Expecting to Fly

In my blog “After the Goldrush – did we miss a trick?” I told my story of hanging around in a typical school art department, and how I liked the things I saw happening there. At the end of my article, I asked the question: why couldn’t music departments be more like this?

In this blog, I will briefly sketch out the reasons why it is that music lessons are not like art lessons, and why I feel this to be a bad thing. I will then try to paint a picture of what music departments could and should look like, and why we might have little to lose my moving in this direction.

It is worrying and depressing that we still have so many young adults who look back on their experiences of classroom music in less than favourable ways. “Dull, boring, irrelevant” are the words we hear. Why is this so often the case? Put simply, I think it is largely to do with the constraints music teachers feel they have to work under. GCSE and A level teachers have to spend much of their time on the statutory element of analysis of music using criteria from the Western classical canon. Nothing wrong with this in itself, except that it leaves precious little time for anything else. This is not likely to change. The Ofqual tail continues to wag the music curriculum dog.  Watch this lively interchange form Music Education Expo http://buff.ly/1Fm8tFl and you will see what I mean.

And it’s not just GCSE/A level lessons that suffer. Many teachers will feel under pressure to compromise their KS3 offer as ‘preparation’ for KS4/5 study. Can this be justified, given how few students actually go on to take music at KS4/5? On this recent TES chart showing A level uptake across subjects, music does not even appear! ‪http://buff.ly/1Ki14I4   

The GCSE/A level music ‘world’ takes place in an artificial and ever diminishing space. A sealed bubble which is set to burst. An enclave which is hopelessly out of touch, with the rich and vibrant musical world that surrounds it.  Consider this… Most of those who take A level music do so in order to progress to higher study. Most of these will eventually find work in preparing others to take this exam – or they will be involved in assessing them. They will be music teachers, ITE course leaders, inspectors, exam providers and resource writers. As Neil Young would say:

gotta get away from this day-to-day running around, Everybody knows this is nowhere.

This is wrong for so many reasons, the main one being that music students are being seriously shortchanged. We have opportunities to provide rich, life enhancing and often life changing musical experiences, but we allow powerful people who understand nothing about music education to dictate and compromise what we do.  We should be listening less to the people with power, and more to those people with powerful ideas.  If our curricula and specifications were more like those enjoyed by our colleagues in art departments, we could transform the ways in which we teach music.

If music teachers were to elect to climb off this treadmill, what might their music departments look like? What would they look like if they were more like art departments? Well, art departments are given considerably more freedom in what they can do. Their brief is to help students:

development of personal work and lines of enquiry determined by the need to explore an idea, convey an experience or respond to a theme or issue.

And they do this in the way that professional artists do:

Explicit evidence of the relationship between process and outcome presented in such forms as sketchbooks, visual diaries, design sheets, design proposals, preparatory studies, annotated sheets and experimentation with materials, working methods and techniques.

And they make authentic connections with contemporary art culture by:

Critical and contextual work that could include visual and annotated journals, reviews, reflections and evaluations, documentation of a visit to a museum/gallery or experience of working with an artist in residence or in other work-related contexts.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our music students had similar briefs – and what might these look like in practice? Of course, in this scenario students would all be doing different things, exploring their chosen lines of enquiry.  Let’s imagine what this might look like for one hypothetical student….

Student A is a keen musician who also has interests in environmental issues. He comes across the work of Leah Barclay via a documentary exploring the value of creativity in environmental crisis. Leah is an Australian interdisciplinary artist, creative producer, composer and researcher who specialises in electroacoustic music, sound art and acoustic ecology. He researches the work that Leah has done, reads about her working methods, listens to some of her music and finds out more about how her work is funded and disseminated. His teacher advises him on the technology equipment and skills he will require to work in this way and helps him formulate a plan for working on a project, along similar lines to Barclay’s, in his locality.  

This is exciting and liberating for student A, but it does pose challenges for the music teacher, who also has students B through to Z to consider. Currently the music teacher has a responsibility to transmit cultural knowledge - but what knowledge and whose? This is the problem we are grappling with in this blog. The teacher need to keep these responsibilities whilst also taking on the role of facilitator as suggested by John Finney:

Thus, teacher as cultural mediator as complementing teacher as facilitator is of interest, a distinction that I hope is worth thinking about.

This proposed realignment of music education will not be easy and will require some fundamental shifts for schools, music teachers, their students and all those involved in supporting music education in various ways.  But this is a music education that would be worth fighting for.


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steve@pluggedin.org.uk's picture

Hi David,

Another enjoyable read, thank you.

Last year we were lucky to be chosen to deliver a Youth Music Exchanging Notes project in Warrington and we are working with a local high school to develop musicianship and band development, song-writing, DJ skills, pop singing and music production

We didn't want to offer the school a musician on a lead, we came to challenge everything..and we came to encourage the music department to challenge everything and....there have been what I like to think of as positive storms. The type of interaction that..when the dust settles..you realise you've all just taken a big step forward.

I've created some videos if anyone would like to see how this project is progressing

Here are the Music Leaders that are now working on the project. It shows them working with the pupils both in and out of school.

Here's some feedback from two of them about what its been like:

Here's some feedback from the head of music:

And what I'd love to show you but can't is how some of the pupils have enjoyed taking part in the creation of a choir sample for an international DJ who tours the world with the Music Leader they see every week. It has a release date set for November. The groups we are working with are year 7s and we will be with them for 4 years.

David Ashworth's picture

Thanks to all who have been sharing this post via Twitter - it has now had 1600+ views! I'm now putting together some thoughts on the new proposed A level music technology spec....watch this space!