Curating a musical past

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Last autumn I attended an alumni/careers event at a university as a speaker; I was there to chat about my experiences of working in music education. Even now I often avoid writing “teacher” as so much negativity has developed around the “music teacher” role. This was particularly apparent when speaking to music students. Even after my (perhaps over zealous) speech to numerous groups of undergraduates and postgraduates I was often confronted with “well I don’t want to teach” or “teaching is my absolutely last option”. How did the pivotal role of a music educator, and particularly the holistic approach required of class music teachers, become so tarnished? Why did so many of these undergraduates feel that their dreams of success as a performer or composer were so far removed from education?

Looking back my most rewarding experiences were musical. Of all the teachers I remember and developed a successful working relationship with music teachers are at the forefront of my memories. This humbles my work as a teacher now; I recognise that however I assess a child’s musicianship, they are indeed experts. All of them. So few of us do not have some kind of soundtrack to our lives and for school pupils listening to an iPod (or however one listens to music) is a significant part of their day. These hours and hours of listening represent a significant body of knowledge about a particular repertory. Typically this repertory is not one that forms part of a syllabus or curriculum. This subconscious or underlying denial of music that touches and engages our pupils needs addressing, and music teachers should acknowledge these musical interests without prejudice.

Such is the power of music it needs no explanation. What does need an explanation is why it’s in our curriculum. So much writing on the state and future of music education is exciting – such discussion makes one think there is a real strive for excellence. There seems to be so many initiatives and projects that can anyone truly glimpse a singular vision for music education? Its value in the development of a person is undoubted and as such it’s compulsory (and long may that remain) inclusion in the national curriculum is cherished. Perhaps what confuses me is why all who study it are expected to be composers, performers and keen appraising listeners. It seems logical to assume these skills are interconnected but are they? Can we expect pupils to gain an insight into the rich and varied canon of musical works and create their own and perform as a soloist, in a group? Is it not akin to historians having to reenact every historical event they study? Perhaps that is a crude comparison.

I prioritise musical experience in my teaching. That might sound somewhat tautological. My ultimate aim is always to demystify a musical concept; unlock it so pupils understand. This understanding allows them to engage with a genre, a piece, a composer, a technique or a style with a renewed sense of ownership. Such ownership removes that “I’m not musical” roadblock and ultimately (one hopes) will encourage further engagement with music beyond that which is studied. I absolutely love it when a pupil returns a week later and has explored repertoire we have studied or tells me of how they showed a YouTube clip of Henry Cowell’s “The Banshee” to their parents. It makes me think it was very much worth it and learning is taking place.

I wonder sometimes if teaching music becomes more of a curator role, taking pupils on tours of music from the past. How one connects with the exciting and varied musical activities of the now should be a concern for all. There are numerous connections between music of the past and present one can explore with pupils to show them that there is a great deal of innovation at either ends of the historical spectrum. It is only through such contrast can we truly acknowledge how wonderful the development of music has been and will continue to be.

I feel a renewed sense of wonder at the future of music education. I can see a firm place for the Western art tradition in this future and think much thought can be given to exciting our pupils with the a repertoire that remains the bulk of our musical past. How we make these artefacts of our musical past live and breathe for our pupils as much as they do for those teaching them remains the issue.

I want to feel my classes and I are travellers on musical journeys rather than mere spectators of dusty relics. We might buy postcards of our adventures by listening to Mozart but we also try and build sandcastles… Does that even make sense? I hope so.

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