Nick Gibb is right about many things to do with music education, but good intentions need to be paid for

The Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, published an article on Friday, in the Times (‘Forget Spotify: I want every child to leave primary school able to read music’, The Times, 11 January 2019). This is behind a paywall, but Gibb has also posted the article on his blog so all can read it.

He describes being introduced to classical music at primary school, through various pieces designed in part for children by Britten, Saint-Saëns and Prokofiev, then singing works of Handel, Parry and Allegri in choir, but realises rightly that fewer children are benefiting from similar experiences, and with that in mind worked with various institutions to devise a recommended playlist. Gibb also absolutely notes that classical music is certainly not the only tradition or the only one to teach, also drawing attention to jazz and folk, music from Senegalian and Indian traditions, and the power of mass choral singing. He goes on to say:

I want every child to leave primary school able to read music, understanding sharps and flats, to have an understanding of the history of music, as well as having had the opportunity to sing and to play a musical instrument.

Noting that little was affected in terms of music education by 2012 reforms to the national curriculum, he expresses the following worry:

I am concerned that too few pupils are benefiting from a sufficiently rigorous approach to it. Like so many things, music requires, patience, dedication and application. No one ever woke up one morning playing the guitar like Eric Clapton.

I could not agree more with all the above sentiments, and deplore the fact that focused and rigorous musical education, or exposure to music over and above what might be encountered on an everyday basis (which Gibb frames in terms of ‘Spotify playlists’), are increasingly unavailable to all except a few, mostly those who are privately educated. And of course, as those who followed the 2017 public debates on musical notation, absolutely agree with him that every child should be able to leave primary school being able to read music (except of course those who have special learning needs or difficulties, but the same could be said about any type of reading). For more on this, see the response to the 2017 article by Charlotte C. Gill on music notation, and my follow-up article in The Conversation (‘The insidious class divide in music teaching’, 17 May 2017).

Gibb continues by noting a new panel of musicians and educationalists who he has tasked to draw up a new musical curriculum for primary schools. Details of this panel can be found here, an impressive list of individuals. He also notes a £1.33 million funding boost to music education hubs.

All of this is good and springs from the best intentions. But there is more to it than that. There are wider issues of cuts to music in secondary schools, not least because of pressure on pupils to take subjects in the EBacc. Nonetheless, however important this subject is, Gibb is speaking here about primary schools, so I will stick to those. A facile tweet from children’s author Michael Rosen asked ‘has he [Gibb] consulted with music teachers on this matter? Is Gibb an expert on music education? Can he read music? What has it done for him?’ No Schools Minister will ever be an expert on all areas of education, and Gibb has made clear that he is consulting a wide range of individuals involved in music education. Whether he himself can or cannot read music I do not know (I would suspect so on the basis of some of the choral repertoire he mentions having sung), but that is irrelevant as to whether he wants others to be able to learn it.

A group of musicians published a letter in the Observer in May 2018 expressing huge concern about the decline in instrumental music teaching in primary schools. In response the Department of Education noted that they were investing almost £500m in music and arts education programmes between 2016 and 2020. £300m of this was for music education hubs, and £120m for the Music and Dance Scheme, which enables some to attend specialist music schools. This amounted in 2018/19 to £75 million of ring-fenced funding to the hubs. But as detailed in an important survey from the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), wider cuts to their budgets greatly limit schools’ ability to buy in services or replace and repair instruments, while excessive pressure for accountability in other subjects, especially maths and English, lead to music’s being marginalised within the curriculum. Many respondents noted the decline in the number of staff in school music departments, or how music teaching is allocated to other types of teachers, or conversely music teachers are having to teach outside their subject area. Others commented on how the hubs remain short of cash, and instrumental tuition is often offered just for one year, in the context of schools in which little else goes on musically. Whole Class Ensemble Teaching (WCET), has been found increasingly to be available for less than one term, while there are few routes to progress beyond this to further musical education after WCET has ended. Access to singing teaching was also found to have declined.

Gibb’s intentions are good, but clearly more is needed. If he is serious about his wishes, money needs to be found and ring-fenced for dedicated music teachers within primary schools, over and above what is provided by the hubs. Furthermore, there should be proper tests to ensure such teachers have the fundamental music skills, including notational and aural skills, which alas are no longer necessarily guaranteed even by possession of  a music degree. Teachers who cannot themselves read music are obviously unable to teach children to do so. I hope very much the committee will take account of the concerns of organisations such as the ISM and others who have been looking at these issues for some time, and in light of their recommendations Gibb or any successor will match their intentions with the appropriate resources and provision of time within the curriculum.

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Some thoughts on classical vs. popular music from pianist Peter Donohoe

The pianist Peter Donohoe recently posted an interesting piece of text on social media, in response to a question posed on Quora: ‘Is classical music truly “superior” to the popular music of any era? And, if so, why is it?’. There has been many a debate within musicological circles on this issue, not least as relate to the shaping of curricula for music education. In Anglophone musicology, it is very rare to find many scholars who would argue for any primary importance for classical music, with the result often being that it is becoming increasingly marginalised in a good deal of institutions. Those who have read this blog will know this is not a situation I favour, and have posted various things relating to the subject: see for example this set of responses to a radio talk given by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on a related subject, also another set of responses to an article by Stella Duffy on the arts, elitism and community (and this follow-up), not to mention the debate on teaching musical notation in schools following an article by Charlotte C. Gill. I have also posted some related articles on musical canons, and this on deskilling in musical education.

The dominant ideologies within academia are by no means necessarily shared more widely in the musical world – indeed can be quite antagonistic. I believe it is very important to encourage a wider discourse, involving many who care about music, on these subjects, and so with permission I am posting Donohoe’s text here, and also part of a response of my own drawing on a paper I gave on a few occasions in 2018 in musicological populism.

I welcome further responses from any angle (but would request that people refrain from any personalised insults or abuse towards others, and just address the arguments).

 

The following is Donohoe’s response:

This is a reply to recent tweet asking me my opinion of this: The tweeter in question asks: ‘Could it just be an era thing?’

It is only related to the era in that the determination with which the mediocre seeks to defeat the excellent is gaining ground.

However good pop music is – I include all the other brackets such as rock, country, blues, etc – by the side of the best classical music, it is always primarily commercialised, it is always primarily aimed at a majority audience, it is always the product of less skill on the part of both performer and listener, and it is always short-lived – even 40 years, as in the lasting effect of The Beatles is nothing compared to the greatest classical music. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles were all fantastic in their field, but not in the same field as the best classical music.

By what authority or standard of measurement is Jimi Hendrix the equal of Franz Liszt? The question also applies all the other absurd claims made in this piece. Dylan’s lyrics are more complex and deeper than the libretto of Mozart’s operas? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as complex as a Haydn string quartet? The Beatles were every bit as ground-breaking as Beethoven. Give me a break – this is utter twaddle and has no basis in analysis. And who said greatness equates to complexity?

Pop music does not need to be taught as it is at its best a reactive protest against the status quo – in which case if it becomes part of the status quo it has no function – and at its worst it has considerably less content than most nursery rhymes, no harmonic grammar, no sense of shape, form and no skill. That it can be better than that is undoubtedly true, and I have a deep affection for certain pieces of pop music from across the years of my life, but to suggest that it equates to the best classical music is ridiculous, pretentious, and to my mind makes a mockery of popular culture, and its position in society.

 

The following is part of my response:

The arguments above about popular music being commercialised (with which I agree) would certainly make a significant body of musicologists unhappy, and they try to deny, that there is any real alternative. For example:

‘Although we live in a commercially dominated culture, the music industry, despite its many faults, more closely approaches a meritocracy and offers opportunities to a wider spectrum of artists than any other form of support – certainly more than the patronage systems of old. Music by women can continue to flourish in the public sphere, but only so long as it manages to sell tickets and recordings: the unexpected success of the Lilth Fair concerts, featuring exclusively female artists, confirmed not only the artistry of the participating musicians but also the willingness of a mass audience to support their efforts.’

Susan McClary, ‘Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millenium’, Signs, vol. 25, no. 4 (Summer 2000), pp. 1285-6.

 

‘…the condemnation of fusion for its commercial success drastically underestimates the vitality, subtlety, and expressiveness of the pop traditions that influenced David. It is nothing more than an antipopulist chauvinism that turns from the unacceptable view that “what sells is good” to the opposite and likewise unacceptable view that “what sells must be bad.”

And finally the contrast of commercial fusion with noncommercial earlier jazz amounts to elitism pure and simple, to a snobbish distortion of history by jazz purists attempting to insulate their cherished classics from the messy marketplace in which culture has always been negotiated. Those who advocate such a view should reread Ralph Ellison’s review of Blues People, where he reminded Baraka that even Bird and the other early boppers, the ne plus ultra for many critics of esoteric jazz intellectualism, “were seeking . . . a fresh form of entertainment which would allow them their fair share of the entertainment market” (1978:59). Or, in a different connection, they should read recent nonhagiographical music histories that have Beethoven hawking the same opus to three different publishers, or Mozart conniving, with a sad lack of savvy, at one music-business killing or another. Music created with an eye to eternal genius and blind to the marketplace is a myth of European Romanticism sustained by its chief offspring, modernism.’

Gary Tomlinson, ‘Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian signifies’, in Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds.), Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 82-3.

 
‘I’ve noticed that, when I go to conferences or similar events in continental Europe, people make the assumption that, because I’m interested in music, I must have an interest in and commitment to new music; that’s not an expectation about me in particular, but a taken-for-granted assumption about what it means to be seriously engaged in music. (In the UK or the USA, people make no such assumption.) [….] In my book, I referred briefly to critical theory in general and Adorno in particular, as a way of introducing one of the main intellectual strands of the ‘New’ musicology of the 1990s, but I made no direct link between Adorno’s critique and new music. In her commentary, Anne Boissière (2001, p. 32) picked this up, asking why I didn’t discuss ‘the problem of contemporary music which resists consumption’: instead, she complained, I made music sound as if it was just another commodity, and in this way passed up the opportunity to offer ‘a critical analysis of consumer society’. In which case, she asked, ‘what point is there in making reference to Adorno?’: if one’s critique isn’t motivated by moral or political commitment, as Adorno’s was, then what is there to it but nihilism?

Actually, the argument Boissière is putting forward here, and which other contributors also reflected, has a long and rather peculiar history. It originates in the conservative critique of the modern world—the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of ‘blood and soil’; Adorno’s critical theory might accordingly be seen as appropriating a conservative tradition in order to attack the right-wing ideology of his own day.’

Nicholas Cook, ‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), p. 257.

 
‘My contention is that petty capitalism – a term I take to encompass myriad small-scale form of entrepreneurial, commercial activity in culture – has been one of the key means by which progressive leftist, anti-racist, and resistant forms of culture, music, and art have been made possible: have been produced, circulated, and lived. It’s a despised category of economic activity and analysis, generally seen as collusive with capital, as politically irredeemable, an insignificant and ineffective in any meta-historical analysis. But with regard specifically to cultural activity it sits somewhere crucial between full-blown corporate capitalism and the quite different but just as marked forms of cultural, ideological, and aesthetic closure and policing that tend to characterize statist and other kinds of subsidized cultural institutions, whether in music, broadcasting or academia. I’ve researched statist cultural institutions rather deeply, as those who know my writings on IRCAM and the BBC will be aware. So my argument today is that while there is no necessary connection between progressive or politicized culture and these small-scale, entrepreneurial petty capitalist interventions – and in that sense there is no deterministic relation – there are, nonetheless, opportunities; they might be conceived as affordances or, better, in William Connolly’s fruitful phrase, indebted to complexity theory as pluri-potentialities. In terms of the possibility of new experimental, and alternative forms of production and circulation, informed by a politic of cultural production, we should be more aware of this category of activity and what it can achieve.’

Georgina Born, ‘On Music and Politics: Henry Cow, Avant-Gardism and its Discontents’, in Robert Adlington (ed.), Red Strains: Music and Communism Outside the Communist Bloc (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 64.