Music Education in the UK

The Henley report on music education in the United Kingdom emphasised the value and importance of music making as a practical skill and how much this can enrich and aid the development of young people’s lives. This comprehensive survey lacked a detailed account of class music lessons and accentuated the role of extra-curricular music making. A music education based on the development of creative and practical skills in music is in no way a bad thing but how important is the content in class music lessons and particular the use of western art music? Are we offering our pupils a rigorous subject-based curriculum in music or is it just a series of practical activities that develop confidence in singing, playing and composing with a fleeting acknowledgement of the great works of music history? Exploring great works of the western art tradition should form an essential part of the music curriculum from the early years and we should strive to create culturally aware pupils that not only have an understanding of the breadth and depth of ‘classical’ music but will feel confident in being part of and perhaps even contributing to the vibrant classical music scene on offer today.

It is essential that young musicians have an awareness of the past before they can appreciate the wealth of new music today and teachers can be responsible for connecting the past with the present in an engaging way. As well as looking back we should endeavour to look forward; new music need not be difficult.  The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music series of books called ‘Spectrum’ – a series of new works for young players – does a great deal to introduce the world of contemporary music but even more is needed. Composing often forms a significant part of music curriculums during secondary school and if we are to help create composers of tomorrow we need to show them music of today. It is an immense task for the music educator to choose repertoire to present to their classes but conversely it is an immensely rewarding one. Above all I aim to foster confidence and excitement in all my students – I want them to see a Boulez concert and say: “I want to know more”. What we can offer as music educators is an introduction to art music – regardless of when it was written – that allows pupils to interact with its technique and context through engaging activities. For example teaching ground bass – a concept of a repeated bass line – can be exciting if pupils not only see Purcell’s use of this compositional technique but also more recent uses, particularly in popular music. We can draw our pupils’ attention to how variety can be created even though the bass line remains constant and through stimulating discussion of what Arnold Whittall calls ‘the play of comparison’ – noticing the differences and transformation of material throughout a work – we can lead our pupils to create music that uses a ground bass that attempts to be as equally varied as the examples we show them.

Reading the transcript of Richard McNicholl’s keynote address at this year’s NAME Conference made me wish I had been there to hear it. It gives a wonderfully succinct and balanced account of the major developments in British music education since the seventies. McNicholl rightly highlights the value of John Paynter and his book ‘Sound and Silence’ which emphasises a curriculum that priorities a practical approach to the teaching of music; McNicholl acknowledges those teachers that crafted a ‘curriculum that engages and excites innumerable youngsters’. The anecdote about the accidental inclusion of music in the National Curriculum – in 1987 – seems to pre-echo the tenuous position music would hold in a curriculum today. He draws attention to attempts by Kenneth Clarke to formalise the music curriculum which included the study of set works from the western classical tradition. These developments were not met with unanimous acquiescence – eminent classical musicians led the way in preventing these revisions from denying pupils a practical-based music curriculum. McNicholl mentions his pride in announcing the practical based music curriculum in the UK to teachers abroad and he rightly shows that music education in the UK was something to be envied internationally. The ‘Connect’ programme at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offers a continuation of John Paynter’s work and it did much to inform my own classroom practice. Any teacher seeking a course that will inspire their creative work in the classroom would do well to attend the CPD courses offered by GSMD in creative leadership – it offers a training programme that will inspire any music teacher wishing to develop whole class creative work.

‘A pressure has built up to teach that what is accessible, together with a belief that performing constitutes a musical education … We have perhaps encouraged politicians to believe that learning an instrument is music education. We have failed to challenge those who claim that singing is all the music education children need.’ McNicholl is right to highlight these short sighted ideas that eradicate the role of a classroom music teacher – and with The Times reporting a 36% drop in music teaching vacancies (as Jonathan Savage writes in his response to the Henley report) it seems that some of those in the position of shaping a school’s curriculum do indeed consider instrument learning and singing—both of which can exist outside of curriculum time—the only components of a valuable music education. It is that extra layer of music appreciation – that holistic study of music and its history—that a class teacher can offer. Class music lessons are vital in developing culturally-aware young people; they are given opportunities to express emotions through creativity and to learn valuable team working and co-operation skills.

Jonathan Savage wrote an engaging response to the Henley report on music education where he rightly ‘smells a rat’ and emphasises that ‘it is worth fighting for a music education for every child that involves more than learning to play an instrument and sing.’  He paints a less than attractive picture of the degenerative nature of music education in the state school curriculum. McNicholl proposes that we need to demonstrate that ‘classroom music is a rigorous subject and contributes a vital element in a youngster’s education that other subjects cannot provide’ through more than singing and instrumental lessons but ‘to offer a taste and knowledge of music that our pupils might not normally experience but may enjoy and develop in later life’ which ultimately will broaden ‘their minds and their horizons’. This is where classroom music teachers are vital. Sharing our own musical experiences – whatever our own passions might be – is vital in ‘broadening horizons’. Giving pupils a voice by allowing choice in curriculum is welcome – but are we broadening horizons if we allow pupils to dictate the music they study? We should cater for a curriculum that stretches experience rather than simply confirms it. I believe western art music is vital in shaping such a rigorous and challenging curriculum. ’Why do we need to offer so much Heavy Metal in our classrooms when the pop music industry is doing such a thorough and all-pervasive job? … Our job as music teachers is to encourage curiosity and inventiveness.’ I agree with McNicholl that we sometimes have ‘allowed music to be dumbed down in the classroom’. Western art music is only difficult because we as teachers can often present it as such.

I share the fears of Jonathan Savage and Richard McNicholl. My school music teachers did so much to shape my entire career choice. The music room was a sanctuary for much of my childhood and I hope that as a classroom teacher I can offer engaging musical experiences that can not only share my passion for all music but compel my pupils to discover even more of what music can offer today. There is a vibrant classical music scene with so many composers and ensembles championing ‘new’ music as well as that which makes the canon; I want my pupils to be confident to attend such concerts and listen to such repertoire. I believe classroom teachers can be ambassadors for a musical world that can sometimes appear closed and elitist. I make no claims that art music is being avoided in the classroom but sense that so many music education initiatives prioritise pupil choice over teacher choice and we should seek to present a broad spectrum of musics rather than those which are deemed ‘accessible’ by some. It is good teaching that makes music accessible – regardless of the style of genre -and we have the opportunity to make whatever music we choose accessible to our classes. Music is for all and we can do so much to encourage pupils to discover a musical world that will not only offer a creative and artistic outlet on a personal level but present them with art that can really change lives.

Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher working and living in London. He is currently completing his PhD in Composition at Cardiff University (2011). Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Berryman