How to keep on keeping on.

By David Ashworth

OK, here’s the problem in a nutshell. 

Two of my current freelance contracts involve me getting into secondary schools and discussing music-ed issues with teachers. These teachers tell me that in their feeder primaries, many students have Wider Opportunities [WCET] provision in year 4, some of this gets carried across to y5 and then music lessons disappear completely when serious SATs preparation kicks in during y6. The net result? Very, very few kids coming up to secondary school with much in the way of musical skills and knowledge. Some cannot even remember the name of the instrument they played back in y4! And the number of incoming instrumentalists is diminishing year on year. Yes, I know there will be exceptions, but I’ve heard this tale often enough now for me to be able to see this as a major problem.
Seeing the problem is easy enough. Finding workable solutions is tougher, so I’m grateful to those secondary music teachers who have shared these ideas with me. Here, in brief, are some successful approaches teachers have taken to address this issue. I’m not including too much specific detail, because I’m sure that teachers reading this will want to take the basic principles and adapt them for their own circumstances.
First of all, secondary heads of music realised that this is a problem that is not going to sort itself out. Unless they themselves take remedial action, instrumental uptake will continue to dwindle and the school’s flagship ensembles will disappear. So they look for ways to ‘bridge the gap’ between the music making that goes on in y 4/5 and y7.
They arrange an initial meeting with heads from feeder primaries and local music hub reps. They ascertain exactly what is going on, musically speaking, in terms of whole class instrumental provision. They set up appropriate extra curricular ensembles [on the secondary site] open to all y 4/5/6 and y7 players. Primary schools and hubs help promote this provision.
Young players are keen to take advantage of these exciting new musical opportunities at their local ‘big school’. The head of music does not try to do everything. Parents, retired musicians, y10-13 students are all drafted in as volunteers to help run and support these sessions.
These sessions are not just about rehearsing repertoire. An annual calendar of events in the community provides students with an added incentive and an important social dimension to their work.
The net result? It seems to be working! Instrumental numbers are on the up. Pupils keep up the lessons in y7 [with the peris they had in primary, where possible]. There is much more of a buzz about music in the schools generally, with a steady stream of younger recruits feeding into the senior ensembles.
Reproduced by kind permission of David Ashworth.
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Expecting to Fly.

By David Ashworth.

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 from Music Education Expo 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! ‪  

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.

Reproduced from the Youth Music website by kind permission of David Ashworth.

Which instrument should I play?

As the start of a new academic year approaches, many young people will be considering taking up a musical instrument. Choosing the right instrument for you is really important, so there are a few things to consider in making this decision.
What instrument do I really fancy?
What kinds of tuition are available in my school?
How big is the instrument? Can I carry it?


Violin, viola and cello can all be started quite early and violins and violas in particular don't cost as much as some instruments. Later on they offer excellent opportunities to play with other people, as orchestras always need an awful lot of string players.

The cello and double bass can be started early if you can get a small enough instrument, but the usual age is 10 - 12. You’d probably need to borrow an instrument to start off. Later on both of these offer opportunities to play with other people. The double bass especially is always in demand, and it can also be used in wind bands and jazz bands. It is difficult to transport and will make heavy demands on the "parental taxi service"

Guitars are fairly cheap to buy. Learning to play classical guitar well is a good start before transferring to other styles. A good starting age is 8 or 9.

The electric guitar can be used in jazz or rock groups and sometimes in wind bands. Best to start this at secondary school,


Flutes and clarinets are relatively inexpensive and can be started around age 9 or 10, once you have your second teeth. They are used in orchestras, wind bands and some jazz bands.

Oboes and bassoons are more expensive to buy, so again you probably need to borrow one to begin, but they are very satisfying to learn. They can be started at age 10 or 11. Owing to their scarcity, you should easily find a place in an orchestra or wind band once you are good enough.

Saxophones have become a lot more reasonably priced in recent years, and the alto sax (starting on the soprano is not really a good idea) can be started at around age 9 - 10. It is popular but not so much that you will have difficulty finding a place in a band. It is most useful in wind bands and jazz bands and some rock groups.

Recorder is a good instrument to start if you want to transfer to any other instrument later on, but especially another woodwind instrument. The recorder has a bit of a reputation as a ‘school’ instrument, but you should really listen to some proper recorder playing to hear how beautiful it can be.


The trumpet, cornet and trombone are relatively inexpensive, and you can start once you have your second teeth. The trumpet and cornet can be used for orchestras, wind bands, jazz bands, brass bands and some rock groups. The cornet can do the same things as a trumpet and play the same music, but is really at home in the brass band. Trombone is a bit bigger to carry although not particularly heavy

French horn is another expensive instrument for beginners, and a bit more difficult to play. Again you’ll need your second teeth, as for all brass instruments. There are never enough horn players around which is an advantage when it comes to finding a place in an orchestra or band.

The tuba is another instrument you really need to borrow first, and many players start on another brass instrument like the tenor horn or euphonium, which are easier to carry, and swap later on. There are rarely enough tuba players, which is an advantage when it comes to finding a group to play in. It can be used for orchestras, wind bands and brass bands.  


Most people choose to learn drum kit. It’s easiest to do this as an individual lesson, or in a group of 2 at the most.

Piano and keyboard  

To learn piano you need to have access to one for your lessons and/or at home.

Many people start on the keyboard and then transfer, although the techniques are not really alike. The same applies regarding instruments. If you wish to have keyboard lessons at school, you’ll need to be able to get your keyboard there each week.

Both of these instruments can be started early, but if taking lessons at school, Key Stage 2 is probably best.

Why is improvisation important?

By David Ashworth

Reproduced from the Teaching Music website by kind permission of David Ashworth.

Improvisation has played a powerful role in many of the innovative developments that have been made throughout musical history, and it is a central part of how countless practising musicians today work around the world. However, in the music classroom it often comes as an afterthought, if it is used at all.

In Derek Bailey’s words, “improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being the most widely practiced of musical activities, and the least acknowledged and understood.”

Within the classroom, we could argue that improvisation is particularly worth dedicating time to for the following reasons:

It is a valuable precursor to composition. Improvisation can help to provide students with a framework in which to try out ideas freely – the best of which can then be fed into composition assignments. You may find that the quality of your students’ music making is of a higher standard as a result, because it is grounded in self-expression and emotion rather than the detached manipulation of samples or crotchets and quavers.

It helps to create a level playing field. Improvisation is an area of music making that doesn’t necessarily rely on the ability to read notation or play any one instrument particularly well: the focus instead is on creativity and expression, and this can help to level the playing field among your students, particularly for those with learning difficulties.

It can aid musical communication. When we put students into groups for the purpose of making music, we want their discussions to be musical as well as verbal. Improvisation can provide them with a great opportunity to communicate and respond to each other through music, in a way that has more immediacy than performing the music of others or composing.
It encourages creativity. In improvisation, the emphasis should be on invention rather than accuracy. It is one of the few areas we have in which ‘mistakes’ can be accepted and even celebrated as leading to new musical pathways.

Creative music making that is open-ended and exploratory in nature (based on the ideals championed by John Paynter and others) can be hard to keep alive in institutions where the school day is highly regimented and structured. If this is something that you struggle with in your school, hopefully you will find that improvisation can prove to be a key ingredient in your quest to challenge the status quo.

This text is taken from my introduction to a chapter on Improvising in music classrooms in Teaching Music [Rhinegold, 2014]

David was the Lead Consultant on Music and ICT for the National Association of Music Educators and now works for them as Project Leader on He is also a Regional Subject adviser for the New Key Stage 3 National Curriculum for Music.

Useless and pointless knowledge?

Why we may need notation and theory skills

By David Ashworth

Reproduced from the Teaching Music website by kind permission of David Ashworth.

Following the recent Ofsted report, there has been much online discussion regarding the relevance and importance of teaching standard music notation in schools. Many seem less than keen on making this a priority, and I do sympathise with this view. However, there are good reasons why we should not ignore this important area. This article attempts to outline the reasons why.

The first thing to say is that learning basic notation is not that difficult! Compared with some of the things we ask our students to learn, this is a relatively straightforward skill. Most students will have no trouble understanding the basic concepts of two or three time signatures/key signatures, basic rhythm note values and the notes within the range of a treble clef. These can be instilled at an early age and provide enough of a foundation for those who may need to take them further. Of course, you would not want to sacrifice too much precious lesson time to this area of activity, and you would want to firmly link it to meaningful practical activity. There are now great opportunities for students to reinforce and develop this learning of notation, outside of school, using a range of engaging apps and programmes designed to support this learning. These programmes will usually assess student’s responses and provide valuable instant feedback.

Another [small] point to make before moving on. Yes, as a rule, we would want to hear ‘sound before symbol’ but remember that sometimes musicians in the real world do try it the other way round.  Think of the wonderful hybrid notation/graphic scores of Cardew, Cage, Browne etc., to say nothing of a whole range of other visual starting points that many musicians will use for composition, improvisation and performance.

Hand in hand with notation comes music theory. The visual graphical support that notation provides can support the conceptual understanding of some key areas for all musicians:

•improvisers working with different keys and with ‘modal’ scales
•singer/songwriters who need a working knowledge of chords and harmony
•techno musicians who need to understand time signatures for working with beats
•all musicians for use in mapping out larger scale structures

Also, let’s not forget that notation is not just a western classical thing. The groundbreaking developments in post-war jazz were spearheaded in the USA by young, hip, black musicians who prided themselves on their music reading skills. The rich legacy of Miles Davies and others depended heavily on it. Fast forward to today, and some of the most exciting things happening in music today make use of notation. For example, the richly, rewarding, Reich/Radiohead reworkings depend upon it.

For some younger musicians, perhaps a working knowledge of notation might not seem so important, but as they get older they may find that some doors are closed to them.

Some may be quite happy to embark on ‘rock n roll’ careers in their early post school years, but there may well come a point when the lifestyle has to change. Bills need to be paid, children need feeding/clothing and a ‘portfolio’ career becomes the only realistic pathway. And it is the case that many elements of a portfolio career, the ones that bring in the money, often depend on the ability to read music and understand theory. Examples would include most forms of instrumental and class music teaching, working in a pit band, session work, arranging and producing.

Let’s also not forget those who want to continue music making as an amateur, social activity after their school years. For many, the most appropriate opportunities to make music with their peers in their communities will be offered by community choirs, orchestras, big bands, brass bands…..and these doors are often only open to those who can read the dots.

In conclusion, let me say that I don’t meet many young people who are hung up on reading notation, but I do meet many adults who say “I wish I could read music”.  So when thinking about this issue, let’s think what these young students of ours may need not just over the next couple of years. Let’s think about their needs many years from now. Because these skills are so much easier to pick up when we are young. As a colleague of mine, Richard Knight says: “Life lasts a long time and school is a short time in which to get ready for it.”

David was the Lead Consultant on Music and ICT for the National Association of Music Educators and now works for them as Project Leader on He is also a Regional Subject adviser for the New Key Stage 3 National Curriculum for Music.

Teach Yourself Piano

How To Learn in Your Own Time
Andrea D. Vacchiano

So you have decided to learn to play the piano. As do many adult learners, you may be considering some way to teach yourself piano instead of taking private lessons. Self-study is a truly viable option today. Various methods and materials designed for motivated learners are becoming more and more available through online and other resources, and they have never been better. This article presents a few ideas for your consideration while you select a method for self-study.

To pursue your studies, you will need regular access to a piano or keyboard. Most programmes and methods will assume that you will have a full eighty-eight key piano, with a realistic touch and at least a sustain pedal. You will also be purchasing a series of course materials and method books. Expect to spend about £50 - £100 for quality materials. You should also have a metronome. Depending on the nature of your self-study programme, you will probably want a CD player, DVD player or a computer set up somewhere close your practice area.   Your first task will be navigating through the myriad different methods and formats available to help you teach yourself piano. Take the time to find one that suits your goals and learning style. Remember to consider the basic style of music you are interested in. For example, you may wish to study classical music, jazz improvisation, or simply be able to play a few popular songs for your enjoyment. You should be able to find a programme to match those interests. As you make your list of the many possible study paths available to you, take advantage of any free lesson offerings you will undoubtedly come across. An introductory lesson or two will give you a good sense of a programme's focus, style of presentation, and pacing.   You will find many sources for study methods, courses, sheet music, and supplementary materials. One of the most easily accessible sources now is, of course, the Internet. In addition to paid and free study programmes, you will find several repositories of sheet music dedicated to famous composers or particular styles.
Try not to limit yourself to just online resources, but look into your local services as well. Your local public library will probably have a sheet music section complemented by a collection of method books and recordings. Colleges and universities may allow the public to browse and even borrow their music faculty library's collections. A trip to your local music shop will give you the opportunity to browse materials as well.

Once you have selected a method or programme to teach yourself the piano, set up a realistic weekly practice schedule. Four or five fifteen-minute sessions per week are a good starting place. In the beginning, the organisation of the lessons will help you figure out what you need to practise and how to do that. As you progress, you may find that you need to expand your practice time to up to about a half hour or so per session.

Remember to take the time to enjoy music away from the instrument. You can augment your practice by actively listening to recordings, attending concerts, and even finding a few fellow piano students to enjoy a bit of social time with. If you can get up the courage, it is extremely rewarding to play for other students at a similar level to you, as well as hear what they are working on. If you enjoy reading, find a few books on famous composers or music history. The author Charles Rosen has written several knowledgeable books on classical music for musicians.

As you continue your self-study, think of your musical development in long-term goals. The piano takes time to learn. You will probably find a fairly steep learning curve during your first few lessons as you digest its information, style, and work out a practice routine for yourself. To start with, assess your progress after about every three months of study. Look back to your first lesson, and think about what you have accomplished. If you have a solid programme and are able to practice regularly, you may be surprised at how much progress you have made.
If you would like more help with all aspects of learning the piano you can visit Andrea’s website where you can get a free copy of her latest eBook about playing the piano -

Practising Is Boring so I’m Banning It!

By Ian Chalk

“Sorry I can’t come with you to the park and play footy….I have to stay in and practise my trumpet”. And the spiral towards hating and eventually giving up playing the best instrument in the world begins…

Practising anything is dull. It’s repetitive and tedious and no one enjoys it… so I’m banning my students from doing it. There may be some of you out there thinking “But I love working my way through Arban pages 28 to 36! It solidifies my technique, gives me a sense of achievement, cleans up my articulation. I LOVE to practise!!”. No, you don’t. You don’t love to practise. You think you do…but you don’t.
What you love to do is PLAY. ‘Playing’ is great fun…the best thing to do in the world! Everyone loves to play: without the joy of playing, Sony would never have created the PlayStation.
I think this is what gets lost when people are developing their competence on their chosen instrument. There’s a reason why you don’t ‘work’ a trumpet; you ‘play’ it….it’s supposed to be FUN! I think playing is fun whether on a gig, in a rehearsal room or on your own. I think playing is fun whether you’re doing it perfectly or it’s riddled with errors. Too often, I have had conversations with parents where they map out their child’s journey to Grade 8 success like it’s some kind of musical Holy Grail. You can see the fear in the child’s eyes, almost hear them saying “what if I don’t achieve it before going to university? I’ll have failed my parents!”. The stress and worry begins, it all becomes far too important and progress slows.
What’s music for anyway? I’ll wager that the majority of music in the history of mankind was created to give people something to dance to… a fun activity or at the very least something to be enjoyed. Let’s not lose that sense of enjoyment through the fear of failure to achieve.
Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that playing at home or in rehearsal shouldn’t have a goal. Of course it should. The goal can be as technical as you want (‘I want to play this section at 130bpm using only single tonguing’) or as emotional as you want (‘I want to express my feelings about the dichotomy of the human condition through the medium of free improvisation using my tenor horn’)… it’s all good. Having goals in your playing makes us all better players and improving on your instrument leads to a greater sense of achievement and self-esteem. This leads on to more recognition, more gigs and more enjoyment.
We all have reasons why we play our instruments (including paying the bills) but let’s not forget the main one: because it’s fun to play.

This article first appeared on is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

What next for music education today?

At this stage of the academic year, some timely comments from key figures in music education.

Lynne Phillips, piano tutor

We need to get rid of the idea that music education is elitist: There are, I'm sure, many kids who gain something out of music (or art, or sport) who don't manage as well in traditionally academic subjects. Arts, and sports, are a vital part of life, not just as an extra for 'nice middle class children' but as something that some children almost solely rely on for self-esteem, enjoyment, and a sense of progression.

Let's communicate the positive outcomes of music education, all of them: I can't speak for schools here, but believe I can speak for students and parents on this issue. It's often very difficult for young musicians to see music education as something positive unless they are "good at it" (and in many eyes but most definitely not mine, this means being ridiculously talented).

But the positive outcomes of music are so much more than just advancement through grades or competitions: confidence, self expression, self determination, autonomy, creativity, enjoyment etc. This should never be forgotten in the rush to be 'better' or 'more advanced'.

Laura Callaghan, director, Hand on Heart Arts

One size does not necessarily fit all: My feeling is that 'music educators' can sometimes invent structures, theories and progression routes that best fit the types of young people that they work with, but will ultimately not work for all young people. Until we see each young person as a musician in their own right, and until we recognise individual journeys, we will struggle to be flexible enough to fit all young people into our provision and delivery.

Karen Dickinson, director, Music for Little People

We must address issues of quality: There is an awful lot of really rubbish stuff out there heavily marketed and packaged for early years. When I've seen these classes in action, they seem to just put a CD on and madly shake maracas to it. There seems to be little educational content if any, although the marketing claims there are educational advisers for the content.

Sarah Derbyshire, managing director,
National Children's Orchestras of Great Britain

Getting parents and carers involved: It's really vital that we get parents and carers involved in a child's musical education where possible, even if just from a support and encouragement angle. Parents often tell us how much a child has developed since their time with us in the NCO, both musically and socially (how much their time has improved their confidence, they've met new friends with similar interests etc). It's really important that parents appreciate the positive impacts from music.

Christopher Monks, founder and artistic director, AC Academy

Nurturing the leaders of tomorrow: Finding high quality leaders, and sourcing investment to train them is the hardest thing for any organisation. There are plenty of musicians with potential, but little money to support their growth – but this should be priority number one, as everything flows from this. It is the top of the pyramid.

In terms of having the right skills: self confidence (oodles of); wit; the ability to prepare incredibly thoroughly without letting anyone know that you have; and an instinct for the sort of music that will inspire young people at each stage (there is a great deal off naff music out there, this will only put children off). Most importantly, in my view there must be an extraordinary drive that flows from the passion of what you do in addition to being a natural leader.

Arts organisations must get involved: I think all professional arts organisations should undertake and fully embrace the innovative and high-quality delivery of music education across the UK. Funding is another question, but it is out there. I think there are three levels.

Firstly, regular weekly projects should be created and run in schools both for groups of children, and for teachers who will be trained to continue some of the work when the project is complete. Out of school these activities must also engage parents in a positive and proactive way.

Secondly, if appropriate, to create large scale inspired musical projects which culminate in an event or celebration, bringing schools and children together, giving a focus for the activity of number one above. And finally, for these organisations to create an accessible teaching network of the musicians it employs, and to work with hubs, local trusts, schools and parents to ensure those children who seek it, find it.

Christopher Walters, head of teacher development (music),
Trinity College London

Giving educators the right tools: I agree that skills as a musician and skills as an educator are both required to teach music. Historically, however, we haven't always been good at helping music educators get tooled up with both. Many music educators outside of the classroom have trained only as musicians, and even musicians with a flair for communicating often lack the necessary knowledge of safeguarding and inclusion, for example.

Lincoln Abbotts, director of strategic development, ABRSM

Joining up our offer: I think it's really important that as many young people as possible have access to high quality, meaningful musical experiences. In many ways this is about us acknowledging the need for high quality and up to date training opportunities for classroom teachers to have the confidence and skills to deliver this. But it's also about visiting instrumental and vocal teachers working together with these classroom teachers, to achieve a joined up offer.

Henry Vann, public affairs and policy officer,
Incorporated Society of Musicians

GCSE music is in need of reform: I think GCSE should be available (as an option) to all, as the academic, vocational, technical all-round music subject that it is. And we shouldn't be worried about it being a 'formal' qualification either – if we get it right, it could be a really challenging, flexible and accessible option in schools.

Philip Flood, director, Sound Connections

Future leaders need our support: And to get them we need to heavily invest in young music leaders. Help them become peer mentors, working alongside more experienced teachers/musicians, giving them the confidence to develop their leadership skills. I think this carries right through to newly qualified teachers and the middle management in schools and arts organisations. It's complex but vital.

Jonathan Savage, managing director, UCan Play

Let's remember what it is we've got: All I know, from discussion with numerous teachers and music education researchers from across the world over the last 10 years, is that our National Curriculum model of an integrated approach to performance, composition, listening and critical review/evaluation is admired by all. And this is what we are in the process of losing.

Reproduced from

Many Years from Now

By David Ashworth

Well, there we have it. The curriculum consultation responses are all in and we await the outcomes. Will DfE take notice of what we are telling them – or will they just steamroller ahead anyway?

When I first saw the proposed new curriculum for music, I had mixed feelings. Relieved that it is not too detailed or prescriptive and relieved that there seems to be room for teachers to shape and work with a curriculum that will work in their particular school. But disappointed that it was not more inspiring and that, on the face of it, little time or energy seems to have been expended in cobbling it together.

Yes, I agree with Ben Sandbrook and I think it would be nice if it was a bit more uplifting and aspirational, but  then again, I think most teachers can probably do this for themselves if they are given a bit of time and space. After all, this is supposed to be a vocation for trained professionals. Take away some of the crippling paperwork demands, give them a bit more breathing space in which to re-energise and I think most teachers will step up to the mark.

I also am heartened to see much common sense going into the submission prepared by my colleagues at Music Mark [download from ]. Again, it remains to be seen how much impact this and other responses will have on the final outcomes.  

But if we turn our attention to the long term view, we can perceive a fundamental underlying problem. We need less frequent, politically driven curriculum tinkering and more long term stability. Teachers want to plan for the long term – they want to think at least ten years ahead. Good teachers have always done this, I suspect, and take from the NC what they feel they need to. Many of them will still be teaching in classrooms when the “Gove era” becomes a dim and distant memory.  This new iteration of the music curriculum will only be with us for a short time, because successive governments are likely to  insist on tinkering with curriculum. We therefore need to find pragmatic ways of ‘coping’ with these interventions.  Our more enlightened educators are doing just this. Take a look at Heads Round Table, Cambridge Primary Review, Whole Education Learning Futures etc. to see some inspiring examples of alternatives to what is being handed down from above.

Break on Through (to the other side)

By David Ashworth, freelance Music Consultant.

An interesting letter in last month’s (excellent!) edition of Music Teacher magazine has got me thinking.

It tells the story of a music teacher who provides a convincing argument and set of reasons at to why there is often an inevitable delay in responding to phone calls from parents. It is all to do with the logistics of a demanding workload and the challenge of finding some time and space to respond. I sympathise entirely – a music teacher has much to fit into the day including lesson preparation, teaching, SLT meetings, one to one support during breaks, running ensembles etc. This is all part of a typical working day and there is not a lot a teacher can do about this. But when the teacher goes into the fine detail regarding how she spends her time, I think there are now 21st century solutions which can go some way towards easing the pressure…

“…got in at 7.30am, done the relevant photocopying for the day”

Why do we do so much photocopying? I’ve been involved with a lot of preparing of lesson resources over recent years and almost none of it requires the handing out of one off photocopied sheets.  Essential handouts can be laminated and reused. Much info can be stored on the VLE and projected/accessed from there.

“..made sure I had all the relevant CDs for each lesson”

Why not embed the extracts you need in digitally prepared resources?

“gone over to the main building for pigeon hole checking…”

Can we start emailing this stuff? And while we are talking email, why not ask parents to email you rather than phone – that way you can respond more quickly at a time that suits you – without getting embroiled in protracted phone conversations…

Building good channels of communication with parents is such a good idea. It is essential to have them on our side! Emailing, use of twitter, electronic newsletters can all be used to nurture this critically important army of support.

“At lunchtime….I acted as peacekeeper  for the war on practice room bookings…” an electronic booking system?

“burned some exam CDs for students”  let start putting this stuff on VLE or dedicated sites like NUMU, so they can access it from wherever…

“at the end of the rehearsal I was at the photocopier…as the students were keen to take the lyrics home”  Can’t they access these for themselves from the internet?

As I say, it’s still going to be a busy, full-on working day, but ideas such as these can take some of the pressure off.  A few years ago, these suggestions were seen as 'pie in the sky', but not anymore. These strategies, and many others like them, are now widespread. Access to the technology can still be patchy, but in schools where the provision has been inadequate, I’ve seen music teachers dig their heels in and fight effectively for the changes that are needed - to enable them to deal effectively with a lot of the routine stuff, by harnessing the appropriate technology.

Music in schools: Wider still, and wider (Ofsted)

Quality and inequality in music education, 2008-2011

Summary of the OFSTED Report published March 2012-04-24
This report is based primarily on evidence from inspections of music provision between September 2008 and July 2011 in 90 primary, 90 secondary and four special schools in England. A further nine primary schools and one special school were visited to observe examples of good practice.

Many of the concerns identified in Ofsted’s last triennial report, Making more of music, remain.  Inspectors found wide differences in the quality and quantity of music education across the schools visited. While some exceptional work was seen and heard, far too much provision was inadequate or barely satisfactory. Nearly all schools recognised the importance of promoting a diverse range of musical styles but far fewer had a clear understanding about how all students should make good musical progress as they moved through the curriculum in Key Stages 1 to 3. The scarcity of good singing in secondary schools and the under use of music technology across all phases were also significant barriers to pupils’ better musical progress.

The quality of teaching and assessment in music also varied considerably. Examples of memorable, inspiring and musical teaching were observed in all phases. However, in too many instances there was insufficient emphasis on active music-making or on the use of musical sound as the dominant language of learning. Too much use was made of verbal communication and non-musical activities. Put simply, in too many cases there was not enough music in music lessons. Assessment methods were often inaccurate, over-complex or unmusical, particularly in Key Stage 3. This also limited the time available for practical music-making, and detracted from pupils’ musical improvement and enjoyment.

Across the primary schools visited, inspectors found considerable variation in the impact of the nationally funded whole-class instrumental and/or vocal tuition programmes, more commonly known as ‘Wider Opportunities’. Survey evidence showed very clearly that some schools and groups of pupils were benefiting far more than others from these programmes. While most primary schools were involved with the national singing strategy, the quality of vocal work was good in only 30 of the 90 schools inspected.

Inspectors found wide differences in the continued participation and inclusion of pupils from different groups. Pupils with special educational needs, children who were looked after, and those known to be eligible for free school meals were considerably less likely to be involved in additional musical activities than others, particularly in secondary schools. Across the primary and secondary schools visited, around twice as many girls as boys were involved in extra-curricular music activities.

Overall, a good or outstanding music education was being provided in 33 of the 90 primary schools and in 35 of the 90 secondary schools inspected. This is low in comparison with overall school performance: at 31 August 2011, 70% of all schools were good or outstanding for overall effectiveness at their most recent inspection. 

The good and outstanding schools ensured that pupils from all backgrounds enjoyed sustained opportunities through regular classroom work and music-making for all, complemented by additional tuition, partnerships and extra-curricular activities. The films that accompany this report exemplify aspects of good practice in music teaching and curriculum provision, which meet the needs of all groups of learners. Examples are also included which highlight the impact that external providers can have on musical achievement and participation.

Headteachers in these schools, and others where music was judged good or outstanding, were key to assuring the quality of teaching in music. They ensured that music had a prominent place in the curriculum and that partnership working provided good value for money. However, not enough senior leaders demonstrated sufficient understanding of what is needed to secure good music education for all their pupils.

The Henley Review’s rationale for a new approach to organising aspects of music education through area music partnerships is well founded and welcomed by Ofsted, as is the government’s commitment to continued funding for these hubs. However, this Ofsted report shows that national strategies for widening access to music education have not, by themselves, been enough to bring about sufficient improvements in the quality of provision over the past three years. Local decisions about music education funding and provision, including decisions made in individual schools and academies, proved to be crucially important. The National Plan for Music Education also makes very clear the importance of schools in building the new music education hubs. To ensure better musical education in schools, significant improvement is needed in the quality of teaching and the quality of vocal work, and in better use of music technology. Central to these improvements will be more effective musical leadership and management by heads and other senior staff in schools, to challenge the quality of provision and to secure better musical teaching.

Key findings

Good or outstanding musical education was seen in 68 of the 180 primary and secondary schools inspected. In 41 of the 180 schools, provision for music education was inadequate. These results compare poorly with overall school performance in inspections.
There was considerable variation between the participation rates of different groups of pupils. In primary schools, one in every three girls was participating in extra-curricular music, compared with one in every seven boys. In secondary schools, only 6% of students with disabilities or special educational needs were involved in additional instrumental or vocal tuition, compared to 14% of students without these needs.

The most effective schools recognised that regular, sustained experiences were essential to secure good musical progress. Schools where curriculum provision was weaker showed limited understanding about musical progression or did not give enough time for music.

Too much music teaching continued to be dominated by the spoken or written word, rather than by musical sounds. Lessons were planned diligently, but not always prepared for musically.

Assessment in secondary schools was frequently over-complicated and did not focus enough on the musical quality of students’ work. In both primary and secondary schools, insufficient use was made of audio recording and teachers’ listening skills to assess and improve pupils’ work.

Achievement in singing was good or outstanding in only a third of the primary schools visited. Not enough emphasis was placed on improving the quality of vocal work or developing other aspects of musical learning through singing. Singing was a major weakness in nearly half of the secondary schools visited.

The use of music technology was inadequate or non-existent in three fifths of the primary schools and over a third of the secondary schools inspected.

Local authority music services made good contributions to the musical and personal progress of particular groups of pupils. However, there were considerable inequalities in funding and provision between local authorities, and between schools within local authorities. Two thirds of the primary schools were participating in ‘Wider Opportunities’ programmes. However, the length and quality of these projects were variable, and continuation rates were too low.

Not enough school leaders and managers were holding external partners to account, or robustly challenging the quality of classroom curriculum music provision in their own schools. There was limited take-up and impact of continuing professional development (CPD) in both primary and secondary schools. The professional isolation of music teachers was again apparent, as it was in the last Ofsted music survey.

Continued government funding and support for music education is welcomed by Ofsted, as are the new music hubs from September 2012. However, inspection evidence suggests that these alone are not sufficient to provide a good musical education, and that the quality of schools’ music provision and their coordination with external partnerships is of crucial importance. 

Main report published 2 March 2012

We need to talk about....Wider Opportunities

by David Ashworth Freelance Education Consultant.

Ten things to think about with Wider Opportunities

Wider Opportunities has been a great initiative, but I’ve never been totally convinced that the models we have in place are necessarily the best ones. I remember thinking, at the time it was first launched, that this was a good idea in principle, but that it had not been thought through properly. As a consequence, many schools and music services have struggled manfully to make it work and not all have succeeded. Large numbers of instruments are now gathering dust in store cupboards and numbers are starting to fall as the financial burdens of sustaining Wider Opportunities increase.

So we need to face up to the problems and look for solutions. And I’m hoping those involved in hub planning will be doing just this. Here are a few things we need to think about:

Every child on the same instrument?

How do you square this one with personalised learning? It is well known that children really take to some instruments and have a deep dislike for others. If you get it wrong at this stage, there is a danger that you do more harm than good.

Year 4?

Surely this is too early for some instruments? Many year 4s are simply not big enough or strong enough to cope with the demands of carrying some instruments, let alone playing them!

Continuing after the first year?

One year’s funding? Some thought should have been given to how parents/schools/LAs/music services can realistically tackle funding beyond the first year. There are no easy answers here, but I know that some LAs/music services have found workable solutions. Time to share ideas and strategies….


Not much thought seems to have been given to what happens to these young people’s music making once they move on to secondary school. Perhaps we should be starting Wider Opportunities much later and making it a twelve-month period that spans primary and secondary school? Or at least involving secondary schools in some way.

Peripatetic  training?

Music services have worked hard at preparing their staff to develop appropriate pedagogical approaches for this radically different teaching model, but we have to be honest and acknowledge that there have been some sad stories – and there will be many schools who are understandably unwilling to continue if they have had a bad experience. We should not be asking instrumental staff to lead Wider Opportunities sessions unless they are ready, willing and able. Impossibly high targets mean that we sometimes compromise on this.

Classroom teachers?

Insufficient thought was given as to how the classroom teacher would cope with having to work in partnership in a Wider Opportunities session. The Trinity/OU CPD was brought in to try to address this – but how many primary teachers have been able to take advantage of this scheme? Not enough, I suspect.


This is a big, big problem. Having two or three qualified teaching staff in one classroom is always going to be expensive and sustaining those costs year on year is not a viable option for many. Why have we not considered more cost effective models? For instance, Cumbria Music Service’s Drumming uses a blended learning model, which combines face to face sessions with effective online support.

Sing Up?

Sing Up does seem to be making more positive impact in primary schools. Why is this and what can we learn from this?

Learn from Connect?

Guildhall’s Connect programme provides a better preparation for those going into secondary school, especially where working with the Musical Futures whole curriculum model. Can we look at restructuring some of our Wider Opportunities provision in this way?

Integrate into the wider curriculum?

It has been my experience that class teachers are far more likely to engage if the Wider Opportunities work can help support and explore other curriculum areas - more needs to be done!

Will Wider Opportunities change once the hubs are in place and running things? I hope so because, unless these questions I have raised are properly addressed, the future looks uncertain……