“First Access” and musical pathways. Have times changed and can we change with them?

Masque photo
Let’s Make a Masque Competition, 1986

This week I spent a really interesting morning leading a workshop for Trinity College London and Music For Youth with a group of experienced music education sector folk to look at mentoring and feedback.

There were 2 specific aims of the session. To identify what the terms “inclusivity and diversity” mean in the context of assessment and feeedback and the second was about how our own musical identity and musical journey can influence how and what we feed back.

We started by taking it in turns to share the journey that had brought each of us to that room on that day. What came across was a very real drive to want to give young people similar musical opportunities and musical experiences to those that we had all been part of. Common themes and shared pathways emerged, and for some there were emotional moments as people recalled events or experiences along the way that had had a very memorable impact on them.

It seems that the ‘first access’ to music that all of us in the room had encountered that started us on our musical journey or pathway was one of the following:

  • at primary school
  • inspired by a musical family or family member
  • as a result of music happening in the local community

The next step for most of us was to then become involved with the county music service in some way, usually to play as part of an ensemble. All of us had been teachers or composers or performers of music at some point in our careers.

For some, although it was primary music that hooked them in, secondary school music hadn’t been of particular relevance (not the case for me, but definitely a theme in discussion). It was at that point that the musical pathway seemed to divert to routes that existed outside of school.

Perhaps those of us who took part in that session are very much products of the music education focus, structures and values that were prevalent during the times that we came through the system. Perhaps we just followed clearly defined pathways that were laid out for those of us that happened to find ourselves on the first step no matter what it was that helped us to take that step.

I left the session wondering whether those same pathways to and through music education still exist. And if they don’t, whether we have been successful in replacing them with new ones. Should we be looking for musical pathways that accommodate new ways of learning, tools to help us to be creative, different ways of hearing and making music and a range of approaches embedded in structures that underpin a completely musical education?

All of this sits within a shifting educational landscape in the UK which threatens arts and cultural education in ways that I would have found it hard to imagine back in the days when the photograph at the top of this post was taken.

And so to part of my story.

When I was in Year 6 in my tiny village primary school where music was the life and soul of every day, we wrote, performed and recorded our own ‘Masque’, supported by our teachers.

All of the top classes were involved with the drama, words, lyrics, music, costumes, scenery and it occupied months of planning and creating and rehearsing and presenting (no SATs to prep for in those days!) until eventually we found out we had won a national competition to perform ours at the Royal Opera House in London. I played a recorder solo that my best friend had composed and that the whole class had devised words and a melody to fit with.

There was no question that after a primary school ‘first access’ musical experience that ended like that I would continue with music. I learned to play the clarinet (paid for by my parents), attended a music centre every week, I went to a secondary school with an incredible music department, symphony orchestra and concert band, I was part of the County ensembles and that pathway led me to a music degree and into music teaching and beyond. My musical pathway was clearly laid out (for me) in front of me and I followed it.

So my thinking this week has been about whether those pathways still exist and if so are they still the most relevant ones that can truly embrace inclusivity and diversity, whatever that means in the context of where and how we are working? If not then what might replace them? Is it time to refresh the old and embrace the new and if so, then how can we do that when the experience of so many now running the show was so much ‘of its time’?

My worry is that if we can’t find a shared vision and approach and set aside our own musical identities in order to embrace those of others to make this possible, then we risk the vibrancy and creativity and excitement of music making being lost to many.

Notes:

I’ve very much enjoyed recent reading about the history and context of music education in the last 50 years, particularly the writings of John Finney, Gary Spruce, Neryl Jeanneret, Ruth Wright and others that add a huge amount of context to the every-day experiences I encounter when I am working with teachers and reflecting on my own experiences. 

Life without music is meaningless, music without life is academic.

Leonard Bernstein

One thought on ““First Access” and musical pathways. Have times changed and can we change with them?

  1. Back in the 80s I co-commissioned a piece for my school wind band , Philip Wilby’s “Catcher of Shadows”. In a TV piece we made the composer said that the piece , “affirmed the traditions and pushed back the boundaries. ” and that has become a mantra for me. I suppose any piece of music which stands the test of time does exactly that. Is it the same for a music education system? Indeed, do we have a system or just a hotch potch of best attempts ?

    I am committed to leading what I call a “full service music hub”. One similar to the one which helped create my professional identity in rural mid Wales in the 60s. Affirming the traditions is easy, but pushing back the boundaries where funding is tight both in the system and in the community and when the arts seem to have patchy support in the state school system is a challenge. So I muse on whether a traditional pathway in the state sector is needed at all.

    Like

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