This summer I was fortunate (or mad) enough to spend 8 weeks travelling around Italy with my husband and two toddlers. To prepare for this we enlisted an Italian tutor to teach us some Italian in the months leading up to the trip. I must confess, I was an appalling student. Always late (even though she came to our house), never did my homework, switched off five minutes into the lesson, didn’t listen, wouldn’t try and basically didn’t learn anything and was totally not engaged. Why? Because our tutor wanted to drum the grammar and understanding into us before we could speak the language and I simply was not motivated by that approach.
When we got to Italy of course it was a different matter. You can’t just read or recite words in Italian and expect to be understood (and my dulcet Brummie tones didn’t help). You have to get right inside the language and all of its cultural intricacies and beautiful vocal inflections and speak with passion and energy – you have to communicate in a variety of different ways, and being able to read and write the words simply didn’t play a part in this.
For me, music is exactly the same. If you start with what is written down it tells the learner very little about what it means to be an active participant in that music, whatever it may be. It also can lead to huge levels of student disengagement, especially in a classroom setting. As a music student who dutifully worked my way through the classical system to university level, anything to do with music notation was an absolute chore, I just wanted to play. Start with participation however, get students communicating through music, understanding the power and value of playing good quality music with others, and it then becomes a natural part of the process to bring theory and notation in as a means of furthering understanding.
If you heard a loud clunk this morning it was the sound of my head hitting my desk when I read the recent Ofsted report. As usual there is lots in there to debate, mull, pat backs over and get defensive about, especially regarding the place of Music Hubs in supporting music in schools. The head-clunking bit was around the points on theory and notation – not because of what was said but of how I fear people may interpret this and start to become nervous of good quality practical music making in classroom music lessons. We’ve been here before with the theory/notation debate, lots and lots of times, and it can be very damaging.
Musical Futures has fought for ten years now against the chalk and talk, no keyboards until Christmas, approach to music teaching. MF is by no means perfect, it is only one approach to music learning in classrooms, but if it does one thing it shows young people how music is a language of communication that is accessible to them, not just in the classroom but as something they can take with them into their adult lives. I want young adults to have strong memories of music in school, rather than for it to be a blur of desks and tests and formality. I want them to smile about the piece of music they performed in assembly, reminisce about the song they wrote and performed to the rest of the class, remember how much they laughed when trying to master a whole-class rhythmic warm-up. They won’t sit around with a beer when they’re in their 20s saying ‘hey remember when we all learnt how to recite the circle of 5ths’.
Notation is a tool for recording and writing down music. It is not The Music. I am not shunning the importance of theory and notation, but it is only one aspect of what music learning is all about. I just want a bit of perspective. We are all in the business of music education, not notation education.