Norton York, founder of RSL Awards, received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Music & Drama Education Expo last week, in recognition of the huge contribution he has made to music education. Matt has been speaking with Norton about the current situation, how MIA members can be part of the future and a memorable musical experience involving Nelson Mandela.
What prompted you to set-up RSL Awards in the first place?
I set up RSL Awards in 1990. Back then if you played electric guitar, bass or drums no university or music exam board recognised either your instrument or the rock and pop music you played on it. That seemed hugely unfair to me. At the time it also impacted directly students who applied to a pioneering pop music two year course I set up at the time with the precursors of ICMP and the London campus of BIMM. Those students were brilliant young musicians who were denied access to public funding to come on this new course because they didn’t have a grade 8 , not because they weren’t capable of achieving it, but because it didn’t exist. So I set up Rockschool back then, now RSL Awards, to right that wrong. From those first students, we can now celebrate the success of Fraser T Smith, producer of Dave and Stormzy’s award winning albums , the 5 albums on Sony created by the rock band Reef, the amazing Mercury nominated jazz from Denys Baptiste, the drumming and DJing of Nathan ‘Tugg’ Curran for Basement Jaxx, Elton John and others, and the music education leadership of Martin Wright, principal of BIMM Brighton, amongst many more. Not bad for a group of young musicians whose talent wasn’t recognised by the established exam boards!
Where do you think the current challenges in music education stem from?
The challenges today are the same as they have been for decades – how do we engage the majority of pupils at school who love music outside the classroom with the music education that schools offer? At RSL Awards we believe this can and should be done by engaging pupils in learning about the music they know and love, most likely some form of current pop and rock music, probably using qualifications like our Level 2 and 3 vocational qualifications. That can be delivered in all sorts of ways and with any style of music . Currently we work with teachers and pupils across the arts in institutions as diverse as the BRIT SCHOOL , Supajam, the
Purcell School, the Royal Ballet School and Charterhouse School, so everyone can find their own way into this more open musical pedagogy.
How do we ensure that young people have accessible opportunities for involvement, enjoyment and progression in music?
The most important thing we need to do is to embrace flexibly the need to change music education into an experience that empowers young people to make and understand the music they hear around them, and to stop the tired attempt to use music education to preserve an historic musical culture of the past. Then more young people will choose to study music at school and everything positive will naturally flow from their talent and passion. This change is already happening in lots of schools. Just in England 45% of all school music qualifications in 2021 were not music GCSE or A level, but were our Vocational Qualifications alongside BTEC and UAL pop music qualifications. We need the government to secure the future of these pop music qualifications so more and more pupils benefit from the open approach to music learning that they encourage, bringing in a bigger and far more inclusive group of pupils into music education than in the past.
How do you see the Musical Instruments industry, including technology companies, having a positive impact?
There is a huge opportunity for the music equipment industry to provide equipment to facilitate the change from the old fashioned GCSE and A level style of music education to the more inclusive approach in our vocational qualifications. Additionally, the pupils emerging from schools and colleges with these qualifications will be far more attuned to the needs of the music instruments industry as employees. Music shops may well also grasp the opportunity of becoming music learning centres , drawing in the local musical community in their local town for individual music lessons, band and group music production lessons, or even running part time or full time versions of some of our style of vocational qualifications.
If you could pick one musical experience which has had a lasting impact on your life, what would it be?
Playing in front of 30000 people in Trafalgar Square for Nelson Mandela at the Celebrating South Africa concert in 2001 with our friend Billy Ocean , feeling the physical wave of love that hit the stage as he came on stage and started to sing, and meeting Nelson Mandela after the show…sometimes working in music education doesn’t feel like a job at all!
Norton York has written a new report on music education in England which you can download here, where for a limited time you can also download his book ‘Pop Music Education in the UK 1960-2020’ free-of-charge.