Music education: stifling creativity or generating inclusion?

I read through Charlotte Gill's piece on the problem of learners of music struggling with notation and an appeal to perhaps try to find different ways to cater for those who just cannot get along with notation, thought, "yes, she has a point there", and moved on.  Then a few weeks later, I spotted online that no fewer than 600 (600! WHEN do 600 people sign a letter to a newspaper) and saw some of the comments, and realised that Ms Gill had unwittingly released a rage amongst music educators.  I was surprised to see this, because as somebody who worked in music education from the age of 18, until I was about 29, and saw at first hand the conflict between musical capability and notational literacy, I agreed that there was a problem that isn't just mitigated by "more money" or "more formal music education."

It also comes from my experience conducting choirs.  It was a feature of the job that a very good singer would sometimes resolutely have given up on trying to read music.  It never helped that it was well known that Luciano Pavarotti himself couldn't read music, and had to bring a repetitur from the Met over to his house in Pesaro for several weeks each summer to prepare himself for the coming season.  In my youth, the existence of so many notationally illiterate singers, who mostly were nonchalant about their illiteracy, was at the root of a certain contempt for singers among instrumentalists (especially those who worked with singers a lot).  It was, and to a certain extent still is, a dark and shameful secret, although I suspect that singers who are unable to read simply no longer get the work, as there is such an enormous pool out there of budding workhorses with excellent literacy, many of whom are extremely gifted.  Put simply, there are no longer promoters and agents willing to deal with the limitations of the illiterate in classical, given the importance of the ability to turn over a score at short notice.

I recall also that the Feis Ceoil had a particular award just for sight reading.  It was a way for a moderate talent to win a cup in the Feis without having to be the best pianist ever.  I recall Fergus Sheil (now a conductor) winning it one year (mind you, Fergus is no mediocrity, but a solid conductor of well recognised talent).  The ability to read music at sight fluently, or more importantly, to learn large amounts of music straight from the score, is an increasingly critical resource, given the unwillingness of companies to expend tight resources on coaches to teach notationally-challenged soloists the entire score by ear.  This is as much a business reality as an artistic reality.  It seems ludicrous, but if Luciano was starting his career tomorrow, he almost certainly would meet a huge hurdle on this point.

However, we are not talking about professional skills here, nor are we talking about dropping the criticality of notation for professionals.  I understand the fury many professionals feel at "crossover stars" having won most of the investment capital but I doubt most of them were ever aware of the investment it must have taken in the past to prepare artists such as Pavarotti for anything.  Of course, there was almost certainly a corresponding spend on many performers so it was probably invisible (a spend that sadly, it seems, is now almost entirely spent on airbrushing the likes of Katherine Jenkins and maintaining a PR troupe for her to have events decrying the "snobbery" of her critics from no less than the Ritz.  Mind you, I once put the argument to one of KJ's most vitriolic critics that the likes of BBC facilitate the KJ phenomenon by having her at the Proms sideline events, which my associate disagreed with, but it seems patently clear to me that as long as the likes of KJ are promoted, however, surreptitiously, by "classical" labels, broadcasters and occasionally, ensembles, the zero-sum game that the phenomenon brings to classical investment capital will be maintained).  In education, however, it is taken for granted that the process of learning and socialisation includes literacy as a minimum, just as in mainstream education nobody would ever argue that exclusion based on illiteracy is a reason to consider not teaching literacy at all.

But this wasn't what Gill suggested.  It seems implicit from many of the criticisms of Gill's article that many just read the headline and raced off to sign her death warrant.  Let me unpick some of her points.

  1. Music education is the domain of the wealthy

I can’t disagree with this.  Gill makes the following observations:

  • music education is deteriorating due to underinvestment
  • the baccalaureate model is crushing Music as a subject
  • music of the slack is taken up by private tuition
  • this is excluding many

This is a truism I think it is difficult to argue with.  In the UK, reductions in funding have resulted in closures of services.  Music education has suffered badly from being side-lined as a non-core subject.  We have seen this for decades in Ireland, where Music is an optional subject and provision was originally given free of charge by religious orders for whom it was an interest, meaning that when those orders died out, in many cases, music education simply disappeared.  One of my friends who works in music education (and travels 200 miles almost to her job) is now the only full time Music teacher in her COUNTY: it is that bad.  In addition, the baccalaureate model, which has been in place in Ireland for about 50 years, forces students to take a core group of subjects they might not have an aptitude for (or where in the in-place tuition is very poor).  The result is, for example, more students have to take Maths, but failure levels are stubbornly high because students who previously could drop a weak subject no longer can do so.  This benefits only all-rounders with strong skills in a wide range of subjects, but hurts good and average students who might have been able to compensate previously by focusing on what they were good at.  It categorically destroys the opportunities for below average abilities because they are now forced to compete on every side.

However, it does provide a more 360 degree view of ability which may be helpful over the long term in identifying educational resource needs and deploying them.  But it certainly does not benefit all students and badly hurts non-mainstream subjects that open up opportunities for students who need them.  Resources are a huge issue here and of course students from wealthy backgrounds are at an advantage.  If music education is pushed further into the margins, this becomes more of a problem.

But here is the issue: nobody ever really assessed the provisioning of music education in the past to see where resources were actually spent.  Surveys recently show that a high percentage of professional musicians are from fee-paying educational backgrounds.  While this is often shown as an indicator that the reduction of music education funding is excluding those from poorer backgrounds from the sector, surely that would break down to show that, for example, there is a strong class gap between older musicians from the days of peripatetic tuition and younger professionals who come from wealthy backgrounds.  But nobody has actually shown evidence of this: what appears to be the case is that the body of professionals as a whole appears to be distributed largely in the middle to upper middle class.  This may reflect social structures as much as economic ones, but what unfortunately what never questioned in the past was how much music education funding was indiscriminately distributed to those who could afford to pay for it.  That was, and is, notorious here, where private institutions such as the RIAM get large block grants which effectively subsidise all students, most of whom pay fees, and there is no assessment of equality at that institution that I know of, so essentially, all students are indiscriminately subsidised, in a country where quality music education may be difficult to find and expensive to fund, regardless of income.  It would help an awful lot if some kind of survey was done in remaining funded institutions to measure funding distribution.  It might, unfortunately, not act in the interests of grant applications if it were found that the vast majority of its beneficiaries were well capable of self-funding their own services.  This probably acts as a deterrent to assessment, but one that music education will sooner or later have no choice but to address.

  1. Notation is difficult to learn

This goes without saying.  There is an unfortunate assumption that musical ability is innate and so "easy" for some and impossible for others.  However, language learning is difficult.  Learning to read and write is difficult.  We don’t write off these skills just because some people find them more difficult.  This is more easy to challenge from Gill as the difficulty level of notation doesn't devalue it as a skill.  It is a useful skill, and more pertinently, for choirs and other ensembles, a time saving one.  Just as I'm sure nobody would back a Pavarotti today who needed to be shut in a room with a coach for weeks on end to memorise a score, it's not always feasible to produce line tapes or sectional rehearsals for non-readers.  In fact doing so can bore fluent sight readers and risk losing them.  It goes without saying, of course, that this is a matter of style also - it is normal for classically trained performers doing classical music to read or learn from a score.  I've even noticed a creeping practice in recent years, amongst very seasoned professionals, of bringing back scores into performances.

Gill suggests that notational reading skills are overemphasised in musical education practice.  I am in two minds about this.  On one hand, a low level of attainment in notation is problematic even when trying to learn pop songs that are written out.  There isn't a classical improvising tradition (except among organists) which is taught and so it's not a common skill.  I think what Gill is getting at here is that a lot of learners just want to play music that they know and like.  Her point that this writes off many capable performers is one I'm I can't disagree with: there is no doubt that a good many performers are not necessarily great readers.  Sight reading is a quite high level skill that probably isn't necessary for all learners to master, although it is definitely an essential skill for professionals.  There is a point in questioning whether or not it should be so much of a focus for all, given the low level of resources.

  1. Inability to read notation fluently results in exclusion

However, her next point, that this is a point of exclusion, unfortunately, I think is quite correct.  The ability to read, and in particular to fluently sight-read is even for amateur participation, a barrier to entry that may not truly be essential.  I know in choral circles much time is spent on "note bashing" for those who "don't learn their lines" and its often implicit that this is the fault of people not using the line tapes that much time is expended upon.  This can create a pressure to exclude non sight-readers from even amateur groups as so much time is needed to bring them up to standard, which often is done by other members in their own free time.  As I've mentioned earlier, the budgets professionally for this probably no longer exist and so it is probably creeping into amateur performing groups also.  Is it, however, a form of exclusion?  Sadly, yes it is.

While it might seem useful and sensible to restrict participation in amateur performance to those most capable of efficiently putting together good quality performances, doing so has the unintended consequence of creating a barrier for those who feel "rejected" by the music system.  For many years I believed otherwise, that it was possible to filter out "nuisances" from amateur groups who were disruptive or lacked sufficient ability to put together a good performance without consequence.  Later on in life, I realise what effect this has: it hurts those excluded very deeply, and creates lifelong psychological obstacles to accepting classical music in their lives at all.  Such people decide music is "not for them", because that is the message that they receive, whether it is intended or not.  We forget that these are also music lovers who support institutions generously.

I've personal experiences of this: long winded, angry letters from choir members who felt put out at just not being empowered by me in ways previous conductors did, to discovering that the older student being kicked out of a "respectable" heavily state funded institution to make way for a younger student of mine to progress to better things was in fact, my own brother.  In the latter case, a complaint exposing the appalling injustice sent to the head of that institution more or less resulting in a cover-up to facilitate the tutors original decision (which of course confirmed a belief I'd previously had that the institution's audition system for entry was a sham).  Of course one of the most infamous, and deliberately erased from collective Irish musical history, scenarios, is that when the then Dublin Grand Opera Society professionalised, it "sacked" its entire amateur chorus and volunteer body, sending the message to a generation of opera supporters that they were not "good enough" for it, resulting in ticket sales that fell to as little as 25% of box office within a few years, because effectively, the unpaid amateurs were the backbone of that institution, which collapsed 20 years later after losing its grant.  I remember letters to newspapers, calls to radio stations, hurt all around.  My feeling at the time was (having experienced the painfully difficult group who dominated such institutions in choirs) that the DGOS were probably right in flushing out an overpowered claque in the interests of better standards, but I didn't understand the concept of Goodwill, which was lost for a generation as a result of the actions, and probably contributed to the apathy when the organisation collapsed in the wake of grant refusal in 2010.  As for the brother: the result is intergenerational, he's decided that his own children will not be sent to music lessons, ever, as he does not want his own children to be treated as he was.

I think successful people in a competitive profession are never the best people to talk about exclusion and rejection.  Those who have survived a difficult process of elimination and are able to reap the benefits of getting through the many filters and barriers that prevent most from undertaking this career may not be the best to speak about the power structures, because although they may not believe it, they are the status quo.

Is this a form of elitism.  Of course it is.  It demands honest surveying and monitoring of who "does" music, how it is paid for, if it is subsidised and if and how funding is earmarked (or not) for those at a disadvantage.  If it is not, why not?  If this continues to be ignored as it currently is, it will eventually end up as huge funding cuts with the funds redirected towards "socially responsible" programmes that do address diversity concerns.

  1. Theory and notation is difficult and acts as a barrier to progression

Gill criticises the ABRSM examination policy of demanding theory levels (I'm not sure what it is now, but you used to need a minimum of grade 5 theory to pass upper level practical exams) - and suggests this downgrades creativity and enjoyment - I categorically agree with this.  There has always been pressure to "do well in exams" as a kind of competitive game that undermines simply performing for the sake of it, even just for oneself.  This can undermine a student's motivation if it is simply another achievement to chalk off a list.  Again, there are shades of using academic ability as a measure that might be disadvantaging some learners: or as Gill puts it, "not only a wealthy elite presiding over music, but an academic one too."

This I cannot disagree with.  Gill implicitly says this is wrong, but there is no doubt whatsoever that there is a power structure which preserves its own interests over that of others.  In this case, it explicitly excludes those who don't have theoretical levels of literacy from upper level exams.  That has been the case for a long time.  I know my students struggled with theory, as most of them did not have educational opportunity at school to get them to this level.  Here we had the RIAM exam system which meant we could bypass this.  However I did get questions from parents from time to time about sitting ABRSM exams, which I explained they needed grade 5 theory to take upper exams.  In all honesty, for a student with a moderate to good level of reading, grade 5 theory is easy, but for many it isn't.

Now many professional educators will argue that it is symptomatic of poor quality music education that many students don't learn to read music and I agree.  I agree because the bulk of my students were inherited from other teachers who didn't focus on getting their notational skills to that level, and I found it common to find students who had pretty much memorised pieces who couldn't really read music at all, at quite advanced practical performance levels.  Trying to bring up their notational skill level at this point is a struggle.  It is a worthwhile one, but that is difficult to get through to those who have got so far without that skill.  So I am uncomfortable with the implicit suggestion of the sector that such students can and should be "fixed."  It's no different in my opinion to attempting to "fix" students with any learning difficulty.  The pedagogies I used - in particular Kodaly techniques - were helpful in overcoming some of the problems of low literacy but the problem for many kids is that if they are well ahead musically, they tend to struggle against efforts to repair their notational skills.  Its time consuming, and difficult.  It does need other approaches not evident in typical classical education which remains blissfully largely outside the acceptance of learning disability and need to cater for wide ranges of ability.

However, what is missing here is that recording acts as a substitute to notation and this "works" to a large extent for a lot of people.  I think it's fair to argue that the visual representations produced by wave format based computer programs has removed the need for notation for many performers.  It's not a feasible alternative for classical forms, but it seems to be for non-classical.  I think it is fair to say that alternatives such as computer programs and solfege provide useful alternatives for those who can't read notation directly that probably could be more accepted.

  1. Gill correctly recognises that the aim and objective for most learners is simply to play music they like

Perhaps this is the most challenging point of all.  Music we like often means music that is not classical.  I understand that there is a deep underlying political demand to subsume to the interests of "the market" which means preferring popular, marketable music, that classical music challenges.  However most people have a reverse view, where classical music is "the establishment" and popular forms not.  While this is patently not the case, it does remain the case that state funding goes almost exclusively to classical formats, often on the basis that it is "non-commercial" (see the flare up started by Nialler9 over Music Network funding in Ireland for a good account of what this actually means).

"We can play our favourite songs. That is all I ever wanted from music"

Nowhere in the article does Gill suggest that traditional music pedagogy should be thrown out, and she decries the funding deficit that pushes much of this back into the private sector.  However, there is a gap, and most people who want to learn music do so for pleasure.  Excluding people on a perceived lack of ability isn't considered to be healthy in other subjects, so why is it so accepted in music education?  In my years of teaching choirs, for example, I heard endless stories of people being humiliated for their lack of ability, which often led to a lifelong distrust of music professionals, regardless of where the slight occurred.  That doesn't even start to mention that the admissions systems of many of the professionally run (and heavily state subsidised) music colleges are heavily weighted in favour of the wealthy and well attached, and that many of the extensive prize funds entirely ignore the financial status of recipients.  The UK may be ahead of some countries here, but the reaction to the original article does suggest that there is a considerable distance to be travelled to the point where raw ability and not ability to pay is considered.  

Quality of education

A core issue with the entire field of music education, especially as taught in western countries, is the emphasis and dominance of traditional methodologies.  Music tuition is largely a practical approach, it is taught mostly through instrumental and sometimes vocal practice, mostly on a one to one basis and as an "extra" subject.  The academic subject dangles uneasily between the traditional curriculum and this practice, a problem which for many years manifested itself in Ireland as making the subject almost impossible to get a high grade in without an extensive extra-curricular tuition regime.  (The solution to this was to attempt to introduce more non-classical performance into the curriculum, which never really sorted out the problem).  There is a surprisingly resistance to qualitative studies on music education such as this one, possibly from a fear that highlighting poor educational values and outcomes will only marginalise the subject further (and of course lose it yet more funding, which disempowers workers in the sector still further).

It is intriguing that a quick search for the terms "music education quality" on an academic website for peer-reviewed articles starts off with the same "woolly" descriptiveness excellently described by Fell in his article above: "Extended Music Education Enhances the Quality of School Life" - again the self-reinforcing idea that early music education generates indeterminate benefits in other areas of life (thus implying that it is not of value in itself).  Very few articles turned up that considered music education from a critical theory perspective (this is a welcome exception) which challenge the established but often uncritically privileged viewpoints that frequently dominate discourse around music education (and often, practice).  Such thoughts are common in the US, but not in the UK.

Of course, classical music often finds itself straddling an awkward gap where discourse around "social justice" is concerned: the gender gap in influence being one point that is repeatedly challenged (and the response that there are few women conductors or composers because women are not good enough is no longer accepted), but the question of how funding distributions at underage levels is socially distributed is a difficult point.  I think it might be useful to start to address this in a more meaningful way, by demanding empirical evidence from programmes and institutions about their own measures in social responsibility.  There is a challenge to be overcome in dealing with the fears that assessing these would produce difficult to justify evidence about the extent to which state funding is benefitting the better off, but the longer this is put off, the more difficult it will be to tackle when demands are made from less sympathetic administrators.  Simply refusing to address this now will make the consequences worse in time to come.


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