by Author Katy Robinson

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Educating or patronising: should we “force” young people to listen to music?

A blog in response to a statement made by Nicola Benedetti that all children should be exposed to classical music, “whether they like it or not”. I explore the themes related to this idea and present academic evidence to support the argument that we should give children the freedom to form their own musical identities and preferences.

Back in May, the award-winning violinist and former Young Musician of the Year Nicola Benedetti was quoted saying that all children should be exposed to classical music, whether they like it or not. In some ways, she has a point. Her argument addresses the comparison between music and more ‘core’ school subjects such as mathematics, science and history, challenging the idea that music should be any different in its provision. Heaven knows – as musicians, music practitioners and/or arts educators, we’ve all participated in this argument to some degree. She asserts: “Needing the child’s approval for what they do in school is just such an alien concept when you’re talking about maths, science, history or English, but, suddenly, when you bring music into the mix, it’s: ‘Oh no, we can’t show them anything that they don’t instantly love because that would be like forcing children into something that they don’t want to do’”.

But whilst I understand the reasons for her claim, I can’t help but point out that, with the exception of English literature, the other school subjects brought up in Benedetti’s statement are based on fact, and teachers surely cannot give their pupils a choice in what genre of mathematics and science they learn – why else do children typically prefer more creative or practical subjects to these? Teachers can, however, give their pupils a say in how they learn, and it is widely acknowledged in academic literature that an engaging teacher who considers their pupils’ individual needs and ways of learning will leave longer lasting, positive impressions of school music, and may influence decisions about future engagement or study (Mills, 1996; Lamont, 2002; Pitts, 2012). With this in mind, if a teacher or other musical role model forces a certain kind of music or musical activity on a child, giving them no other option, research would suggest that this would result in less positive experiences of school music, leading young people to seek something else through which they can express themselves (Ross, 1995; Burland & Davidson, 2004; McPherson, 2009).  

Forming musical identities

Unlike some of these more factual school subjects, music is also one of the most common channels through which young people – especially those in the adolescence period which is ‘generally thought of as the life stage most concerned with identity’ (Clarke, Dibben & Pitts, 2010) – can explore their individualities (MacDonald, Hargreaves & Miell, 2002). Although some music teachers will do what they can to supply their pupils with access to a wide variety of musical styles and genres in order to widen their knowledge and encourage open mindedness, provision in schools can somewhat limit this exploration into new and exciting new genres due to the demands of the curriculum. So why limit that even more, by making a statement that carelessly gives the impression that the “sophistication and breadth” of classical music is the only thing worth listening to? As the Research & Evaluation assistant to Youth Music, I have read a multitude of milestone and final evaluation reports reflecting the diverse and varied work carried out by the organisations that we fund, and I am proud to be working at an organisation that upholds the principle that music-making should be “placed within the wider context of the young musician’s life, with recognition of the young musician’s existing musical identity” (Youth Music Quality Framework, Criterion Y1), and that young musicians should be “supported to broaden their musical horizons through listening to and understanding other musics, as well as making their own” (Criterion S7).

Overexposure to classical music could ignite a passion for the likes of Mozart and Mahler in some young people, but it could create a hatred for the Western classical genre in equal numbers, just as with any other type of music. In the same way, learning in the formal, didactic way that Benedetti did (she underwent rigorous training at the Yehudi Menuhin School for young musicians from the age of 10) is an effective and valuable foundation for some, whilst others simply do not suit that style of learning, and are at risk of becoming discouraged altogether if the teaching style isn’t right.  The great thing about music is that it can be taught, learnt and experienced in so many ways. I spent the first couple of months in my post here at Youth Music reading a lot about the differences between formal, informal and non-formal music making (Green, 2002; Folkestad, 2006; Saunders & Welch, 2012) and the difficulties educators can face trying to “teach” certain areas of music such as composition (Berkley, 2001) and improvisation (Hickey, 2009) – topics which are so subjective and particular to each individual. After a lot of thinking and trying to piece together an opinion of which learning style is better or more effective, I came to the conclusion that they are all equally admirable ways to teach and to learn – and that what matters more is having the flexibility to accommodate the needs of the young people and educators involved. Whilst there is a time and a place for top-down, master-to-apprentice style pedagogies, it is important to remember that teachers and music leaders continue to learn and grow in their experiences just as their students do, and the common conception that the ‘teacher knows best’ and therefore must be obeyed is not always the right approach for effective learning (Green, 2005).

Learning styles to suit everyone’s needs

Again, referring to a relaxed, non-formal approach, the Youth Music Quality Framework suggests a valuable learning environment which feels more suited to the needs of the children and young people in Youth Music funded projects: “Sessions have an atmosphere of collective learning; music leader and young musician support each other to develop and excel” (Criterion S5). This ‘collective learning’ environment strikes me as one with a mutual respect and understanding between the teacher and the learner – and, having carried out a study exploring various reasons for uptake of music at university in my undergraduate years, I can say with some confidence that adopting this approach would encourage a lot more young people to consider future engagement in music, inside or outside of school. In the study, several students who went on to pursue music in higher education recalled relationships with their school music teachers as “friendly and personal […] called like a ‘team’ and stuff”, and many even went as far as to cite their “inspirational” teachers as one of the main reasons for their degree choice. Of course it goes without saying that persuading young people to study music at university isn’t always the main aim, and much of the time the objective for music leaders is simply for the participating young people to engage in and enjoy music, or to use music as a means of working through the challenging circumstances that they may be in. But if a positive and respectful teacher/learner relationship is noted as one of the most popular reasons for wanting to continue engagement with music education more long term as in the study, then surely this same style of relationship will be effective in achieving other musical or personal goals.

Food for thought

I could go on with this debate for pages and pages, but I must wrap up at some point, and I will do so by reiterating what I said at the beginning of my argument. Nicola Benedetti is not wrong to believe what she does – many of the world’s finest classical musicians will have grown up under immense pressure to play, practise and listen to a lot of classical music, and many will owe their success to this upbringing. Benedetti also makes valuable points about how music is treated differently to the more “academic” subjects – but my response is simple. Music is, and should be, treated differently to other subjects because it is different. Areas of study such as maths and science are factual, objective ones, whereas the beauty of music is that there is no right or wrong way to teach, learn, study and enjoy it. What’s more – there are so many interesting, intelligent, sophisticated musical styles available to us, that to concentrate on only one seems to be missing the point entirely. Children should be exposed to as many different styles and genres of music in order to form a foundation upon which they can build as their knowledge and experience grows with them, classical music being one of them.

Do you believe we should educate children to respect all kinds of music, even if they do not enjoy everything they hear? How do you address the above ideas in your own work?