Music isn't 'dying' in our schools, it is changing!

  • Posted on 1 February 2005 at 1:44pm
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Howard’s Times article responding to Richard Morrison’s ‘All Washed up: Down the Tubas’ piece on the state of music education in Britain. [February 2005]

I spent eight months of last year researching the current state of music education in the UK for a South Bank Show shown just before Christmas. I visited schools all over the country and talked at length with teachers and music service leaders. What emerged most powerfully for me was a disparity between what the spokespeople for classical music would like to see in schools, what they believe it to be and what it actually is.

Richard Morrison’s article Down the Tubas revealed many of these discrepancies, even down to the language used. Music isn’t ‘dying’ in our schools, it is changing. When classical commentators use the words ‘new music’, they are referring to the complex orchestral soundscapes of living composers like Harrison Birtwistle or James MacMillan. For everyone else in the country, ‘new music’ means Franz Ferdinand, The Zutons or Dizzee Rascal. The musical equivalents of Tracy Emin or Damien Hirst are not Thomas Adès or Judith Weir but Ms Dynamite and Damien Rice. To many classical enthusiasts there is a value system which ranks the Western art music written between 1600 and 1960 in a different league from everything else: to the public at large, this distinction is increasingly meaningless.

A few weeks ago the exam board EdExcel announced that Britpop was to be added to their analysis modules for GCSE music, provoking outrage from the classical elite. What they failed to point out was that well over 50% of the syllabus is devoted exclusively to European classical music already and that the Britpop module was merely replacing the reggae module as an option. To most parents this is a detail and not a particularly alarming one either. Good teachers know that you can introduce music to youngsters through a wide variety of styles. They also know that literacy and numeracy targets can be enhanced by application of music across the curriculum and that the fears for music being ‘squeezed out’ of the timetable by maths – or sport – are exaggerated and outmoded. In psychoanalytical terms, the classical music establishment, faced with the observation that many young people find what they do uncool and archaic, believe that it is everyone else’s fault – teachers, parents, politicians – but theirs. Isn’t it time to reassess the role of the classics beyond asserting that their appreciation is some kind of inalienable right, to be compulsorily imposed on the next generation come what may?

To most people, classical music seems to enjoy a privileged position in our culture, not that it is under seige. A lot of their money is spent on it, for a start. In London alone, both opera houses have been expensively refurbished in the last few years at a total cost of around £250million and the South Bank Centre’s £41m rebuild is underway. The reward for this government being the most generous towards the arts in British history is serial complaint from the classical world and patronising jibes about the Prime Minister’s enjoyment of pop music. Arts Council England will fund this year 32 (classical) orchestras and 11 (classical) opera companies, a handful of ethnic & folk ensembles but no rock or brass bands. Whose musical style will the public think is hard done by in that exchange, I wonder?

The British culturati have always been inexplicably envious of our Continental neighbours when it comes to ‘high art’. Elgar’s gloomy assessment of the Edwardian music scene was fuelled by adoration of Germany. There is much gnashing of teeth at the content of our GCSE music syllabus, for example, but little celebration of the unprecedented numbers of students now taking it, nor for that matter the excellent AS in Music Technology, by far the fastest growing course in any subject. It may surprise parents to read that there is no classroom music of any kind on offer inFrance,Italy,Germany or Spain. Such music tuition as youngsters receive takes place out of school. The situation isn’t perfect, but there are hundreds if not thousands of inspiring, imaginative projects underway across theUKengaging young people in music. What’s more, all the young classical musicians I meet have a broad musical appetite, respecting and enjoying popular forms alongside the classical. In this respect, perhaps it is they who should be doing the teaching.