Prioritizing musical education

Philippa Ibbotson’s recent Guardian article on the teaching of musical instruments in schools somehow passed me by, but it makes interesting reading. According to a survey carried out by insurers Norwich Union, four out of five of us Britishers harbour regrets. The remarkable thing, as Ibbotson points out, is that the top regret (shared by 13% of respondents) is “Not learning to play a musical instrument”:

More than not having paid attention at school, it seems, or not having done the right thing by a relationship, the number one sorrow was a lack of musical ability.

Perhaps, she hopes, this might spur the government – which has done everything in its power to squeeze instrumental tuition out of schools and beyond the reach of most parents – to start taking schools music more seriously. I hope so too – but Gordon Brown’s moves on education so far as PM (even if publications like the Times Higher have broadly welcomed them) should leave those of us in the arts distinctly uneasy. Reading not too hard between the lines, the formula that lies behind Brown education policy so far seems to be: education = industrially valuable skills and knowledge = healthy economy. This is an equation that works reasonably well for technology and the sciences, but – despite evidence that the creative industries are an extremely valuable component of the British economy – not one that works quite as neatly for the hit-and-miss, unpredictable arts. What with this new emphasis on education as training for industry, as well as the Olympics hogging all the cultural budget, expect the situation to get worse, rather than better.

On a more positive note, though, Stephen Maddock, chief executive of the CBSO, responds to Ibbotson’s article with some examples of outreach being made by British orchestras.

3 thoughts on “Prioritizing musical education

  1. I don’t believe it is always a problem of a lack of funding to schools for instrumental tuition. It would be no surprise to find that, of those surveyed in the Norwich Union survey, a significant number of people had started playing an instrument and hadn’t kept it up. Reaching a level of skill in which one feels oneself to have a “musical ability” takes a certain amount of dedication. That’s not merely a question of funding, it is also an issue of culture. And of people’s priorities when they are at school, or at the age when they are most likely to start learning an instrument (which is also perhaps a product of culture).

    ‘El Sistema” seems to have been featured or referred to in a number of British articles I have read lately, and one article was followed by a comment from someone who suggested that for such a system to have that kind of impact, you needed a culture that respected the specialness of music in the first place. The “El Sistema’ stories abound with descriptions of young people who were the pride of their neighbourhood, for their musical talent. I can imagine it being slightly different here (Australia) in a lot of communities.

    I always start to feel a bit despondent when I think about ‘culture’ in terms of what is valued and prized in the society in which I live. It’s one where the easy answers and quick grabs are often prized, and I fear that sometimes, the tangibility of instrumental learning is a bit of an ‘easy answer’. But that’s not all music education is, or should be. It’s not always done well, and perhaps the reason so many stop playing when they get to a more demanding year level at school, or when they finish school, is because the social aspect of playing was the strongest drawcard for them – not the education itself.

    Anyway, there IS funding around, and money does get spent. Today across Australia there was a big ‘music education’ campaign initiative, where schools across the country were asked to learn to sing a new song – the same song for everyone, and all would sing it at the same time – 11am. One song, one day, across the country, young voices raised for music education. But the song was awful, it was in a dodgy key for young voices (I gather they did end up changing the key)… it was sappy and not particularly catchy, and unlikely (I would suspect) to ever be sung again. The campaign cost a fortune, it is the feather in the cap for the Federal Education Minister (who is undoubtedly unhappy with the lack of television coverage) – her first big initiative, and perhaps for many it was a great demonstration of ‘the power of music’. It left me feeling depressed that that is as deep as we are prepared to go. All flash, no substance.

    I’m happy to read the article by Stephen Maddock, as I work with a major, publicly-funded orchestra as creative director of the community outreach program. There IS a lot of good work being done to ensure the relevance of music and demonstrate in as many ways as possible the power of music to touch and move people and transform lives. (Not just orchestras. But I’ll include my own efforts in this, of course!)

  2. What is it with insurance companies and surveys? Did they get a fifty-year contract to provide research for Family Feud and can’t stop even after it was cancelled?

  3. Perhaps there is hope for the species yet? IMO, the music we make is one of the two things that makes us human. The other is graffiti. Both of which are the last cultural ties to our ancestry.

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