Making sense (or not) of music education

In the last few months I’ve been considering some key themes in music education discussion and debate.

Recent travels have got me considering the term ‘music education’. I’m thinking about the structures, traditions and conventions that sit behind the delivery and receipt of a music education, some of the values that go alongside that and what we might be able to learn from how it all works in other countries. Are there any constant ingredients in music education that transcend any different connotations of the term music education or beliefs about how it should be delivered and what should be contained within it?

Is music education about the mastery of a musical instrument as it is in China? Ask about music in government schools there and the response is quizzical – well what does that have to do with anything? How about the American band model, large group instrumental learning which is firmly embedded into the school system. No graded music exams there! Or the UK where calls to save music education often conflate music education in school with instrumental instruction and where one seems to be thought to hold a higher value than the other?

With all of those examples, of course the one constant in music education is music, in all its different forms and genres and structures and sound and timbres. But what of pedagogy? Could a better understanding of pedagogy help to remove barriers that stand between the student and the music that sits at the heart of music education?

Most of my work in other countries has been for Musical Futures Australia (now leading the global expansion of MF into Asia, the Middle East and beyond as Musical Futures International). MFI is having a growing impact in primary and secondary classrooms, last year working with around 2000 teachers and impacting on roughly 330,000 students in the USA, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. At the heart of the workshop programme is the pedagogy that Musical Futures is built on.

The recently released independent evaluation of the Victoria government-sponsored Musical Futures professional learning program contains some impressive evidence of that impact, with the headline statement that 97% of teachers believe that MF removes barriers to participation – a great accolade to the work of the Musical Futures Australia team. You can read and download the full report here.

So here is an approach to the delivery of music education originally designed for use in the music classroom and it seems to be working. So is that approach transferrable to other ‘types’ of music education?

The work Musical Futures International is doing in China is proving to be one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a teacher, working with instrumental teachers who don’t speak English and on our most recent visit, with children and their parents as well. I’ve also been delivering workshops as part of my freelance work in the UK for instrumental teachers at Music Education Hub events exploring creative approaches to instrumental teaching and how and why those might bring value to the teaching of instrumental music.

For years, Musical Futures has skirted around whether the pedagogy and approaches have any relevance to different instrumental learning situations (one to one, small group, ensembles, whole class ensembles). It’s easy to see a link between the pedagogy of whole class instrumental learning and Just Play for example, each being large group approaches to music making designed to take place mainly in schools with students of varying experience and enthusiasm with the teacher as music leader playing with and leading the ensembles and usually with repertoire or resources as the basis for learning.

But could Musical Futures also invade the sanctity of the one to one instrumental lesson, that gold standard, globally understood backbone of music education? It comes with its own embedded assessment system, the graded music exam, and a tried and tested progression route to conservatoire or university music degree (with a couple of stops for GCSE and A Level music along the way).

From feedback from the teachers and organisations we have worked with in China, surprisingly in a system where most of the teaching is on a one to one basis, it seems that the pedagogy is resonating. Key to this is hooking in to the teacher and making it relevant in the context of their own music education. In keynotes and presentations to teachers where there is a translator available I have tried to do this with some reflections on my own music education (in the workshops, we just play and learn that way!).

I talk about how learning to play the drums showed me how a groove is a key part of the energy and the lifeblood of the music whether there is a drum kit in the piece or not (Baroque motor rhythms or the lilt of the suspensions and appoggiaturas that thread through Mozart’s fabulous Requiem). Learning a bit of guitar and to play chords on keyboards along with songs I knew helped me to understand the underlying patterns of harmony in music I played far better than the years of Bach Chorales and my appalling failure to write a fugue in my 1st year of my degree course. Singing has helped me to hear, create and replicate melodic lines, patterns and intervals. And jamming in a large group on an instrument I can’t play very well, has helped me get better at listening to and copying other, better players in order to become better myself. Embracing other musical experiences has made me a better musician. That wasn’t part of my music education at school or in my instrumental lessons and ensemble experience outside the classroom and it seems that it wasn’t part of the Chinese music teachers’ music education either.

I have also learned that it is possible to communicate learning for teachers, even when there is no shared language. The emphasis that Musical Futures International has brought to the scoping of the international work, in places where music education may not mean the same as the countries where MF was originally tried and tested, is that there are many ways to learn music. Musical Futures helps teachers think about how and why they teach it. And so we learn about an approach and pedagogy with music as our shared language. We even managed some songwriting using some of the ideas in this free guide to songwriting. The songs sounded great, but I have no idea what they were about…..

And finally what about our personal relationships with music that perhaps brought us to teaching in the first place? I felt the complexities of music and its importance in stunning performances played on traditional Chinese instruments in Bejing where for the first time I heard the timbres and tones of instruments I had previously only memorised the names of for an exam. I adored the performance of the Azerbijan National Symphony Orchestra who played at the opening of the ISME 33rd World Conference in Baku which reminded me how much I love orchestral music, how important playing in an orchestra was for me at school and beyond.

I don’t know if my music education enhanced those experiences for me, or whether they were just moments captured and brought to life in ways that only music can. I don’t believe you need to be musically educated to love and appreciate music, but I do know that my music education brought me into all kinds of music I don’t think I would have found on my own.

What I have learned from all of this is that music education is far from a simple matter of how music is taught or how it’s learned. But I do believe that the richness and value of music deserves a place in education, if we can find a fit that embraces all nuances of music education regardless of how they are described or implemented.

 

 

 

 

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