I am the music man, I come from far away…

Moving seamlessly on from my post about ministerial initiatives and pet projects, this post bounces off the back of Michael Gove’s written statement of 25 November 2011 about music education. The Department for Education has published a new document “The Importance of Music” – to which the statement refers. I could say I’ll believe Michael Gove on this one when I see him making a cover version of Black Lace’s I am the Music Man – a song which those of my generation will have sung at primary school during the mid-1980s. (We also had a guitar-playing Ralph McTell type who had a habit of picking up songs like Puff the Magic Dragon (no relation)).

So, what’s he talking about? Something like this:

High quality music education enables lifelong participation in, and enjoyment of, music, as well as underpinning excellence and professionalism for those who choose not to pursue a career in music.

Children from all backgrounds and every part of England should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument; to make music with others; to learn to sing; and to have the opportunity to progress to the next level of excellence.

This publication outlines the aims of the National Plan for Music Education and how the initiatives set out by the plan will impact schools, LAs [Local Authorities – councils to you and me. Remember this document was written by civil servants who like to talk in jargon. It makes those of us institutionalised feel important!] and private music teachers.

The full document is here.

Page 6 of the document is quite interesting in that each bullet point doesn’t actually state that anyone has ‘to do’ anything. Lots of considering, assessing and recognising but no ‘doing’.

Some of you may recall the short blogpost Music makes us one that I wrote back in August 2011. Amongst other things I tore into the exams culture that came perilously close to destroying any love for classical music I could have had. I still have a strange mental block that stops me from even playing or practising on the instruments that I have acquired over the past few years. I sort-of know where I want to get to with music, but am at a place psychologically where I can’t really get moving on it while I’m still in Cambridge and living a fairly solitary life. (i.e. not being in full-time work, being in part-time study and messing around with a handful of independent projects).

One of the questions I’d like to put to the Department for Education and the Department for Culture is what evidence bases underpinned their strategy. For example I would be particularly interested in evidence bases on dropout rates and the reasons behind them. Anecdotally I can think of a number of kids I was at school with who stopped music altogether not long after leaving primary school – I was one of them. Is this a pattern replicated nationwide and if so, what are the reasons behind it? Is it because parents can no longer compel their growing teenagers to do things in the way that they were able to when the kids were young? Is it because of cost of tuition? Is it because the culture of music was just not there at secondary school compared to primary school? Is it because of poor tuition? Is it because of exams? Is it because progression became too difficult?

For me, music by its very nature should be enjoyable – both the playing and listening. That’s not to say it should not be challenging and difficult at times. If a child stops enjoying music (in the way I did all of those years ago), parents, teachers and institutions need to ask themselves what they are doing wrong first, before going off to blame the child. That’s my take anyway.

Some of you may see some similarities between this post and Life on a piece of paper – where I turn my guns to the exams culture in general. My feeling to this day is that public musical performances and exam results were used by parents around the time I was growing up as weapons against each other to see who could be the best parents. It reminds me of The Nativity Scene in Stress Eric – everyone competing to be “The Perfects” a la Middle Class is Magical fantasy land while poor Eric (who has split from his wife and is struggling on the treadmill of life) hopes that his child can get through with saying the one line that he has in the nativity play.

One of the anecdotal observations I made over the years was that the children who went onto play music to high standards also had musical parents. Someone who I used to dance with fairly regularly several years ago was from one such family – between her parents, herself and her sister they formed a string quartet. Does the data back this up? Are children who have active musical parents more likely to bring up children who go onto play musical instruments into adulthood? If that is the case, then the Government’s strategy in my view needs to include far more detail about getting adults back into music – the playing of it.

What could have kept me on in music as a teenager? There are three factors – the first being the most painful as it is a very personal failing:

  • Lack of courage
  • Lack of knowledge
  • Lack of inspiration (or of a mentor)

“Giving up” was the easiest route out. Had I had far more courage in those days I’d have risen above the problems and overcome them by looking elsewhere for alternative musical outlets. But there was also the problem of a lack of knowledge. This was around five-six years before the internet hit society in a big way in the late 1990s – so near yet so far. I didn’t know where to look, neither did family nor close friends – we simply did not have the ‘musical contacts’ (or if we did, we didn’t know what to ask). The mindset of that generation of parents and teachers was still ‘trapped’ by the mindset of exams.

Finally there was the lack of inspiration – or rather the presence of the complete opposite: Possibly the worst choir in the world at the church I had to go to as a child. Imagine having to listen to the worst of the TV talent show auditions on repeat every Sunday (without having the pleasure of listening to the really good performers). Would you want to become musical having to listen to that every week? At the time when I hung up my bow, there was no one outside of immediate family who seemed particularly disappointed at my decision – no one fighting music’s corner; no one to say “Hang on a minute, getting to grade 4 violin is one hell of an achievement! Don’t let it go! Drop exams by all means but take your music in a different direction!” 

This was a similar pattern repeated across my old secondary school as people who I recognised as being bright and talented across a number of subjects were failed by teacher after teacher – and ultimately the institutions; kids who ultimately could and should have gone to university because they had more than the aptitude for it. Why didn’t anyone step in to help those kids when they really needed it? I fear this is a pattern repeated across the country.

It would be ignorant of me to pretend that what happened in the early 1990s is the picture of today across the country. My own experience of teacher training and the significant improvements to the quality of training and continued development have more than taught me this. There is also the leaps and bounds in digital media which have opened many doors to music production and music technology, as well as opening up some of the most amazing musical performances to audiences that might otherwise never hear them. Not surprisingly, Annex 2 of the Government’s strategy is all about music technology.

The third annex of the strategy contains a number of interesting case studies about what works. That said, it also may have been useful for the Government to have looked at what was less successful and why this was. What were the barriers that could not be overcome? Were some things flawed in their design? At what point did projects, programmes and activities fail because of a lack of funding or because funding was pulled? Sometimes learning what didn’t work, and why can be just as important as finding out what did work.

Instinctively my recommendations would be to break the stranglehold of the music exams culture, encourage and fund local amateur orchestras for adults at beginners and improvers levels and to try and incorporate music into other subjects. But none of those recommendations are based on hard evidence. The big piece of research I think needs doing is finding out what drives children to give up playing musical instruments. That costs time and money – time and money ministers have perilously little of.




4 thoughts on “I am the music man, I come from far away…

  1. What amazing timing..

    While I love music (making music coming way ahead of over passively listening) and have been known to play at bluegrass and local folk clubs, I must admit to hating formal music tuition.

    But it happens that (unbeknownst to me) my local council were top funders of school music tuition, (way above similar authorities) but are now about to cut it massively.

    Looking forward to seeing comments here!

  2. My friend is doing a music course, and 2 years ago she mentioned in passing that she couldn’t wait for her Grade 8 to be done, because then she could play what she wanted to play.

    She didn’t seem to understand the problem with that statement. She’d been playing for 8-9 years at that point and hadn’t ever stopped and played the music *she* wanted to play.

    I, on the other hand, thought “Screw exams, I don’t have to prove this to anyone”, and learnt how to play Debussy instead.

  3. Speaking as a professional musician and singing teacher, I would say the three main reasons why children stop playing are:

    1) competing demands – peer group pressures, high workloads in secondary schools and priority given to “academic” subjects

    2) lack of performance opportunities, again especially in secondary schools. The number of kids I teach who sang in primary school but can’t in secondary school because there isn’t a choir….

    3) lack of parental support, by which I don’t necessarily mean financial support – I mean the recognition that learning an instrument is a long-term aim that needs hard work and discipline. Too many parents pull the plug when the child doesn’t seem to be “getting anywhere” very fast, or when the child’s practice discipline slips due to 1) and 2) above. Parents need to be committed to musical education when the going gets tough. It’s not reasonable to expect the child to do it all – music practice can be very boring and sometimes parents just need to insist.

    I don’t think that music exams are necessarily the problem. I don’t insist that children do exams and would hate a child to be put off learning to sing because of fear of exams, and I know many other instrumental exams who have the same views as me. There are some who “teach to exams”, but I wouldn’t regard them as the best of their profession! I do think though that the pressure to do well in other exams, particularly for high-achieving children, definitely gets in the way. They simply have too much on their plates and become very tired and stressed. Some use their music lessons as relief from the constant exam pressure in school, and for those children of course music exams are a complete “no-no”.

    Most adults I teach are doing so because learning to sing – or improving their singing – is a personal ambition. There are far more performance opportunities for adults than there are for secondary school children, although I agree that there are insufficient amateur orchestras. I welcome the growth in adult choirs (of all types).

    I’m waiting to see how the Government’s Music Initiative pans out. It has already affected me because Kent and Medway have both ended their Licensed Teacher schemes in anticipation of the Government’s changes. This might be a good thing if music becomes part of mainstream education (although I really don’t want to be a local authority employee and I don’t know how my private work will be supported). Or it might end up being just like the Wider Opportunities programme created by the last government (which this government ended). My criticism of that was it was too focused on primary schools and ignored the musical deficit in secondary schools, and the time period allowed for learning an instrument was far too short. You really don’t get very far on the violin in one term!.

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