Thoughts on the National Plan for Music Education
When the Henley review was published I was in the middle of two major education projects, one for the Royal Opera House involves young people creating fanfares to recorded by the ROH orchestra and used in place of the interval bell during performances. The other involved working with a primary school in Kirklees to create music from the sound that rhubarb makes when it is grown in the dark, it has a characteristic sound that is only found in this part of Yorkshire where they grow it in special sheds. I remember thinking that what was missing from the Henley review was a sense of the 'width' of music, in my case ranging from a full symphony orchestra with a world famous conductor playing music composed by teenagers to the ephemeral sounds of plants growing, captured and manipulated using technology and ending in an event that included cake as well as sounds. When reading Henley I couldn't help thinking that when it talks of 'music' it means one of these but not the other.
Fast forward to the National Plan for Music Education ........ as a colleague pointed out, the second paragraph contains the names of 11 composers so things are looking good, I thought. Lots of talk of leaning instruments, singing , progressing to the 'next level of excellence', whole-class ensembles etc but precious little about creating, devising , composing and listening.
Don't get me wrong, performance is great, its very much a PART of what music is about, but there seems to be an abandoning of the idea of creating, devising and improvising in favour of music being an art of replication and as for listening? Do we really need to do that when we are all leaping about singing our hearts out?
Counting words isn't a sound research methodology I know. In these kinds of documents the word 'performance' is more likely to be followed by 'indicator' than 'involving a group of 16-year-olds singing and playing a mixture of instruments'! BUT it is interesting to see what is included in the plan........
Here's a (very unscientific ) breakdown of what's there in numbers of words ........
Compose 6 , Composer 1, Improvise 0, improvisation 1, perform 54, performance 33, concert 6, gig 0, festival 7, devise 0, score 1,notate 1, play 27, record 23, listen 11, listening 8, hear 6, see 31, create 9, rehearse 2, composing 5...........
What this indicates to me is a hole at the bottom: music is a sonic art; it needs to be created from sound. It is assumed (as it was in Henley) that we all mean the same thing when we talk about 'music'! Put simply, we don't. The activities of composing, improvising and devising music are fundamental to what we should be doing to ignore them means we are in danger of ignoring vast amounts of musical activity that can inspire and educate.
There is much talk of 'bringing it all together' and how music education is somehow fragmented , how we need to avoid 'duplication' and how 'inefficient' it is having several organisations working in the same area etc.
If we translated this away from the arts to other areas of life that people regard as significant then it becomes ridiculous.........
Why do we have so many football teams? They all essentially do the same thing , some places even have two or more. Why do we have so many different types of beer? They are all made from the same things, why not centralise their production and save lots of money in the process? (actually this is what did happen and it took a while for those who make beer to realise that it was not what people wanted). As with beer, cheese and football diversity is a strength; 'duplication' can be a great opportunity for a wider variety of ways in to music making.
We really do deserve better than this, aside from the maths (aha I spy an elephant?) of which I'm no expert, there's little here that really communicates vision or inspiration. This COULD be a great opportunity to place music in all its diverse and fascinating forms at the heart of education but I fear that it will be another opportunity missed.
Music can be a huge ocean of possibilities - do we really think that this is the right way to build ourselves a boat ?
Do we really think that the Arts Council is best placed to decide what constitutes good practice?
Do we really think that the laudable aim of children from all backgrounds and every part of England taking part in musical activity will be served by this plan?
Are we happy to abandon composition, improvisation and devising processes in favour of a music education that seems little more than a 'talent quest'?
The NPME talks about music being 'a valuable academic subject' but this plan seems to ignore the whole process of thinking, imagining and conceptualising that is a vital part of so many musical practices, not just in the Western classical tradition.
Politicians like to see smiling children playing and singing (preferably 'proper' instruments like violins and clarinets!) but music can be much more than entertainment (not that there's anything wrong with being entertained !) but I can't see much of that here.
to (mis)quote Christopher Small ........'Music is too important to be left to the politicians, and in recognising this fact we strike a blow at the experts' domination not only of our music but also of our very lives'.....
12 December 2011
Duncan Chapman is a freelance Composer, Sound Artist, Educator and Performer who regularly works with many leading music organisations in Britain including The Philharmonia Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Royal Festival Hall, CBSO, BCMG, Wigmore Hall, Huddersfield Contemporary music festival,Buxton Festival, Royal Opera House, Aldeburgh Music,BBC and Sound and Music.