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.