This post was first published in September 2014 and updated December 2016
Whoah has there ever been so much national attention on music education in one week since the heady days of the Music Manifesto? We have James Rhodes and his Channel 4 TV programme and associated rockstar+politician supported campaign to donate instruments to primary schools; the ABRSM report which created a media battle over whether guitars are killing violins. And perhaps lesser known to the public but at the forefront of the concerns of music educators is the ISM’s Protect Music Education campaign against the current proposals to significantly change the way GCSE and A/AS level music is delivered.
The ABRSM report tells us that more children are playing instruments (76% of 5-14 year olds compared with 41% in 1999). This is a good thing. Whether it is a recorder or an electric guitar, more children are playing instruments – that is the message.
We all have opinions on the Rhodes campaign and programme – myself included (Jackie Schneider’s excellent blog pretty much sums it up) but actually, he has brought music education to an audience we rarely reach. This is a good thing. For a week or so, people in the pub may be talking about that hairy man who played the keyboard in a lift. So when organisations like Musical Futures, ISM, Sing Up, Music Mark come forward with their next big initiative (quick MF spoiler: MF Primary will be launched early next year) parents, headteachers, policy makers may see the value of it just a little bit more than they might have done before.
I have a nagging feeling that something is missing. Oh yes, that is it, the fact that actually children, young people and adults, will be happily engrossed in making music informally (whether singing along to silent discos, beatboxing, producing music on phones, jamming in their garage with their mates, playing in a nu-folk group…the list is endless) that they love and care about, and frankly won’t care too much about all of this. No matter what the current trend, or the current state of music education in our schools, music will continue to form a powerful and integral part of the majority of young peoples’ lives. Music makes them laugh and cry, it helps make sense of their emotions, it forms a critical part of social identity, often defining who their friends are and what clothes they wear, and it is a major outlet for self-expression when nothing else does the job. Battles among music educators over who funds provision and how well coordinated it is, won’t change the amorphous, under-the-radar, autonomous life of music beyond formal provision.
Despite the positivity of the ABRSM report, students are still dropping instruments as they progress through school. And the evidence of this into adulthood is abundantly clear – a report by Music for All found that more adults than ever stated they wished they could play an instrument. The Rhodes Instrument Amnesty campaign is getting hundreds of instruments donated. Why? Because people aren’t playing them anymore. As my colleague David Price tweeted: ‘Great if you want to donate a musical instr. But B4 you donate, ask why you stopped playing it. Access is not the problem!’
I am a good news junkie, and I am genuinely happy this week that there feels to be some momentum around music in schools again, we can build on this and we absolutely will with Musical Futures. But it also highlights to me something that was a topic of discussion at a recent Musical Futures team meeting: we have lost our culture of participation. The majority of adults don’t make music for its own sake in the way that they used to. This doesn’t get passed down to their kids. Music becomes a notoriously difficult ‘subject’ in school to manage because participating in music isn’t something a lot of young people recognise anymore.
This I feel is the absolute heart of the issue, certainly at Musical Futures. This is the context we now work in, so as educators we must respond appropriately. Music education is in competition with a hell of a lot of much bigger, more complex educational issues. The value of music learning is diminishing in peoples’ eyes, and so it is our job to bridge the gap between formal and informal contexts, look directly at where all young people are at musically and build, support and progress. Whether this is on clarinets, voices, electric guitars or golden syrup cans to me doesn’t matter.