Making the Most of Music

8th March 2019

Music is a moral law,’ Ancient Greek philosopher Plato is reported to have said. ‘It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination… It is the essence of order.’

Peter Elliot, Director of Guitar Teacher Bushey, explains why music matters and what’s changing in music education today.

Music is a truly human phenomenon – present in every culture on every continent. Its value is not only in the joy that it brings to those who perform it, listen to it or dance to it, but also in the fact that it has united humankind in harmony since before the dawn of civilisation…

But can it continue to do so?

A struggling economy and constant pruning of the Department of Education’s budget has had a detrimental effect at both primary and secondary level in maintained schools. While core subjects such as English and Maths have, for the most part, been protected, the arts have suffered disproportionately, and the provision of subjects such as art and music has experienced a steady decline. A New Statesman report in September 2018 revealed that music as a compulsory subject for Year 9 has fallen from 84% to only 67% since 2012. One fifth of schools do not offer GCSE Music at all. Where schools are offering music lessons, many are now doing so out of school hours, charging parents extra for them (even in non-fee-paying schools) or including the subject as part of a carousel curriculum: a one term ‘taster’ on a rotational basis with other subjects such as art or drama. It’s better than nothing (there are long-lasting benefits to be gained from even brief periods of musical training) but it’s hardly a well-rounded education.

Michael Wright, a teacher of Music and Technology in north London, is clear that “the provision of music is not on schools’ agendas. Budgets are shrinking, putting extra stress and pressure on the teachers, causing them to leave and feeding into the current recruitment crises. Due to time constraints and budget constraints schools find it easier to cut music rather than find solutions to these problems.”

Progress 8 – the measure of ‘value added’ adopted by the Department of Education in 2016 – almost certainly has a role to play in this. Under this system, a school’s success is ranked on student performance in eight core subjects including Maths and English. It provides quantitative data to monitor progress in these subjects – and, sadly, appears also to incentivise senior leadership teams to funnel resources away from subjects with more qualitative benefits that fall outside of the policy’s remit, such as music, art and drama.

The value of music education should not be in question. Learning an instrument has been shown to have a profound impact on cognitive ability, for example. “Music reaches parts of the brain that other things can’t,” says neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminster, adding that the evidence that musical training enhances things like working memory and language is “very robust”. Moreover, music serves as a vehicle for self-expression and has massive benefits for the practitioner’s mental health. At a time when more young people than ever before are experiencing emotional disorders (one in ten young people aged 5-15 have a mental ill health diagnosis), it is alarming to see the extent to which many state schools are turning away from creative subjects, or paying them no more than lip service.

This lack of focus on the arts means that some schools continue to renew outsourced contracts with underperforming private instrumental tuition companies – and, as a result, the quality of music tuition and instrumental lessons, in particular, is suffering.

Other reasons behind the varying quality of instrumental lessons include the fact that a DBS is the only stipulation in the relatively unregulated world of instrumental tuition where a PGCE and sometimes even a degree is not a requirement. Indeed, the delivery of peripatetic instrumental lessons often falls under the radar of the music department as whole. As such, the standard of tuition varies massively from tutor to tutor and from school to school. As a private tutor myself, I have seen a number of students first hand who, having invested a year of their time and hundreds of pounds of their parents’ money into their tuition, nonetheless had no understanding of technique or music theory and had barely played a single note. It goes without saying that these students needed to start again from the beginning. This can be a massive blow to a child’s confidence and morale.

While maintained schools have certainly seen a massive decline in the take up and quality of classroom music and instrumental tuition, the situation is less pronounced in fee-paying schools. In my experience, most talented teachers will eventually move towards the independent sector to take advantage of better pay and facilities – but, of course, parents who value the benefits that music education can bring are not always in a financial position to follow. Cost is as much of an issue for families as it is for schools working to tight budgets, and for many, private lessons outside school don’t offer a viable solution either. Families ‘earning less than £28,000 are half as likely (19 per cent) to have a child learning an instrument than families who earn at least £48,000 (40 per cent)’, The Independent reported last November.

Fortunately, though, today there are options other than the traditional one-to-one setting for those watching the financial notes as well as the musical ones.

One practical solution is a move towards small group tuition with perhaps six to eight students learning together. As well as the solid financial argument in favour, group lessons are also enjoyable, promote social cohesion and allow learners to develop ensemble skills. Students should be well-matched in age and ability, and have the option of moving up to another group if a they progress at a different rate to their peers. As with academic lessons in schools, experienced teachers are able to create resources and adjust activities according to individual abilities. With constantly improving technology, educators can do more than ever to help students learn independently and lessen the effect of reduced contact time.

Of course, group tuition is not necessarily suitable for all instruments – or, indeed, all students (particularly if they have advanced to grade five or above, or have more bespoke requirements) – but it’s worth considering.

Other modern ways of learning, ideal for the YouTube generation, include the Cuban model, where video lessons are incorporated into the curriculum to great effect. Not only can this also be very cost-effective, but it mitigates issues of skill shortages, particularly in remote areas.

Whatever format of instrumental teaching you choose, I recommend finding a tutor with a relevant degree in music, a performance background and at least two years’ teaching experience, plus, of course, the DBS check. Ideally, ask friends for recommendations and read reviews from current students to see how they find the lessons and what the teacher’s track record is with progress and exam results. Some tutors may also offer specialised 11+ preparation – helpful if you are planning to apply for a school that tests for music aptitude.

As with any type of extra-curricular provision you – and your child – need a rapport with the tutor. There is usually an option to book a taster lesson (and you could do this with more than one tutor or instrument, if you really wanted to shop around). Remember, your child will hopefully stay with this tutor for years, so it is important to find someone who is a good fit. In due course, if all goes well, there should be the opportunity to participate in concerts and recitals; they teach the young performer about preparation and planning (and patience) and offer huge benefits in terms of increased confidence and self-esteem.

Music is a meritocratic and, mostly, democratic art that breaks down all barriers of ethnicity, faith or nationality. All the evidence suggests that a love of music and the experience of learning it, at even the simplest stage (the tiniest of children can respond to musical stimuli, and research shows that it makes them happy), is one of the greatest gifts you can provide. Embedding music learning in your child’s life – whatever the instrument, whatever the level – has a positive influence on health, happiness and both academic and emotional intelligence, offering a fulfilling life and a finely-tuned brain…

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