Music-making in and out of school - similarities rather than differences?

Rather than thinking about divisions between 'formal' and 'non-formal' music making, we should be collaborating to harness children's passion.

It's been a busy month in the music world:  the so called EBacc 'U-turn' (or was it? - read the Cultural Learning Alliance's excellent summary on their website); National Curriculum reform announcements; the Brits and of course an Oscar win for Adele and Skyfall (poor Music Director Stuart Barr who was conducting Dame Shirley Bassey and her Orchestra at the Oscars, must have been a bit stressed out - apparently he got there with just 5 minutes to spare due to Hollywood traffic mayhem!)

In terms of the school curriculum, music is still there - although it's not looking good for drama and dance. EBacc might not be called that any more but the intent is very much alive with the proposal to incorporate the principle into GCSE subject options.

So whilst the music education world can take some comfort, it isn't time to be comfortable. The number of young people opting to take GCSE and/or A Level music is reducing; music-making activities in school time are being squeezed yet music in all its forms continues to be made and listened to outside school by the large majority of young people (A Youth Music survey of 1,000 7-19 year olds across England reported that 90% of them liked listening to music, but only 37% of the same age group had reported making music in the past three months).

Music education consultant Dave Ashworth suggested to Music Teacher magazine that the content of GCSE / A level exams “is of little relevance to many of our aspiring musicians” while Steve Berryman, Royal Academy of Music, proposes in the same article that the quality of music teaching in earlier years might be a factor in young people choosing music as a subject later on and wonders if “the idea that only 'musicians' take GCSE deters some prospective students” (Music Teacher, August 2012).

So why this disconnect between in and out-of-school participation in music? Sure, politics and the reasons suggested by Dave and Steve might be part of the answer but are there deeper rooted, unhelpful doctrines and practices at play here that really need tackling head on?  I'd say a step (rather than incremental) change is required.

Here for me are some of the issues:

1. Definitions

Certainly over the last thirty years at least, a set of definitions have firmly embedded themselves in the language of the music education sector e.g. Formal / Informal / Non-formal.  I have to ask - what makes music-making Formal, Informal or Non-formal? Yes, music-making takes place in different places and environments but in doing so, it doesn't mean the principles of successful music-making change! Put it to young people themselves, I'd suggest they would never consider what they do to be covered in any of these definitions; instead, they're making music - end of! 

Then there’s ‘Community Music/Outreach’.  What constitutes Community? Outreach to what? Perhaps it's time for some new terms, or even just to put these definitions in a bin?

2. Lack of shared purpose

The definitions above seemed to have led to some disagreement about what constitutes quality music education as groups associated with each definition wave their own flag in disregard of others. This leads to discourse about what is quality, means of assessment, success criteria and so on. 

Of course, discourse and debate are important but not at the expense of dismissing forms of music-making that individuals aren't familiar with as a result. Let's agree that involvement in quality music making can be and is life-changing, it takes place in different places and contexts, yet the principals of doing it well are universal and constant.  Focus on the similarities rather than the differences.

3. ‘Supply’ rather than ‘Demand’ led

I mentioned earlier how music is such an important fabric of the nation's culture, particularly for young people. Music is being consumed and created in ways that are unrecognisable from twenty years ago. In many ways, this puts the 'consumer' in charge and the industry has adapted accordingly. Should music education be doing the same? I'll explain more...

For both in and out-of-school music making, curriculum and content are often supplied to the participants. The best examples are where this is turned on its head – i.e. where a framework is provided that gives space and flexibility for greater input from the participants themselves in terms of content but with less 'teacher talk'. This has the positive effect of the participants feeling they own their music (just like they often do at home) without feeling they're simply regurgitating someone else's. Our recently published Communities of Music Education research is worth looking at in terms of young people's perceptions of music-making in and out of school.

This tendency of not giving young people greater input isn't just a challenge for  in-school music-making.  It can happen out of school too, where a workshop or project is over-prescribed, thus giving less opportunity for the young person's voice to be heard.  It is still also the case that arts organisations can offer ‘off the shelf' projects to schools on the assumption that schools will want them rather than collaboratively design a project that fulfils joint goals.  The project has less value if it’s got nothing to do with what's happening in the curriculum. Where it does, and particularly where the teacher and visiting musician work successfully side by side, great things can happen.

The opportunity therefore is to harness the enthusiasm and passion for music children and young people have outside school and bring it into the school day.  This doesn't and shouldn't mean so-called 'dumbing down' but instead makes a closer relationship between young people's consumption and involvement in music in their daily lives to avoid the disconnect in school that currently exists. Again, focus on the similarities rather than the supposed differences. Perhaps then the current decline in demand for GCSE and A Level music could be reversed?

The statistic that 90% of 7-19 year olds cite music as a passion is perhaps unsurprising bearing in mind its universal appeal. Then again, only 0.8% of GCSEs are taken in Music. Is this something the music education sector should be concerned about? I'd firmly say yes. Better integration and collaboration between in and out of school music-making is something Youth Music will be focusing on in the future as we think that’s what is required. Do you too?

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HallamR's picture

Better integration and collaboration between in and out of school music-making is something Youth Music will be focusing on in the future as we think that’s what is required. Do you too?

In short, Matt, yes!

School is where every young person should have an entitlement to a music education that is essential in a civilised society. (We can have longer debates about what this should include - at present this includes playing and singing, creating, listening and appraising).

Those who wish to take their music making further should be able to elect to do so, with as wide a range of diverse opportunities as possible.

With the young person's agreement, these broader experiences outside the classroom can and should inform and impact back upon the music education in the classroom.

Let's find ways of making music coherent for the young person.The former Music Manifesto and current National Plan provide opportunities and structures for this to happen. The new Music Education Hubs should provide a forum for joining it all up. Whether we do so is up to each and everyone of us.

steve@pluggedin.org.uk's picture

Thanks for this Matt, I found it of great interest.
It reminded me that, as I was approaching the end of my compulsory schooling I gave some thought to attending a music college in a neighbouring town.

The truth was, however, I had no chance of being admitted. The tutors there were all active, professional session musicians, composers, session vocalists etc. Their skills were of such quality that the reputation of the facility extended out across the whole of the region. Competition to gain entry was fierce and, the truth is, I just didn’t cut it.

This was more than a grade one teaching institution; it was a beacon of excellence.

The young people weren’t ‘learners’ back then they were ‘Students’. Students who studied under inspirational men and women, some of whom featured in the ‘Who’s Who in Rock music’.

Sometimes I would hear them chatting on the bus, as I returned from my ‘A’ level geography class. They were full of beans and full of optimism. I asked one ‘What are the teachers like?’ He said ‘They’re fantastic, I never see my bass tutor because he’s always away doing sessions in LA!’…

How does that fit in with contemporary education?.. He adored and worshipped his tutor ,even though there were regular gaps in the provision. He was 'proud' of his teacher and 'proud' to be his teachers student. He loved telling his friends about his tutor's exploits and travels and when the tutor returned he told him all about the studios he had recorded in, what this artist had said and how that producer wanted him to hold his plectrum etc.

For this 16 yr old boy, this was real…this was one degree of separation between him and the life that he dreamed of.

So many of these students went on to have bright futures in the music industry, often making full use of an extensive list of contacts held by their tutor.

Some successful years later this high-flying music facility was discovered by the college Quality Department. Soon, administrators descended onto the building and set about making changes.

I’m sure that raising the professional standards of delivery had a positive impact on the college, especially during ofsted inspections. Unfortunately, all the inspirational tutors left...almost immediately, including the head of department, who had built the facility from a small music room and a couple of acoustic guitars.

It was around this time that the college, that wouldn’t accept me as a student, employed me as a lecturer!

I worked hard to establish a thriving music technology course but it was plain to see, this organisation had lost its life and soul. It never regained its reputation, enrolment figures or success rates.

I'm not completely sure of the NMPE's intention with regards to the relationship between music teacher, community musician and pupil in the classroom, but I think the challenge for many high school music departments will be how to harness the energy and immediacy of the non-formal environment without terrifying the head teacher!