I’ve now watched the two episodes of C4’s ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ programme with James Rhodes and felt compelled to write down my thoughts today, so here they are:
To make it clear, any TV show which raises awareness of music education in the UK is to be welcomed – I understand the first episode was watched by half a million people. My concern is not about doing shows like this, but rather how it was done.
Right at the start, James Rhodes expressed his unease that when visiting a school, the children were playing ‘yoghurt pots’, backing up his argument that there’s no money for instruments. Yes, he’s right that schools should have instruments that children can practice on but on the other hand, junk percussion has been an effective, staple diet of music making over at least the last twenty five years – witness Stomp etc! It was a bad start for me as his comments felt slightly dismissive in a looking-down-his-nose kind of way. As we know at Youth Music, classical and orchestral music aren’t the only valuable music genres for students to learn about. In fact, having the opportunity to learn about other genres – jazz, urban, pop – may well lead to a lifelong commitment to music for many that could last way beyond their time at school learning the French horn or the oboe. Read more about this on the blog I wrote for Guardian Culture Professionals.
The tone of the programme was very much about James Rhodes being the superhero, the musical saviour who could solve all the nation’s music-making issues. It reminded me of Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners series, but for me it wasn’t half as compelling. With School Dinners, Jamie Oliver specifically addressed the problem and did something about it in specific ways, creating positive changes in the quality and standards of school dinners. And he created the change ‘from within’ by changing hearts and minds, catering practices, supply chains and scaling up from local to national.
Whereas I was left thinking that James Rhodes is going into one school as the heroic musician, stunning the children with his musical virtuosity (as did the one-off performance from the South Bank Sinfonia), creating a short performance in the first episode featuring him as the dominant soloist (then sadly slightly undermining it by declaring the young orchestra was “not like the Vienna Philharmonic”) and handing out some instruments like Father Christmas.
But I was left thinking – what specifically will happen for the children involved to progress their music-making when he’s no longer there? How will it happen and who will do it? My fear is that, as sometimes occurs with ‘visiting projects’ in schools, it will be a one hit wonder with no sustainability in terms of children regularly making music.
As an example of research-based suggestions that might result in sustainable long-term outcomes, James and his programme team could perhaps take a look at the ‘Making Music’ report published earlier this week by the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) into the teaching, learning and playing of instruments. Its recommendations are broad in their scope and address the music education sector itself; policy makers and funders; schools and teachers. Everything from enhanced funding for Music Education Hubs to greater exposure of trainee teachers to music, from progression routes in music learning to better sharing of good practice is covered.
James may choose to disagree with some of the recommendations but he could hardly argue with the evidence base, or that the report has a much broader scope than his own primary focus on a lack of instruments in schools.
My organisation, Youth Music, has also invested £1.2m in a four-year long action research project to support new partnerships between schools and music education providers who normally work in out-of-school settings. Undertaken in conjunction with Birmingham City University, Exchanging Notes will involve a rigorous study of ten Youth Music funded projects to evaluate the educational, musical, social and personal outcomes for the young people involved, all of whom are in challenging circumstances. It will also encourage the exchange of ideas, practice and understanding of effective music teaching techniques between practitioners working in these different settings.
I mention this, not to blow Youth Music’s own trumpet, as it were, but merely to point out that the issues to be addressed in the provision of music education in schools extend beyond merely the lack of instruments and levels of investment.
So in relation to ‘Don’t Stop The Music’ my question would be, what’s best? A sparkly project with James Rhodes which raises excitement and expectations over a few visits to a school then he vanishes; or a supported and suitably skilled workforce in school and within the music education sector itself that can provide sustained, vibrant and diverse music-making? I’d vote for the latter.
And, to go further, is it worse to have a sparkly project with no next steps forward than not to do it at all? Yes, there were some aspects of widening opportunities in evidence i.e. children would get their 10 weeks of learning an instrument for free. But then what if nothing happens next, particularly for those who wanted to progress? It feels to me that this TV show could fall into this trap, but I hope not.
I think James Rhodes and Channel 4 are to be applauded for signalling the importance of music education and addressing some of the issues, albeit narrowly. However, if they are to succeed in their mission, the skill will be driving change from within the music education sector rather than parachuting in with a proposition that’s a bit thin on the ground in terms of evidence and not robustly researched in terms of grasping the real nature of music education in the UK. Yes, there are clear challenges, nobody disputes that, but I don’t think their approach will tackle it – there’s quite a few campaigns going on in music education already and people can donate as many instruments as they like as part of Rhodes’ ‘Instrument Amnesty’ campaign (just like in the BBC Music Live Instrument Amnesty in association with Youth Music in the early 2000s). But will there be an experienced workforce to help children bring the sounds of their instruments to life and how can we best support them to do so?
We were happy to provide some advice to Channel 4 in the early days of their research for this programme when it was looking like the programme might have a broader remit. Unfortunately, along the way its content and approach seems to have narrowed, which is a shame and a missed opportunity. However, it’s a TV show folks and it may provide some instruments for cash-strapped schools and children. I’m not sure it can also be a pioneering documentary which ultimately achieves change. I hope I’m mistaken.
Photo: Young musicians taking part in Brighter Sound’s AMP project in Manchester, supported by Youth Music.