While I’ve been working in Australia, there’s been something of a furore back in England over a recent report on music learning in school. The report was primarily aimed at the newly-formed music hubs, but it was their assessment of music in the classroom that provoked the most heated debate. The report begs a number of important questions concerning: the power and possible undue influence of OFSTED, the government’s schools inspections agency, and the failure to understand informal learning. It also seems to position music (and by implication, the arts more generally) as a cerebral, intellectual, subject, rather than an expressive, practical activity.
Why Should Government Define Teaching and Learning?
It’s not that long ago that OFSTED was claiming that they would only judge learning – how schools taught was entirely up to them. More recently, the last OFSTED report on music suggested that there was not enough music making going on in classrooms. Last month’s report said that there was a dearth of music theory and notation – is it any wonder that teachers are confused?
Of course the schools with strong leadership will encourage their music teachers to do what works in the best interests of their students, and ignore OFSTED’s flip-flopping. Sadly, most teachers will feel pressured to curtail their student’s practical enjoyment of playing music, and try to get kids excited about crotchets, quavers and hemi-demi-semibreves.
What’s The Point Of The Arts in Schools?
Do we teach the arts so that students can become appreciative consumers? Or do we do it so they can become producers, learning to express themselves in non-literal, creative ways? The previous OFSTED report seemed to imply that it should be primarily the latter: that students could (and should) acquire the skills which intellectually codify the tactile, aural skill of music making through the act of making it. The principle is known as ‘sound before symbol’.
OFSTED appears to now be advocating ‘symbol before sound’, thus severely limiting what can be experienced practically as a musician for the overwhelming majority of students. Most popular musics aren’t notated accurately, or if they are, they appear far more difficult to perform than playing ‘by ear’. Most classical pieces are for solo instruments, and either out of reach for most students, or ‘dumbed-down’ in easy-to-play versions. So, putting symbol before sound de-socialises the act of making music, and loses the authenticity of the experience, whatever the genre of music.
Please note, I’m not suggesting that learning theory and notation is a bad thing – just saying it should happen in the context of its original intention: to make music communicable to others.
Interestingly, the other art forms – drama, dance, visual arts – don’t have the same reverence for codification that music inspectors now seem to have. A choreographer demonstrates steps. S/he doesn’t hand the dancers a printed piece of paper and say ‘learn this’ (and, yes, I know there are forms of dance notation). Never mind the arts, can you imagine a PE teacher insisting that kids know the dimensions of a soccer pitch, or the subtleties of the Italian ‘libero’ system, before they could kick a ball?
Why Don’t We Value Informal Learning?
Most of the above arguments were eloquently voiced by Anna Gower in a recent response to OFSTED’s volte-face. One of the comments subsequently posted argued that the advantage of notation was that it was just a quicker way to play music. Well, not for me, it isn’t. I can’t ‘sight-read’ (i.e. play fluently on first glance of sheet music) but neither can all but a small minority of students. But I do understand music theory (and have the certificate to prove it).
However, I find it much quicker to work out the harmonic structures of a piece of music by sitting at the piano and ‘busking’ it. I started at 15, working out the chords to Beatles songs, and pretty soon found I was able to anticipate the upcoming chord changes, simply through remembering the recording (rather than playing along with the record). Informal musicians call this ‘hearing the changes’. Honing this skill over 40 years earned me a living as a musician for 15 years; still allows me to improvise almost any pop song at parties (even ones I haven’t heard before) and earns me the admiration of my wife, who calls me ‘the human jukebox’.
I’m not boasting about this skill – not least because millions of pop and jazz musicians can do it – but many formally trained musicians can’t do it. Sadly, it isn’t given parity of value, so long as we think of music as an academic subject. Nonetheless, I’d argue that it is a more useful, flexible and inherently musical skill than being able to quickly decode dots on a page. What’s more, anyone can do it – all you need are ears and lots of practice.
In my view, OFSTED needs to give teachers the professional respect to find the best way to develop student’s musical skill – formal and informal – free from prescription. And all educators, from any discipline, would benefit from a better understanding of the power of informal learning.