Music education only for the white and wealthy?

I read Charlotte C Gill’s article (The Guardian, 27 March 2017) about the state of music education in this country with interest, some sympathy but also disagreement.

She is right to say that there is a threat to music education in the focus on the EBacc and the way in which it is squeezing the arts and creative subjects out of the curriculum. She’s also right that research shows there are huge benefits to children and young people which accrue from their learning to play an instrument and sing — in particular the positive connection she makes between participation in the arts and better mental health is spot-on and very timely. A focus on the creative arts in schools could go a long way to battle the problem with adolescent mental health which, in my view, is becoming a borderline epidemic with more teens suffering from anxiety, depression and low self esteem than ever before.

However, her observations about the teaching of music being too ‘academic’ and too focussed on theoretical knowledge could not be much further from the truth. Music is actually being taught in a much more creative and hands-on way than it was in the past. In schools there’s a focus on performance and creative composition alongside an appreciation of a wide range of different genres of music from different periods of history — including jazz, pop and contemporary music.

I would argue that one key skill which is excluding children from getting involved and fulfilling their potential as musicians is the lack of musical literacy that is provided through education in schools. Of course, there are many examples of eminent musicians who don’t read music, and whole genres of music which are based around the aural tradition and improvisation. However, to give our children a good, rounded music education, we should also be giving them an opportunity to learn the basics of reading and writing notated music so that they have that option available to them later in life should they need it.

Being literate in any language is useful if you’re going to live and work within it.

Notated music is just a tool for accurately communicating musical ideas so that other musicians know what your intentions are, and for ease of passing repertoire on to other musicians so they too can perform it. It is a tool designed to be useful, not an exclusive club intended for only a small section of society.

And in my view, it’s not that hard to learn — definitely not the ‘cryptic, tricky language’ Ms Gill describes in her article. The problem, like with all these kinds of skills, is that we’re not teaching children well enough or early enough.

Ms Gill is absolutely right to say that you can be a talented musician without learning to read and write notation. But we’re doing our children a disservice if we withhold from them the chance to learn it so I can’t support the notion that one of the bad guys in all this is the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. They haven’t dumbed-down their requirement that all students should develop a certain level of musical literacy before they progress to the higher graded exams on their instrument, and I think that’s a good thing. Pupils taking graded instrumental exams these days have a very wide choice of style and genre across more than one examining body — including jazz and rock & pop — and it is quite wrong to suggest that the requirements of these exam boards lead to only focussing on mastering musical literacy above enjoyment. Of course we want our young musicians to be composing, improvising, writing their own songs, learning a range of repertoire in different styles and experiencing the whole joy of being a musician, but within that range, classical music and the learning of notation still have their place and we should be very wary of doing anything to weaken their position in the mix — there’s plenty of enjoyment to be found in learning these things too.

What I observe in my role is schools and music education hubs around the country doing their best to include all children in music and giving them the best opportunities they can to fulfil their potential in a range of styles and more inclusively than ever before. There’s still more to do. It’s still the case that it’s easier to access ongoing instrumental tuition if you come from a wealthier background where some of the financial cost can be met and where parents have aspirations for their children to have a musical education. But with the work of lottery-funded Youth Music leading the way and advocating for music education for those with least opportunity for the past 18 years, and inclusion of all children firmly rooted in the National Plan for Music Education, there have definitely been significant improvements in accessibility, diversity and inclusion in recent years.

And if Ms Gill would like some help with her sight-reading I can point her in the direction of some excellent teachers and resources!