As Youth Music reopens its grants programme with the aim of making England more musically inclusive, I thought it might be useful to share some thoughts about what this means to me, why I think it’s still necessary, and what it has to do with the ACE strategy of ‘great art and culture for everyone’.
“The task of art is to give us access to experiences it is otherwise hard to get hold of and to render their moral vivid to our distracted imaginations”. So came the definition in a recent edition of the ‘The Philosophers’ Mail’ regarding a photography exhibition of the terminally ill. But reading it on my smartphone on the bus on the way into work as we were designing the updated programme it struck me that this is precisely what the young people in Youth Music funded projects are doing every day.
They are learning to express themselves using an art form (music) to construct and share their experiences. This might be through a saxophone, or an ipad, via Ableton, or via a string ensemble. But essentially it is the same process at work. An interpretation (sometimes an interpretation of an interpretation) that uses sound to say something and encourages someone else to stop, and listen, and think.
Whenever we listen to a piece of music, or a song, which makes us stop in our tracks – which makes us empathise deeply with a sentiment or an emotion, we are engaging in artistic communication. It sometimes catches us off guard or challenges our accepted way of being at that moment, but that is precisely because the art is giving us access to somewhere that we don’t usually occupy, a space inside ourselves.
The acts of making music and listening to music are learned, and I think musical inclusion in its simplest terms is about enabling this learning as widely as possible and across the life course. It’s about opening up the opportunity to engage in musical communication and the art of being musical to everybody. It is about far more than the four core roles set out in the National Plan for Music Education.
I was lucky enough to be brought up in a home that swelled with music of all kinds – live and recorded. I’ve had a go at strings, brass, piano and (sadly for some) electro-synth-pop. I didn’t ‘do’ music as a subject, but I ‘was doing’ music elsewhere in my life all the time – and still strive to. But not everyone does.
When I did my doctoral work, my sample (of around 1000 people) was split down the middle between those who had a strong musical identity and those who didn’t, this has been observed in other studies of music consumption and participation too. Many in the latter group had been told at an early age that they were not musical, or not good enough to be musical, or at worst, ‘tone deaf’. These same people 20 years later were unable to describe ways in which music was important in their lives (or for their health – which was my particular focus). They’d been muted at some point.
This wasn’t a class thing, or a gender thing, or necessarily a family thing. I think it was something to do with how music was presented to these people early in their lives, and how they were welcomed, or not, to engage in musical learning in its fullest sense – as a way to understand and engage with the world.
I think, in the classic Bourdieu sense, music too often still functions as a classifier. A coded and guarded world divided between right and wrong, talent and ineptitude, good and bad, high and low. A place where some are welcome and others are not based on a distorted notion of who music is for and whose music is of value.
Beyond access - An opportunity for deeper engagement
More recent research directly with young people participating in Youth Music funded projects has shown that one of the strongest areas of ‘impact’ or ‘value’ (to use the language we are expected to) has been their development of emotional literacy.
These are young people supported by expert practitioners to learn the artistic practice of music and musical expression in order to share their thoughts and feelings about the world through pitch, timbre, texture, tempo, and lyrics. Increasingly able to seek satisfaction from their art and engaging in ever more complex musical processes as their skills and knowledge improve, the young people may also develop self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation, which may well blossom into quantifiable increases in wellbeing (which may in turn save the state some money at some point)
In too many cases, for a huge number and variety of reasons, this is also the only opportunity these young people are encouraged or enabled to engage in this process. That is precisely why we need to strive for musical inclusion, so that more young people are given the opportunity to be musical, and to engage in the artistic process.
I think this also forces us to question what we ‘count’ as music education (‘count’ being the operative term here), who we think it is for, and what we think it is for. Funding musical learning, in all its diverse forms, for those whose voices have been muted or significantly faded down is the first priority of those advancing a musical inclusion agenda. Changing a dominant paradigm of exclusion within music education is the second, but this can only happen through the first.
The last part of the artistic process and to some degree – why it works - is that someone else is listening. The classic tree-forest-no-one hears–did it happen(?) analogy is helpful here. If we are all going to so much effort to support and help young people to express themselves as artists and to communicate something, we also have a duty to listen to what they are composing, producing, arranging, recording and performing.
This is one of the remaining challenges in being truly musically inclusive. If we are validating their artistic practice we must also stop and ask ourselves what these young artists are telling us. How often are we allowing our imaginations to be so undistracted as to truly listen?