Music Education is having a bad time of it lately- in some counties it has all but disappeared from primary schools. At times like this something valuable and innovative can happen. It can be a time to take stock and re-imagine what music education could look like in the 21st century. The music industry contributes greatly to the British economy in terms of GDP , but also in terms of GNH (Gross National Happiness,) so it is vital in many ways. What the musical education could be for the musicians and people of tomorrow can be revisioned in this time of quietude.
Music education can sometimes seem like the last bastion of Victorianism or a free form sound experiment exploring momentary creativity but garnering no lasting skills. I propose a total rethink. Here are my humble suggestions:
Music is not just about skill or technique- it is joy, feeling and spirit expressed in a way that we can all relate to. It also showcases culture. The very first maxim of music education should be “Is this a joyful or growing experience? Are the children engaged and actively exploring in some way?”The creation of joy needs to be the very first learning objective and this creates a ground base for which everything else can grow from. Summation: is learning an enjoyable experience?
The second maxim is again not directly related to music. It’s all about rapport. Do the children have a good ,trusting , and warm relationship with their teacher? For a child to explore it’s creativity and be a risk taker it needs to feel lovingly held, safe and above all, not judged or scared of making a mistake. Steiner was an educator in the early part of the twentieth century who created a unique person centred and holistic education. One of his repeated concerns was : “That the child should feel “loved” by the teacher.” Today we would perhaps use the term; being held with deep and positive regard, but the meaning would be the same. Music is a place where the soul meets the intellect and our creative interpretation melds with other peoples. It is therefore a matter of conscious importance that the music teacher creates warmth, confidence, love and patience as a feeling backdrop in the learning environment. Summation: the teacher needs to consciously create a learning environment that has kindness, patience and acceptance as its modus operandi.
We need to consider how children learn, and age related brain development in relation to how we structure and scaffold a growing music curriculum. Music is a highly complex art form which needs careful, gradual and progressive teaching which responds to the stages of brain development. Expecting a young child for instance to learn the piano or violin and also practice ( practice is a concept that does not sit well with children- they learn through play), is often a recipe for failure or lack of enjoyment. (Practice should be banned until they reach for it naturally!)
A gradual and informed learning process needs to ensure that they have internalised musicality, pitch, rhythm, note reading, sight reading and playing together. All parts of the brain are utilised in music making – there is a lot going on at once, rather like driving a car! It is too easy as adults, to expect too much of a child in this regard. Learning to read has become a skilled and gradual process, learning musicality and musicianship needs the same level of care and graduated approach.
Kodaly, was a composer and musical educationalist who studied how we learn and created a highly social and integrated music curriculum which fits the corresponding development phases of the growing mind. A curriculum therefore needs to be progressive in a gentle spiral way revisiting topics with increasing sophistication. Music making needs to go from obvious concrete physical based learning to eventually intellectual abstract learning. Diving into head based learning is often off-putting and difficult for a child who is not yet ready for that experience. Music is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle- there are many parts: pitch, pulse, rhythm, note reading, solferge, inner hearing, harmony, composition. Each part can be considered at first in isolation and then slowly merged to create a more complex picture. Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic methods mean that all learning styles are catered for. Kodaly and Dalcroze are two such educators whose work can be drawn on to create a musically progressive yet child centred learning scheme. The voice and the use of our own bodies is enough of a musical learning tool until a natural musicality has been absorbed. (Cheaper too!)
Only then is it appropriate to introduce instruments in a gradual way. The recorder is an excellent first instrument, It can work as an extension of the child breath, it is small, easy to use, and can be seen by the child using it. Secondary instruments can later be chosen by seeing which instrument fit that particular child. Summation: a progressive, carefully graded child centred curriculum needs to be adopted so learning is ensured for all, taking its core learning objectives and modalities from well respected holistic music educators.
It is not surprising that music is generally considered to run in families. There is no magic to this. It just means that a child with musical parents is exposed to music like a language, a” sound surround” which is naturally absorbed to become just a part of itself. Creating a curriculum that also allows space and time for listening would encourage the development of musicality by osmosis. This could also allow for cultural and musical diversity. Children could listen to Indian ragas, lute fantasias, the drummers of Burundi, alongside pop songs, jazz and orchestral works. Different things may well suit different ages or moods and other lessons such as art or creative writing, or even maths could be utilised as a time when this learning by listening could take place. Summation: extensive listening encourages a deeper learning which creates musicality and later creativity.
Schools could hold frequent residencies for different genres of working musicians/people in the music industry to come in to schools, work with the children and also give them access to live performance. In this way creativity, inspiration and diversity is encouraged. Children could also get to see what it is like working within the music industry and try developing their own performing, mixing, producing skills as they gain in age and experience. Summation: residencies would allow a valuable interface between schools and the music industry, increasing knowledge, skills and motivation. It also perhaps would help children who are disaffected or have difficulties with more academic subjects. It would also be valuable and enriching work for the musicians and music industry professionals themselves.
Overall, if this loose model was implemented then primary music education would take the child from “ground zero” to musical independence where they could confidently make music, read music, sing in pitch, understand the basis of musicianship, sight read, sing rounds and duets, improvise a little through voice and the recorder. They would have an active, joyful appreciation, knowledge and love of music. Their “soft skills” of confidence, language expression, speaking and listening skills, concentration, team work, solo work, problem solving and creativity would all be enhanced. Their joy of learning would naturally spill into other subjects and behaviour and motivation would also improve. A happy, learning child is too absorbed and enjoying its achievements to be disaffected and unmotivated.
Let’s bring in an intelligent modern, child centred and diverse music education for the betterment of all subjects and all children.