Are Art and Music so different? (Guest Editorial)

Editorial for TeachTalkMusic can be found here:

Thanks to David Ashworth for the invitation. Text of the Editorial is printed below.

Are Art and Music so different?

Art happens unexpectedly. No one expected the British artists of Emin’s generation to become famous like they did – least of all, I suspect, their art teachers. As a school subject, art is a tricky one. Is it a serious attempt to nurture artists, or a soft subject? Everyone has memories of sticking straws together at primary school.

Jonathan Jones  (2013:Guardian):

I don’t remember straws at school. The Art Department at my secondary school was always the “other”; a remote and special room by the time you were in the sixth form and a sanctuary from the rest of school life. Prior to sixth form the art rooms (two large rooms with a storage room inbetween them) were my artistic home and they were notoriously messy and full of activity. The Art teachers were wonderfully passionate and dynamic and gave plenty of time between lessons to introduce interesting art objects as well as give additional assistance. I thrived on painting and cultivated the sketchbook practice of collecting anything that might be inspiration. It was apparent early on in Art that works took time to produce and the research phase was a lengthy one, and an individualized one; I would explore my own interests and any technical matters (such as to do with medium) would be discussed as we went. I don’t recall any didactic teaching of the whole class. I recall a community of individuals – particularly in the sixth form – that were able to pursue interests and create art we felt ownership of.

I found a report ( ) about Art in the secondary schools from 2004. It ‘presents the findings from a year long study designed to ascertain the content of the art curriculum at key stage 3 and 4, with particular reference to the inclusion of contemporary art practice’. ‘In total, 54 art teaching staff were interviewed. They were questioned about curriculum design and content, and their perceptions of the factors affecting curriculum choice. Their perceptions of the outcomes of the art curriculum in their schools were also elicited’. Interestingly it was identified in this report that Art teachers in schools that identified as using contemporary art practices (CAP) had staff who ‘were more likely to have worked as professional artists before entering teaching, and thus may be able to share a more thorough understanding of the art production process with their pupils’. They also noted there was a scarcity in courses for Art teachers on art or teaching, but CPD on assessment was a common occurrence. Interestingly ‘in describing their curriculum approach, heads of department in CAP identified schools were more likely to focus on pupil experience, the importance of ideas, current events and external stimuli (such as gallery exhibitions)’. This report is now ten years old but it was republished as an online document in 2012.

The report was interested in the content of the Art curriculum: ‘There was a general consensus that, within the [“school art”] literature, time limitations were causing the arts to be taught through knowledge and skills-based approaches, with the distinct possibility that more conceptual approaches and notions of creativity were being neglected. Something that stuck in my mind from the section on the interviews with the head of department: ‘the interviewees were asked whether or not they viewed themselves as practising artists at the time of interview. There was a general consensus that, despite a desire to continue working as an artist, the pressures of teaching left the interviewees with little time to explore this, particularly for full-time members of staff and those with young children. A number of interviewees commented that the majority of their energy and artistic creativity went into helping their pupils achieve’. It goes on to mention that ‘despite these time constraints it was recognised that maintaining an interest in producing art, outside of school, was beneficial for teachers wishing to continually develop their areas of expertise and interest and was also beneficial for the pupils’. How many music teachers keep up with their own musical interests or have these been marginalized due to school workloads? Do Music teachers perceive themselves as ‘musicians’?

Interesting how Year 9 is perceived as an important year for encouraging students to select the subject for GCSE and to aid this the teachers interviewed in the report mentioned trying to make Year 9 similar to the method of working at GCSE. ‘Year 9 stood out within this overall curriculum approach; as the year before GCSE it was often seen as an opportunity to ‘sell’ the GCSE course to those pupils who had yet to choose their options. Pupils in year 9 were also encouraged to begin working in a GCSE format through the introduction of sketch books, design sheets and project-based work as preparation for those individuals intending to study art. Thus, in the majority of schools the emphasis of the art curriculum began to shift away from being primarily skills-based to the introduction of more exploratory art work in year 9’. There was plenty of discussion about the links between KS3 and KS4 during the Teach Through Music professional development year []. If we want more to take GCSE Music (or an alternative course of study) should we be introducing the working habits expected of KS4 Music students in the final year of KS3 Music? Is KS3 the end of the journey of compulsory Music or do we still see it as a chance to make that one last sell for students to carry on to KS4?

Music was very different for me. I had a wonderfully inspiring Music teacher at KS3 and first year of GCSE. I will never forget being given Poulenc’s Flute Sonata when I was in Year 9 and he remarked “you’ll need to blow raspberries down the flute at one point” (referring to the double-tonguing…). I was always treated like an individual. Again, I don’t recall much didactic teaching. My interest in composition was encouraged from Year 9 and I remember being given songs to model my own work on. I always felt the challenge and the marvel of once learning how to modulate in a composition I was working on. The difference for me was we spent less time on the process in Music than in Art. I would spend considerable amounts of time on the musical processes at home and just show the tip of iceberg to my teacher. In Art, the process was always on show and the teacher-meddling was always interrogative and specific. I never remember being given a number at school in Music or Art. Only feedback, and precise feedback at that. Above all my Music and Art teachers were musicians and artists; I was in awe of their skills as practitioners and often oblivious to their pedagogical processes (unlike those pupils that spot when a pedagogical gimick is being adopted by an entire school and lesson after lesson they are bombarded by the same pedagogical approach…). The arts teaching I experienced helped me be the teacher I am today; constantly developing my practice through research, concerts, performing, learning, masterclasses, choirs etc. I’m just like them. A learner.

I like the questions that come near the end of the report I mentioned previously on Art curriculum ‘School Art: What’s in it?’. I’ve re-written them to be about Music – all I’ve done is replace the word art/artist with music/musician… I wonder if these questions have now been addressed in Art education. Have they been addressed in music? In this respect art and music share a similar issue: how do they navigate between the past and the present, between skills and content, and to what extent do they involve issues. Most importantly what is the pupil experience and how much of a priority is the experience for them in curriculum planning? Do we plan for the pupils we want or for the pupils we have?

  • How would a change to a more even balance between the teaching of skills and addressing issues and meaning in music, lead to a different selection of references and media?
  • Is there evidence that enabling teachers to develop as practising musicians result in a broader or more effective music education for school pupils?
  • Should personal [teacher] preference be a criterion for the selection of music to include in the school music curriculum?
  • To what extent can contemporary music be intellectually accessible to pupils?
  • Would the greater prioritisation of issues and meaning in music, often claimed to be enabled by the inclusion of contemporary music practice, deter pupils from choosing music as an option at GCSE?

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