoughts you have around it and its relevance to your activities as a retailer or manufacturer.  Just pop an email to me: matt@mia.org.uk