The Henley report emphasised the value and importance of music making as a practical skill and how much this can enrich and aid the development of young people’s lives. What was lacking from the comprehensive survey was a detailed acknowledgement of the class music lessons themselves. How important is Western Art Music in the teaching of music before GCSE and A-level Music? Are we offering our pupils a rigorous subject based curriculum in music or is it just a series of practical activities that develop confidence in singing, playing and composing with a fleeting acknowledgement of the great works of music history? Exploring great works of the Western Art tradition should form an essential part of the music curriculum from the early years of education and create culturally aware pupils that not only have an understanding of the breadth and depth of ‘classical’ music but will feel confident in being part of the vibrant classical music scene on offer today. I hope teachers feel as I do that there is real value in exploring repertoire in detail and how it can be connected to music of today – including the value of using a particular piece of music as a ‘window’ into cultural, social, political and historical issues pertinent to the piece.
Music history needs to be a seen as an exciting trajectory of influences and not a hierarchy of styles or a progression of complexity. Pupils need to feel that their musical loves are acknowledged and respected and not to feel in some way inferior. However much one’s training tells you that certain popular styles are less artistically pleasing that a Bach Cantata – for example – I think it is damaging to openly mock young people’s musical choices. What we need to do is to connect their interests with the past and bring ‘dead’ music to life for them. There are exciting connections to make and we can chart a route through the dense – and perhaps often user-unfriendly – musical past that will spark interest in our students.
I am not one to see music education as a ‘museum’ of musical works but at the same time it cannot only be a disjointed array of practical activities that foster ‘confidence’ in playing, singing and composing. If music is to exert its identity as a rigorous and ‘academic’ subject it needs to studied with the rigour of the other subjects that have a wealth of ‘texts’, such as English literature. Of course much of the repertory requires advanced technical skill and perhaps cannot be realised with the same ease that plays and other literature can be read. Nonetheless we need not ignore this vast history in favour of genres and styles that can be realised with ease and immediacy. Learning can take place and perhaps more than some teachers expect. We need to give our pupils a chance and take the risk of exploring Western Art music in real depth and recognise that this music lives today through a rich and vibrant music scene.