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Last year Channel 4 produced a short series called 'Don't stop the music', featuring James Rhodes, a concert pianist with a mission to revolutionise music teaching in Britain's Primary Schools. You might be forgiven for thinking - 'oh no, not another mission campaign programme', following hot on the heels of the likes of the highly admirable Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Gareth Malone, but perhaps yet another expert moralising about what we need?
After watching the series, however, James Rhodes appeared to have got this right. First, it is apparent that the state and status of musical teaching in primary schools in the UK is dire. As a developmental language therapist I've been banging on about this for years so James Rhodes is a man after my own heart. Our children are currently being denied access to quality musical education in primary school - the early, formative years when it really matters. And I believe the root of this problem lies with a lack of a positive musical culture in school and at home.
Why do we need to develop a culture for music?
Do you like music? - seems like a pretty stupid question doesn't it, because we all enjoy some form of music or other. Music is part of our everyday experience. And yet, many people are unable to participate in music beyond singing along to the radio or watching the X factor. What if our children could do more than this? Beyond getting skills for working life, what is education for, if not to expose our children to the wider world and to instruct them so they can be active participants in life? This is especially valid for music, where some skill is needed to support participation. Most people would agree that they enjoy music, and those of us that have had the privilege of playing music with others are testament to the life enhancing experience that it is. What is more, as James Rhodes pointed out in the first episode, we have a multimillion pound music industry in the UK, which will need future talent. Schools do their best with the limited resources they have, but apart from a once weekly general music class (often taught by unqualified staff), any other musical training is usually an optional extra that comes with a price tag for parents. Because music is not adopted as an integral part of the culture of schools, children are left to 'go it alone' when it comes to the discipline required with practicing an instrument (especially if their parents are not musical themselves). I think this is why so many children give up if they do start to learn an instrument.
This lack of a musical culture in schools is further exacerbated by the (in my view, wrong) opinion that music is not a high priority subject at school or home. The educationalist Ken Robinson highlighted this problem clearly, when he described the 'hierarchy of subjects' - maths and literacy at the top of the hierarchy, with many hours and resources dedicated to these subjects, and music and art at the bottom. Of course our children need to learn to read and write and add up, but this dilemma is so extreme, that school reports and SATs largely ignore subjects beyond literacy and numeracy in primary school (the sciences and humanities are paid lip service but very little more). This is problematic for so many reasons. Why do we need literacy and maths? Surely partly to engage in wider learning! Also, this approach carries the assumption that literacy and maths can't be learned outside of literacy and maths sessions! I would argue that children could gain literacy and maths skills by engaging in music (and the arts in general - there is much to be said for drama and dance, but that is another blog!!). Aside from the obvious lifelong pleasure to be gained from playing music with others, learning an instrument has so many benefits for academic achievement (there is evidence for impacts on language, maths, literacy etc). Too often I hear parents saying that their children 'want to give up' an instrument after they have got over the initial excitement and are having to face the challenges of regular practice. Funny how we never hear the narrative of wanting to 'give up' maths or reading!!!
The purpose of this blog is not to undermine or negate in any way the fabulous work that is already done by the unsung musical heroes in our schools music services, and the scores of talented and inspiring music teachers up and down the country. Also it is important for me to point out that our local primary school has done a fab job of encouraging music with the limited resources it has. But more is needed. Like James, I believe all children should be encouraged to actually learn to play an instrument. This blog is about supporting those who work towards supporting music, and positioning their role firmly as an essential component of learning in a musically active school culture. Musical development is hugely beneficial for children and if nurtured in a positive culture, where music is an accepted and prioritised aspect of school life, I believe children would rise to the challenge of learning to play.
Developing a musical culture in our communities.
Developing a culture means we all get involved. Children are led by example, and if they see adults (teachers, parents and friends) engaging in and enjoying music, they are more likely to get on board. This means that, as much as we are able, we should try to develop a musical culture at home too. Perhaps we might enjoy it along the way!
Playing at a local festival
There are many ways parents can encourage their children with music. In 'Don't Stop the Music' James Rhodes has called an amnesty on all the unplayed instruments sitting in peoples' attics, but before you give it up, perhaps you might think about starting to play it again? This would do wonders to encourage your children. Join a musical group or form a band with your friends. I learned to play the double bass after both my children had been born and were at school. I'm no expert, but have fun playing with friends who have also either learned later in life or who have picked up an instrument once learned then forgotten. Our children see us having fun and are encouraged to join in.
With friends round the bonfire on a camping holiday
The kids joining in with the music
Experiencing the thrill of the Royal Albert Hall
Another way to foster a musical culture at home is going to see live music. The wider the range of genres, the better. As a family we have recently been to a pop concert, our local festival, a classical concert at the Royal Albert Hall and a Royal Marines band concert. Concerts can be expensive, but if we cast our eyes beyond the big stars the price tag comes down. There are also often free classical events taking place regularly in churches, and in our home town there's always a gaggle of buskers on busy shopping days. This is a great way of democratising music, and helping our kids to see that you don't have to be a big star to play music (and there are more instruments than the guitar!).
A culture leaves a legacy
The British successes in the 2012 Olympics demonstrated that by building a culture for sport, people got inspired, and that encouraged participation and excellence. Credit to James Rhodes for his part in developing a music culture for children. We can all be part of this. Not only will our children reap all the known benefits for learning music, but just think what legacy that might leave!