Teach them music! Howard Goodall at the Festival of Education

“Teach them music!” I came away from the Sunday Times Festival of Education on Friday with those words ringing in my ears. I now consider myself a bit of a veteran of edu-nerd gatherings (or at least blooded) and have got quite used to hearing speakers I agree with, but I didn’t expect to be inspired.

The sessions I went to were all interesting: Mori polling data on what people really think about education, Rob Coe on how to get teachers to improve, Glenys Stacey on the role of Ofqual as regulator. David Didau and Dylan William were both on top form (please keep this double-act going) when discussing whether AfL is the right response if learning is invisible. They were so animated I saw them still going at it an hour later in the cafe.

Meeting and talking with others interested in education is one of the main reasons for going to these events and I was pleased to meet up with some former colleagues – John Blake, the ‘flame-haired enfant terrible of Labour Teachers’ (©Tom Bennett) and Doug Johnson – as well as Stephen Dilley, a former student who is now a teacher. Yes, I’m getting old.

It was however, the post-lunch session that really gripped me. In Wellington’s awesome chapel (I think all schools should have a chapel like that) Howard Goodall stood talking, occasionally with reference to notes, about music in schools. I have not generally liked his TV programmes about music and I was expecting to disagree. He began with music education in Nazi Germany, with its survey of German composers throughout history: it didn’t stop them committing atrocities. I braced for an argument in favour of 100% composing, or at least listening and performing solely as stimulus for composing. He is a composer, after all.

But no. He described some compositional processes that he had gone through as a young composer. We learn by imitating and our early attempts at composing are nothing more than pastiche. Why assess children’s ability to pastiche in exams? Now he had me, as this is something I have been arguing for some time. Don’t teach them to compose, “Teach them Music”. Improvisation, which is not ‘making things up on the spot’ as all musicians know but involves hours of painstaking practise and immense skill. Don’t teach them to improvise, “Teach them music”. Western musical notation is not just one of a range of different notation systems; it is the best means of notating the language of music. Yet teachers in maintained schools shy away from teaching it to their pupils. We try to teach all of music by getting pupils to remember five things about Indian music. By now I was cheering, albeit silently.

I disagreed with some of what he said: that the content of exams should be left up to individual teachers neither takes into account the difficulty in achieving parity of qualification nor the lack of passion for music of many music teachers, some of whom would simply go for whatever was easiest to get their pupils through exams in a rather depressing way. I also disagree with his assertion that pupils should not receive chronological view of the classical tradition – while biographical detail is unimportant you get some pretty funny misconceptions if you don’t give it some historical context. I’ve never been convinced that you can or should teach themes (e.g. bass line) in isolation.

I was still inspired and rushed up at the end to gush. There were quite a lot of music teachers there and we were all convinced. Now all we need is for those who write the exams to agree (and they don’t). Maybe Glenys Stacey can help? The DfE certainly wasn’t listening: “We agree that current music GCSEs are not sufficiently broad…” No, they’re too broad. So, fellow convinced musicians and teachers, what next?

Update: here is the full text of the speech and some bits there wasn’t time for:

Click to access Some_thoughts_on_the_future_of_classroom_music_TEXT_VERSION.pdf


“Knowing the Canon” or “A Personal Symphonic Cycle”

It’s been such a long time since I wrote a blog post that I thought I would get back into the swing with a fairly uncontroversial topic. For those who aren’t interested in the canon of great orchestral music but who want the educational message, you may want to skip to the end. Following Christopher Cook’s advice I have restricted myself to fewer than 600 words.

A couple of years ago I found a forum which asked the following: What is your personal symphonic cycle? You can choose nine symphonies (lots of composers wrote nine) but one composer’s first symphony, another’s second and so on. You are allowed numbered symphonies only. No repetition of composer and no substitutions.

For all but the most eccentric this rules out composers like Mozart and Haydn who only hit their stride when they were well beyond number nine but it includes all the major symphonists from Beethoven onwards. Now we can’t just do this on a whim you understand, it must be taken seriously. First, here are the candidates for my favourite symphonies:

1 – Candidates – Brahms, Elgar*, Mahler, Sibelius

2 – Candidates – Mahler*, Rachmaninov*, Sibelius*, Vaughan Williams

3 – Candidates – Beethoven*

4 – Candidates – Brahms*, Bruckner, Mendelssohn*, Tchaikovsky*

5 – Candidates – Beethoven, Mahler, Prokofiev*, Shostakovich*, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams*

6 – Candidates – Tchaikovsky

7 – Candidates – Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich

8 – Candidates – Bruckner, Dvorak, Mahler

9 – Candidates – Bruckner*, Dvorak*

An asterisk means it is my favourite by that composer. You see that I’m having particular problems with 2, 4 and 5, where a lot of composers hit their stride. My list changes (slightly) quite frequently but for now, here is my personal symphonic cycle:

1: Elgar 2: Rachmaninov (listening to it while I type) 3: Beethoven 4: Brahms 5: Sibelius (makes it for Thor’s hammer alone) 6: Tchaikovsky 7: Bruckner 8: Mahler 9: Dvorak

This is now one of my favourite questions for musicians and enthusiasts; if I am stuck in conversation I will ask this and we can normally go for hours. I have been directed to pieces and composers I have never heard before simply through this question.

Education/non-musicians start reading here: last time I interviewed candidates for a music teacher post at KEGS I asked this question (I gave them a couple of hours’ notice that I was going to ask it too). I wanted to find out what they knew about the classical canon and to find out their interests as musicians. Alas, I was disappointed with many of the responses. Apart from the successful candidate, none could name a single symphony with confidence. All had good music degrees from good universities. All were musicians. I can still hardly believe it. Every music teacher I have spoken to who is my age or older loves answering the question. The best student teachers I have had (both in the last two years) have loved it. Many of my sixth formers (and some younger) can answer it. Non-musician (but enthusiast) friends have been able to answer it.

So what I ask you, my readers, is: was my expectation unreasonable? Should music teachers know the classical canon, or have I got it horribly wrong? Will anyone know as many as nine symphonies in 20 years’ time if the budget for music hubs keeps being cut with barely a murmur in the press? But most importantly, what is your personal symphonic cycle and what do you think of mine?