Reflecting on my own experience of music in school reiterates how deeply personal and social music often is to young people, and how building relationships and effectively supporting the needs of every student is critical.
I have always been a bit confused musically! My father is a folk musician, meaning our home was always full of interesting people playing all sorts of weird and wonderful music and instruments, by ear, in the most informal way possible (usually accompanied by homebrew). Both of my grandmothers were pianists but couldn’t be more different – my maternal grandmother played Bach, Haydn and hymns, my paternal grandmother used to tour with a band during the war playing swing on piano and piano accordion. She refused to play anything ‘straight’, had the most incredible zest for music and would yell at me to swing everything (an instruction I was frequently given as a 5 year old while playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the piano).
Despite this, from the age of 4 for some reason I went down the traditional ‘taught’ route, learning piano then flute, dutifully working my way through the graded system, which frankly I found dull, monotonous and not really music in the way I understood it. I have no recollection of primary school music, other than a miniscule amount of recorder playing, so it can’t have had a profound impact on me. At that time music for me was something that happened outside of school, in folk clubs, gigs and ceilidhs with my Dad.
My secondary school, a bog-standard comprehensive but with incredible effective, committed music, drama and art teachers, should have been the place where I thrived. However going to secondary school also coincided big time with adolescence – music in school was most definitely not perceived to be cool, and all I wanted to do was work on my social life, not my school work.
With my friends I would listen to the top 40 charts every week, make mix tapes, and sing the songs we loved at the top of our lungs on the bus home from school. Everybody talked about music, started going to gigs, and pretty much where you hung out, what you wore, who your friends were, and how people perceived you, were all defined by the music you were interested in. I was Grade 7 flute by the time I was 13 and Grade 6 piano, but nobody found that out, I hid it completely.
Even though our music teacher used to try to make everything fun and practical, classroom music bored me – I was the insolent one at the back, chewing gum, looking disinterested (even though I was taking it all in). I wouldn’t get involved in any of the school or county ensembles, I gave up having piano lessons, I endured having flute lessons at the insistence of my parents but I refused to practice. My music teacher used to find me incredibly frustrating – I had a really bad attitude at the time, I knew it, she knew it, my parents knew it, but music for me was something I did with my friends, not something an adult told me to do.
I remember the moment when I was 14 and one of my fairly unsuitable friends somehow found out I played the piano. She marched a group of us into a practice room and demanded I play something. At the time, we were all into Beverley Craven, and I had taught myself to play ‘Promise Me’ by ear at home. I nervously played, everybody looked at me in amazement – and then started singing. Thus began a fairly regular lunchtime slot where I would play power ballads and the practice room would be full of hormonal teenage girls smelling of cheap perfume and Hubba Bubba, blasting out the lyrics. It was a release, we related to the songs, I was able to play the piano and still be in the ‘cool’ gang…. It also was the point at which my music teacher properly heard that I could play.
Post-14, I got persuaded that I should do GCSE music, and I ‘came out’ as a musician a bit more (even though I still refused to play in the school orchestra). My music teacher tasked me to organise an evening concert so we could practice performing our GCSE work, and I got really motivated by this – I wanted something informal, so we had chairs round tables with red checkered tablecloths, candles and nibbles, a stage, lighting, and as I had put so much effort into socialising I was in a good position to persuade the various GCSE rock bands and our resident DJ to perform, alongside the more classical performers. From then on, school music improved for me. I gave more, and I felt more fulfilled because of it. I loved music in sixth form, I (occasionally) started getting my flute out of its case in public, I continued organising gigs and concerts, went onto study music at university, and never looked back.
Music was such a massive part of my life, but I only really found my way through it when I was with my friends. What was critical was that time my music teacher invested in me, difficult and challenging that I was, to build my trust and to find a way of unlocking the musicality and motivation she believed I had – which she accessed through getting me involved in a different way. She could (possibly should!) have written me off as a frustrating waste of musical talent, but she persisted, and over time discovered exactly what I needed to thrive.
This sense of trust, respect, relationship building, and connecting with the motivations and passions that young people already have for music is at the core of Musical Futures, and it is why I believe in it so much. It is all about the connections, in and out of school, and between people. The importance of this cannot be underestimated.
My music teacher, Dilys Lane, died in a tragic diving accident in 2002. I didn’t ever thank her properly for believing in a teenager with a serious attitude problem, but I made sure I was involved in her memorial concert and she would have been proud to see that I finally played.
Musical Futures is an approach to teaching and learning based on the based on the real-world practices of popular and community musicians, making it relevant and engaging for kids. It provides training, resources and an international community of practice to help teachers provide accessible music-making in their schools
Blog post updated 5th December 2016