Showing posts with label Music education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Music education. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

As easy as do-re-me...

An article in The Guardian yesterday appears to have declared that music education is elitist because the notation is unintelligible unless you're privately educated, and therefore notation ought to be dropped. Oh dear.

At least, that's how it has been interpreted. Actually, there's a bit more to it than that.

Let's start at the very beginning. There's nothing elitist about reading music and if you learn it early on, it's easy as pie. A number of friends have responded that they managed to learn music notation in a day or two at their state primary schools. I vaguely remember learning it aged about 5, when my mum gave me some piano basics from this book (yes, I am that old...):



You know, of course, that kids learn anything and everything much faster than adults, especially if they are brought up with it from the start. My littler nephews, half Italian, were bilingual from the beginning, because if you're taught two languages as something normal, it just is normal to you. (That's also why kids can fix your computer problems...) Music is a language of sorts, and suggesting that notation shouldn't be taught is like saying that learning a language can be accomplished without knowing any vocabulary. If all children were to be taught to read music as young as possible, preferably before they are 7, they would have it as a skill and an asset for the rest of their lives.

What's so difficult about reading music anyway? It's incredibly straightforward and logical. The pitches go up and down, so you show them going up or down on the stave. There are only 12 notes, so when you finish the 12th you just start over again. The different clefs indicate which note is where, and they're designed to make it easier for you according to the pitch of your voice or the instrument you play. You can modify the notes with sharps or flats (OK, sometimes double sharps or double flats if you're Fauré trying to do something very clever, but never mind that for the moment).

You show the duration of the notes with clear, basic symbols. They're not so hard to remember, according to our teacher at school, when we were 11. She'd draw one bar of music on the blackboard with white chalk. One big round plain note was a semibreve and it went TAAAA. Two smaller ones taking up the same amount of time were minims and went TAA TAA. Four crotchets to the semibreve, going TA TA TA TA. Then you could fit two quavers with their funny black tails into each crotchet, going TA-TE-TA-TE-TA-TE-TA-TE. And then semiquavers, worth half a quaver each, going TAFFA-TEFFY-TAFFA-TEFFY.... (I'm not sure what we'd do with demisemiquavers, but maybe TAFFA-TEFFY-TIFFY-TOFFY?) OK, now you have the basics.

There are other teaching systems aplenty. My cello-playing nephew used to go to a very good Saturday morning music school and learned another way altogether. Creative teachers who really connect with youngsters can and do come up with all manner of interesting methods.

Still, one vital point in the original article is really worth a second look. It's the art of playing by ear. It would be enormously, immeasurably, phenomenally valuable if more of us learned to play by ear as early as possible. The solfège system is a great mystery to UK kids being put through the grade-exam mill and has never been part of our music education system (such as it is). In France and various other places it is absolutely standard. It is, in basic concept, as simple as The Sound of Music tells us, and once learned it helps you to know, as second nature, the relation of one note to another. That doesn't mean you won't find it a headache en route from time to time, but, like learning notation, it's an investment for your future. Over to Maria and the Von Trapp children:



While there is nothing inherently academic about notation, any more than there is something inherently academic about learning to read and write, we often remain too tied to the page. Playing by ear can free you up in all manner of ways. This is because it's not essentially the notes that hamstring us: it's authority.

It's your dad saying: "Stop mucking about and practise properly". It's your teacher saying: "No, you can't just make it up as you go along". It's the examiner at the desk following the score to make sure you're observing the right kind of crescendo in the right place, and you won't get a distinction if you don't (and then your grandmother will be terribly upset, because she's convinced you're the next Martha Argerich even though you're 10 years old and doing Grade 3, so you have to feel guilty too).

I would love to be able to play by ear, but was actively discouraged from trying. As a kid I used to seek hours of harmless fun by working out how to play tunes from my favourite records, then sticking basic accompaniments onto them. This probably caused cacophony at home; I was ordered to stop mucking about and practise properly. That was the end of it. Incidentally, I'm a useless sight-reader to this day.

Sight-reading ability, contrary to the Guardian piece, doesn't go only with being able to read. It goes with having the courage to try. To trust yourself to attempt something you haven't first taken to bits and worked out very, very slowly.

The few times I've found myself able to sight-read have been the occasions on which I've known by ear how the piece goes (this is assuming we're talking about something technically straightforward, not the Franck Violin Sonata). You look at the page, you hear it in your head and you know what to do with it. If you can't hear it in your inner ear first, it will be much harder to play. That's one reason the sight-reading tests in grade exams used to be so difficult, because they were designed, I used to feel, to catch you out, almost as if to make sure you probably couldn't hear it in your head first. They weren't actual pieces of music. Talk about putting kids off. I think, though, that this has now been tackled and reformed.

The signal that somewhere along the line British musical education really is too academic comes into focus with the divide between music college and university. I sincerely hope it's changed since my day. I graduated 30 years ago this summer, after three years of beating my head against every brick wall in town looking for somewhere to practise. The performance element in that course counted for an optional one-seventh of the third year, so during the first two years you weren't really allowed to practise because it wasn't part of your course until the third year, and then you didn't have to do it and if you didn't feel confident after having not been allowed to practise for two years you could choose a different option instead and stop worrying. The fact that most music students do play music and need to practise consistently tended to pass the colleges by - the college academics, most of them not musical at all, had no clue that becoming a musician requires regular, daily training as much as becoming an Olympic rower does. In the official view, music was an admirable pastime for an amateur but a dreadful profession, one to be looked down upon, condemning you to use the tradesmen's entrance forever. Institutional arrogance can close minds, ears and eyes. I lost count of the number of times I heard the words: "We are not a conservatoire".

After that, I tried to go to a music college, only to be faced with aural tests of sub-O-level standard, and then the words "Well, we're not a bloody university, you know, you can't just pick and choose". Caught between snobbery and inverted snobbery, I left. This divide seemed bad at the time, but the extraordinary thing is that I still feel angry about it now and it happened three decades ago.

In better news, a lot of fine musicians came out of both institutions. At that university the early music specialists had masses of support; the singers found ample opportunity to test their wings in chapels and university opera; and good student orchestras were two a penny and would-be conductors could form them and learn their craft on the job. As for pianists, a few things to kick against can work wonders for your motivation. Learning resilience has a value all its own and is not included in any curriculum, anywhere, ever.

Since then, I think the situation has changed incrementally: for instance, there are now plenty of joint courses between universities and music colleges, and more practical aspects of music-making are wound into school options if and where they exist. These old divides, though, would not suddenly have kicked in at tertiary level, from nowhere. Such matters tend to be rooted deeply in societal attitudes that have persisted for decades, sometimes centuries, and can prove hard to eradicate. I believe that our finest universities and colleges have been working hard to make those changes and if they have succeeded, then that is wonderful. But it has to work from the bottom up. Therefore starter music education must not be "elitist" and divided into artificially incompatible academic and practical strands - and I hope that in most places it already is not.

And the only egalitarian way to ensure that music education is not "elitist" is to provide it free, with a grounding in an instrument, in singing and in notation, in every school, for every child, from the very beginning. So there you go.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Government backs more cuts to music education funding

While we ate chocolate, they were busy with the axe.

It has not been a happy Easter for anyone who cares about music education in the UK. And, you know, many of us do - not that you'd ever guess that from the actions of a government that first commissioned a report broadly welcomed for its positive recommendations on the topic - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/music-education-in-england-a-review-by-darren-henley-for-the-department-for-education-and-the-department-for-culture-media-and-sport - yet now is apparently telling local authorities that they should have no money to fund music education.

This article from Arts Professional sets out the situation neatly: http://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/pressure-mounts-councils-cut-music-education-funding

Deborah Annetts, head of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, has pointed out the chaos instigated by mixed messages from government and lack of joined-up thinking from those wielding the purse-strings. She says:

‘Following the confusion caused by the EBacc and other mixed messages around the value the Government places on music education, we now need an unequivocal commitment from the Department for Education that it supports music education and is fully behind the National Plan for Music Education.

‘Last week we celebrated as music was included in the Government’s GCSE reforms, but this week, we find that the Government is backing additional cuts to the music education budget worth millions.

‘The National Plan for Music Education supported by the Department for Education, was a visionary strategy for music education in England. The demand that local authorities should stop funding music services risks derailing this flagship Government initiative.’

The ISM is stepping up its Protect Music Education campaign. Please sign up to it. 

UPDATE, 22 April: this piece by Jonathan Savage contains more detail - please read.

Meanwhile, this article from the Guardian raises the idea that dismantling our youngsters' creative abilities may be more sinister a move still: "Indeed, it may not be too cynical to suggest that it actually suits some if the creative noise is kept down in poor areas. Talented working-class youngsters who learn how to use the tools of their artistic trade are notoriously prone to asking awkward questions with them." 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Protecting music education: a vital message from the ISM


The ISM has emailed today with the following message. Please support their call!   

Take action now to protect music education
Thank you for supporting the Protect Music Education campaign.
We still don’t know for certain whether or not funding for music education hubs in England will continue after 2015.
Whilst the schools budget has been protected from cuts, the Education Services Grant is to be cut by £200 million: that’s almost four times what the Government will be spending on music education by 2015!
We have asked the Government to confirm their continued support for music education; whatever the reply, we need as many people as possible ready to fight to protect music education.
 
Here is what you can do to help today:
 
1. Tell us why music education matters to you
With more than 30 music organisations now backing the campaign, from the Music Industries Association through to NMC recordings and Conservatoires UK we now want to hear what you have to say!
Each organisation has contributed approximately 100 words on the importance of music education and we want you to do the same - all you need to do is tell us why music education matters to you by using the forum on our petition page.
For some inspiration, our newest supporters, Yorkshire Music Education Service said:
'The inspirational work done by music educators across the country transforms the lives of young people every day. The effect of music on personal development is phenomenal - it promotes dedication and teamwork, and can provide a lifetime of enjoyment. It is essential that ring-fenced funding to support high quality music education is retained - without it, access will be diminished and our society will be poorer for it.'
We now want to hear why music education matters to you!
 
2. Tell others about the campaign
As well as telling us about the importance of music education, you can also encourage others to sign up. Ask your pupils, parents, friends, family and colleagues to sign up to the campaign today.
And you can tweet about the campaign and tell people about it on Facebook using the #protectmusic campaign hash tag.
 
Thank you again for your support. Please spread the word about the campaign as wide as you can. Together we can make an impact on Government policy and ensure that music education is protected for the generations to come.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

SHOUT OUT! MUSIC EDUCATION FOR ALL #2

All this week here on JDCMB, some of the stars of British musical life share their firm conviction that musical education should be available to all children, regardless of wealth. They offer their personal memories and gratitude for the opportunities that were open to them, without which they might not be where they are today. And, just as the Big Noise of Sistema Scotland releases some truly astonishing statistics about the impact and beneficial effects of its programme at Raploch - eg, 100 per cent of parents reported their children's confidence increased by music-making - they remind us that music does more for the soul than can ever meet the eye...

Today we hear from James Rhodes, Errollyn Wallen and Nick van Bloss. Over to you, guys...




"Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Mozart, et al, are and always will be the musical equivalent of Shakespeare, Byron and Chaucer. To make cuts in our education system that will make music-making and even music-listening the preserve of the wealthy is an appalling indictment of our society. As a child I found it was these great composers that offered a rare glimpse of something bigger and brighter than the rest of my educational world. Being able to torture my teacher with my dire piano playing, listening to Peter and the Wolf, watching a talented ex-pupil play Chopin on stage - all of these things were vital and extraordinary experiences that in some way moulded and shaped my desire to immerse myself in music and, perhaps more importantly, gave me the feeling that there was something infinitely more exciting than my rather one-dimensional and painful schooldays. 

"To cut or remove classical music from the curriculum would be tantamount to substituting Shakespeare with Grisham - a cheapening and eroding of our cultural heritage that will have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. Accessibility is a vital part of education. In the land that gave us Britten, Elgar, the Proms and Cheryl Cole, surely music education is a right and not a privilege. The success of El Sistema in Venezuela and the global inspiration it has produced should provide a clear message - the life-changing power of music is something to be treasured and supported. Music will always survive; far better it does so because of our government rather than despite it. "





"I was nine years old when, walking along my street in Tottenham, North London, holding my uncle’s hand, I confided that I heard music all the time in my head which I didn’t know what to do with. It was my Uncle Arthur who suggested that I might be a composer.

"It has been a long and winding road towards acquiring all the education and skills I needed but without the good start I had – a wonderful music teacher, Miss Beale, at our state primary school in Tottenham who taught everyone in the class to read and write music at the age of nine and who encouraged me to write my first ensemble composition for the class – Frogs and Toads – it would have been an even harder journey.

"I’ve just finished a day’s work on what is my eleventh opera. I still hear music all the time in my head and am full of plans for the future. I am never without a commission.  My music has been, on a NASA mission, to outer space.

"Every single day I give thanks for the musical education which made my career as a professional composer possible.  I believe that everyone who wants to, regardless of their background, should have access to the tools of this most remarkable trade."



"The days of considering music to be a mere hobby for the rich, a luxury, something of no intrinsic value, are surely over? Or are they...? Children of all ages are fascinated and stimulated by sound. They are 'wowed over' when they watch a virtuoso, thrilled when they experience a symphony orchestra. Given the chance, they're eager to pick up an instrument and ‘have a go’ - to engage, to 'create'.

"Budgetary cuts affect music education disproportionately.  Students are still being taught the full school curriculum but instrumental teaching is being slashed. It is obviously the funding structure which should be amended, so that when cuts have to be made, the basic building blocks of music education are not annihilated overnight.

"The Longfellow quotation, 'Music is the universal language of mankind', may sound like a cliche, but, can we, as a society, deprive children the chance of experiencing this 'language'? The benefits of music education are numerous. It has a multitude of applications physical, artistic, cognitive, creative, social, therapeutic, intellectual...  No matter who we are, it is a major force in our lives. 

"It would be a sad indictment of our society if we not only ignore the benefits of music education, but if we deny a generation the chance of experiencing even a few of the wonders music has to offer. Music itself is a great survivor, but the route of passing it on to others has rarely been more fragile."

Monday, April 04, 2011

SHOUT OUT! MUSIC EDUCATION FOR ALL #1

Music education in the UK is facing a shaky future due to financial cutbacks. Despite an apparently positive response from central government to Darren Henley's recommendations in his official report, local authorities have already begun to slash their music services and budgets for music teaching. Some are putting fees for instrumental tuition up to levels way beyond the recommended MU rates, pricing the non-privileged out of the market. This discrepancy between apparent central intent and what's really happening "on the ground" needs to be recognised and spotlighted. And it needs noticing now. 

I, for one, don't want to see music-making in the UK barred to those who can't afford to pay for lessons. Yet while authors jumped forward with alacrity and tough words about the iniquities of closing libraries, and were instant fodder for headlines, even the most prominent musicians seem to lack suitable outlets to speak out. An entire musical country has therefore been feeling voiceless and hopeless. 

Enter JDCMB. I've asked some of the prominent British musicians I know to please consider voicing their concerns via my site and I'll be running their responses throughout the week ahead. Today we begin with no less a team than Tasmin Little, Barry Douglas and Julian Lloyd Webber. 



"My point is short and far from sweet.  If we do not keep music education high on our agenda, it is not just the current generation of children who will be deprived of profound experiences which can affect their whole lives, but future generations, who will wonder why they cannot understand emotions which lie deep within themselves.  

I have had so many experiences of the power of music on children of all ages, nationality and social background - from kids with communication disabilities in UK, to groups of Chinese children who have never heard a note of any live music, to young Zimbabwean children whose animated faces at their discovery of music will never leave my memory.  However, a teacher in Yorkshire emailed me recently and her words sum it all up for me:



“I also teach minority ethnic children English, and thought you would like to hear this story:  one of these children had selective mutism, and it was only when I took my guitar in to her English lesson and gave it to her to hold that she said her first sentence to me, which was 'I'd like to learn the violin'!  From that point she has begun speaking, and after I arranged violin lessons for her, it turns out that she has musical talent and is doing well.  This is the power of music!”

"We like to define society by the expressiveness and achievement of its people. OK - fine.  But in this era of cutting mercilessly, it's not 'just about the economy, stupid!' The wealthy class always hold all the cards and the rest try 'their best'; and here is an amazing example of, potentially, a whole generation of young people being barred from the fulfilment and delight of music and the arts. When all other European countries except Ireland are freezing or increasing funding, the one-time hub of the music world is cutting and imploding.  How short-sighted and how cruel. Even when I was growing up during the conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the concerts, festivals and music education available helped sustain us. Think again, please, for the sake of your children and grand-children." 


"It is extremely frustrating when the Coalition has given its support to the importance of music in schools – having recognised the huge social benefits music brings both to children and their communities - to then discover slash-happy local authorities lagging far behind in their thinking. It is so easy to make a knee-jerk ‘cut’ to provisions for music and so hard to reinstate it later.

"Music is a universal language which brings people together and which provenly enhances children’s skills in so many other ways. There is no better way to build a ‘Big Society’ than through music – one thing EVERYONE can share together."