Theory Will Only Get You So Far….

Circle of fifthsWhile 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.

6 Responses to Theory Will Only Get You So Far….

  1. MarkB says:

    To be fair, I don’t think it’s so much a case of teachers and schools being confused, as bloomin’ pissed-off with all the senseless, political jerking around they have to endure – it really doesn’t help good things happen.

  2. Spot on analysis …as usual, by David. There’s more than one way to skin a cat and when it comes to music, there seems to be plenty of options available for teachers and learners alike….especially with the web and social media. One problem we see in the states is that teachers often teach how they were taught, which is not only limiting but awfully short sighted. Another maddening factor is that somehow music teaching is thought of as an activity in which only school-agers participate. With all of the findings about the power of music, brain function and general well being seemingly overlooked in favor of “music makes kids smarter in math” campaigns to save public school programs. Perhaps we (as teachers) could reach a far wider audience by ‘marketing’ more carefully and by using the power of the web and technology to create more music makers of every demographic. The last thing we need is for government (or any ‘organization’ for that matter) to decide which is the right way to reach those who want to learn music. What we do need is more innovation and connectivity that will make more options available for music learners (and teachers) at all levels.

  3. Ben says:

    Well said, David! I couldn’t agree more, it is funny that in Australia it seems we could be heading down the same track if we don’t have enough support for informal learning. It was great that both yourself and Musical Futures had input and were mentioned in the recent review into music ed. Hopefully, more people will see the value of the Musical Futures approach here in Australia and we will see it take off!

  4. Richard Jones says:

    Hi Dave
    I don’t think Ofsted is saying symbol before sound, just that we should not be afraid to teach notation.. when the time is right!

  5. Very well written post! But let me ask a question (not knowing anything about the Brittish school system): Is this all a consequence of a situation where the people responsible for the Ofsted report, and maybe the teachers as well, do not know how to work with assessment of practical musical skills? In Norway we’ve had a heavy emphasis on assessment for the last 5 years or so, resulting in lots of music teachers feeling they’re forced to bring a lot more theory to the music classes. I argue that this is simply because they are not trained in doing assessment of practical skills. One tends to believe that assessment in music, except in theory, will always depend on personal taste. I believe that is definitely wrong, and I have developed a system for assessment of performing and creative skills in general music classes. I’ve been giving courses for teachers all over Norway and they really appreciate it – letting them combine both formative and summative assessment with all the practical activities they believe in. There’s still a long way to go, but this approach to the antagonistic forces in music education has proven to be useful. As already mentioned, I don’t know a thing about your schools, but might the Ofsted-report, and the teachers response, suffer due to a lack of a proper system for assessment of performing and creative skills in music?

    • David says:

      I suspect there is some truth in what you’re saying. However, I suspect it’s more to do with the general ‘toughening up’ on English schools by the OFSTED agency. It’s only a year or so ago that they were saying that there was too much emphasis upon theory and not enough on practically making music.
      cross learning as a whole there is always a tendency to test what is easily measured – and it’s easier to measure theory (there’s usually a right or wrong answer) than grapple with the nuances of performance, as you’re successfully doing.
      How the English government think the best way to improve schooling is to alienate teachers, is beyond me.

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