I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the reaction to my first blog. There has been contact from a number of people showing me what is going on in their LA or school. Perhaps I was a little bleak in my widespread condemnation. It’s clear that in some areas there is some good stuff going on…but these do seem rather isolated pockets. It isn’t for want of trying – more for want of funding. Other programmes have perhaps grown too large and are not getting best value for money. Clearly we need to look at step two.
Step Two: Change Everything
Now, as a Tory (please don’t close the page yet) I’m not generally a fan of wholesale change but in this case I think drastic action is probably required.
Step two is going to take a few posts. I remember a Deputy Head who used to begin his weekly briefing announcement by saying, “I have two items. The second has four parts.” He was a maths teacher. I bet you didn’t guess that. Inspired by that memory I will begin with step two, part 1.
Changing the Curriculum (KS1-3 or ages 5-14)
We’ve come a long way from the days when the music teacher whacked on a record of the Pastoral, while classes copied out of Enjoying Music. Practical music is in every lesson these days, which is a good thing. There is a holy triumvirate of Performing, Composing and Listening required in lessons. I will look more at Composing and its intrinsic value, and the problems of Listening in future blogs but for now let’s examine Performing. Music is a performance art and performing should be at the centre of what we do.
Performing in classrooms takes place either with singing, or on Orff instruments (xylophones and metallophones), unturned percussion, African djembes, keyboards, ukuleles (give me strength) or more likely a mixture of all. The main problem is the lack of expression possible on all these instruments. You can pick them up quickly and for the most part play in ensemble but the experience is rather synthetic. If music is a means of self-expression then this encounter with it is only ever going to be satisfying in the short term. I don’t know that music teachers ever give thought to this – it always seems to be a shock to those with whom I discuss it. Perhaps compulsory music lessons are rather like taster sessions to see if you like it and want to take it further. If that’s true it’s sad because so many do not.
Children get something like 350 hours of compulsory music education (say, 1 hour a week for 9 school years) and I wonder what really is accomplished. Primary teacher trainees say that music is the subject they are least confident to teach (http://dro.dur.ac.uk/1974/1/1974.pdf, p. 29). Having seen for nigh on 20 years what comes into secondary (at a variety of schools) I can say I don’t have much confidence in their ability to teach music either. Secondary teachers then make the mistake of assuming children know nothing and go back to square one, wasting more of everyone’s time.
And all of this misses the point: that all children don’t get to practise and develop mastery of an instrument capable of expression and ensemble performance to make all the other activities worthwhile. All they get is a series of disconnected activities, which are more or less enjoyable.
Perhaps the real problem is music’s f-word: fun. Now I’m a big fan of fun but as Robert Coe writes (http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf, p. xii), it’s a poor proxy for learning. Music should be fun but where that is viewed as the end rather than the beginning of the process children become culturally impoverished.