Crisis in music education: heading to a preserve of the affluent and well-heeled?

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Young musicians from Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s In Harmony programme (Credit: RLPO Facebook page)

As music education continues to decline dramatically in our schools, Getintothis’ Chris Leathley argues that it must be protected and strengthened.

Music is something that has lived with us, as humans, for hundreds of years.

The rhythms of instruments and songs have often been the rhythms of our collective experience. As Ludwig Wittgenstein, a prominent philosopher of the twentieth century stated, ‘there are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest’ and music is one of them.

One of the things that become ‘manifest’ as a result of music, is our emotions. What we feel is often far more eloquently expressed by a melody or stirring vocal performance, than by restrictive, finite language on the page. Indeed, music, through its coda of notation and scales is built on a type of language but one that only really comes alive once it is lifted from sheet form.

The value of music, given the commercial world that we live in, is often totalled in pounds and pence. It is a crude criterion but, despite these limitations, it only strengthens the contention that music matters.

Revenue from the industry is considerable: £1.6bn from musicians, composers and songwriters; £634m from recorded music; £662m from live music; £402m from music publishing; £151m from music representatives; and £80m from music producers and recording studios. In addition, it provides £1.4bn in exports and helps employ 101,680 people full time.

Small fry, it ain’t.

Nevertheless, the case for music is surely more than just financial currency.

It epitomises our most lofty aspirations as a civilisation, a sincere wish to reach out to the infinite and derive something of lasting meaning from the chaotic world around us. The long-standing relationship between religious liturgy and sacred music is one source of evidence for the belief that music is inherently spiritual.

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Music speaks to us because it speaks to our deepest longings for answers to questions around our being and our purpose.

It is also our most democratic art form.

It is inclusive beyond any other. Music ranges from folk jams in the local pub on to a full orchestra performing at the Proms, from DIY hipsters composing beats on their laptop through to choral works presented in our most hallowed cathedrals. It knows no concrete boundaries. It simply refuses to be hemmed in.

Indeed, unlike literature (which demands that a person be literate, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the text) or visual Art (which, particularly in abstraction, can be meaningless without context), music is a means of expression that appeals to all with no pre-conditions required. Our access to education or tuition need not be a hindrance to listening with considerable pleasure to a composition.

Or Is that the full story? Do we really mine music for its true meaning without any need for prior understanding or learning?

I ask this question in the midst of an on-going controversy.

Reports recently suggested that State schools in England have seen a 21% decrease in music provision over the last five years. Despite this cliff-edge decline in comprehensives, access to music in independent schools has risen by 7%, a sector where money, expertise and other resources are more readily plentiful.

This has fuelled outrage, not least because it lays bare the very definite dichotomies between State and Private provision in education. A luxury in one appears to be a necessity in the other.

Why has this been the case?

In an era defined by years of fiscal austerity, schools have had to rationalise budgets in ways that would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago. If schools are at the point of considering 4-day working weeks and are regularly pleading for charitable donations from parents, it is hardly surprising that the Arts have taken a hit.

After all, schools are judged by hard data such as exam results and numbers enrolled for examined subjects at GCSE and A Level.

They are placed in a hierarchy by league tables on this basis. Music in schools, has a tendency for small enrolment numbers, making it problematic for school leaders to continue to fund its provision at a time of financial retrenchment elsewhere.

Music is expensive to teach, even with good numbers of students.

You need equipment, equipment that pupils cannot always afford to provide independently. Even more pertinently, in an age of teacher shortages, you need professional pedagogues who can coach pupils effectively and inspire their love of music.

In order to justify this kind of profligate provision, teachers of music are inevitably asked to justify their subjects. If they cannot do so on the basis of exam results, what rationale do they have? One might be that music gives joy to pupils and teachers alike, that it gives substance to things that otherwise remain ineffable.

Nonetheless, in a crudely instrumentalist world where the bean-counters reign supreme, such arguments fall heavily on stony ground. Especially if you consider that, unlike exam performance and enrolment, it is very difficult to quantitatively measure ‘joy’ or ‘emotional fulfilment’.

If we leave it thus, if budgetary decisions persist in being a numbers game without context, then music will be extinguished from State school curricula within a decade. It will become the privilege of an elite few, lucky enough to attend schools where such clumsy calculations are not entertained nor required.

How then, should we make the case for music in schools?

We should certainly be strident in our cause for make no mistake, the extinction of the Arts, be it music or otherwise, from our schools would be a national tragedy.

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Music offers students and teachers opportunities for enrichment that are unique and spectacular.As Elliot Eisner elegantly surmises, the arts ‘liberate us from the literal’. Our means of communication with each other must never be reduced to simply the written word.

For those that struggle to express themselves, that suffer from low self-esteem or mental health issues, music can be a life-saving outlet. Developing emotional intelligence is about making students happier and more resilient.

Music can be, and should be, at the very core of that.

If we need an example, consider how efficacious music therapy can be for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Reflect on how pupils previously disengaged by the tendency towards didactic teaching in our school system, can become immersed in the practical application of the Arts through music performance.

Elaborate further on that approach and one can find that music can be used in the classroom to transmit positive cultural values of inclusivity, of toleration and multi-culturalism.

It can challenge a ‘Little Britain’ mentality by opening minds and broadening horizons in ways that textbooks cannot. Conversely, it can reinforce our own sense of self and identity within our own culture and society, reminding us of ‘mystic chords of memory’ that stretch finely across generations and ages.

Let’s also return to the original point – do we need education in order to access music more comprehensively? The answer is yes.

Whilst everybody can indeed enjoy listening to music without extensive tuition, the simple fact is that a full understanding of music demands knowledge. That knowledge can only come from pro-active teaching by practitioners who are enthusiastic and learned.

Music cannot escape its creation. It is essentially context-bound and we must therefore learn about those origins in order to perceive its messages and perspective.

Over and above this, is the need for students to gain an education in aesthetics, on what music is, what its purpose might be and the need to critically engage with the Arts. If we do not do this, the next generation’s connection and experience with music will be a superficial one at best.

Beyond interaction with music via listening, the simple fact is that we need peripatetic teachers in schools to allow students to learn how to play instruments.

Proficiency in performance should not be the exclusive preserve of the moneyed classes. By cutting instruments, lessons and staff, we are in real danger of cultivating music ghettoes, where working class students no longer benefit from the opportunities of previous generations.

If all of this seems worryingly flimsy, there are plenty of practical, pragmatic justifications for music in the classroom.

Music, as part of a broad Arts-infused curriculum, often helps embellish a strong learning culture within a school. In addition, music frequently provides a vital bridge between the school environment and a student’s home life. Concerts are means by which schools can bring pupils, parents and staff together in mutual celebrations of positive learning and positive living.

Moreover, although it should not be the primary premise for supporting music in our schools, it is clear that our creative industries, including music, offer employment opportunities for our school leavers.

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Lest we desire that these industries continue to be populated by only the wealthy few, we have an obligation to provide music-related education in our schools.

Some might go further and point to studies that argue music’s case in terms of what it does for other subjects. For example, many have contended that music improves mathematical performance or even literacy rates. Advocates would suggest that music allows students to hone transferable skills that will be of great utility across all subjects, such as creativity, fluency of communication and teamwork.

We remain sceptical of such advocacy simply because music is of intrinsic value, regardless of what it may or may not offer to other subjects of study. To justify music in what it does for others, is to diminish that which makes music both unique and extraordinary.

Music belongs in our schools, just as it belongs in our public spaces, our concert halls and our homes. Nothing is more universal and nothing is more illuminating in terms of our shared experience than music.

We need to stop the rot that educational austerity has allowed to set in.

Let’s cease to make everything in our schools and colleges reduce down to exam grades, student numbers and financial efficiency. Music lifts us above the mechanical indifference of everyday life and it elevates what would otherwise be a treadmill education for our young people.

We need it and our kids certainly need it. It’s time to ensure that they get it.

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