Liquid modern music education

Martin Fautley@DrFautley 41m41 minutes ago Coatbridge, Scotland

Not sure if this link will work, but the excellent @JLloydWebber vs Toby Young well worth watching …

Thanks to Martin for this.

It feels a bit like a re-run of C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures Debate initiated in 1959 –

Now the debate is given context by the introduction of the Ebacc, which, while including the humanities, excludes the arts. The fear is that schools in their desire to ensure high ‘performance’ will give scant attention to the arts in the curriculum.

Apart from a national campaign to include the arts in the Ebacc, leading to recent debate in parliament, the University of Sussex is surveying secondary school music teacher to gain a clearer picture of provision for music education in the light of the Ebacc factor.

At the same time Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber has announced a £2.8 million support for instrumental learning in four London secondary schools.

This level and concentration of philanthropy dwarfs the patronage available through Arts Council’s funding of the nation’s Music Hubs.

Where there are heavily sponsored philanthropic programmes of instrumental provision in secondary schools, taking the form of whole class instrumental learning, it is not uncommon for all pupils to receive two music lessons weekly in years 7, 8 and 9.

In other places pupils can expect to receive one lesson weekly in years 7 and 8, and possibly 9.

In other places music may be part of a carousel serving to reduce time further.

So, is the future of music education to be built upon philanthropic models?

Might such examples of flourishing become contagious alongside the growth of philanthropic capitalism and the privatisation of music education more generally?

State sponsored music education has after all been with us for a relatively short time. And in a liquid modern world it can easily melt into air.

Music education’s existential strand

I was recently involved in interviewing a prospective PGCE Religious Education student. I enjoyed this. You see, while I have sought to contribute to the process of re-conceptualizing music education, I have long been interested in the way in which the process of re-thinking RE has been developing. Is it a subject that is comforting, therapeutic, socially and personally harmonising or one that demands critical attention, and that is disruptive and essentially philosophic in nature?

During the course of the interview my RE expert companion explained to the candidate, and myself, that the RE curriculum had in recent times two strands, knowledge about religion and ‘knowledge for the pupil – the existential bit.’

It was this second strand that interested me. Here was a subject that recognized what was important to the pupil’s state of being in the world, their making sense of themselves. And clearly, this wasn’t thought of as some soft, therapeutic effect. No, much more significant. Why is this that I am learning important to me in my life? So, an existential strand.

In my provocation at the recent Listen, Imagine, Compose event and in response to Fran, Ruth and Sarah, the three researching teachers, I picked up on their references to the impulse to compose.

I noted that the teachers made reference to ‘the inclination to compose’; ‘the confidence to compose’; ‘why would you compose?’; ‘more meaningful compostions’; why?’ All of this I took to be a concern that the pupil had both a need and reason to compose, that they were meaning makers. They were being viewed as not merely satisfying a compositional brief but engaged in creating work that was important to their making sense of themselves in the world.

For these teachers this meant that they had an important role to play in providing stimulus and ongoing nurture to ideas and meanings.

While we hear a lot about pupils’ musical engagement, their empowerment, their expressive voice, it is rare to hear about their musical impulse, their impulse to compose/make and where this comes from. So, I asked:

Why are children expected to compose music without first experiencing a felt provocation to do so?

Do such provocations lead to composing music that has stronger character and thicker meanings?

Why does music education have so little human interest?

Why do music teachers teach musical skills without rich content?

Consider this example.

On the day I gave the example Stuart’s composition of 1988 titled ‘Forty Years of Peace’ bringing together fragments from Dire Straits, echoes of Russian Cold War rocket launching signals and much more into an authentic musical expression. Stuart’s impulse was strong.

Ok. It can’t always be like this. But, perhaps that existential strand of education, living its sub-terrainian and often forbidden existence, might sometimes be recognized, harnessed. And I’m not sure that the inherent-delineated meaning dialectic necessarily does it.

Back to that RE interview. The high spot was our three way debate about how it all started – big bang, creationism etc. and how this would be mediated for pupils. Do you know

First Access and musical composition

In last week’s blog I attempted to place First Access in the context of a general music education for all children. I proposed that the year-long engagement of all yr3 pupils in their string playing had provided a worthy musical foundation and a set of ‘serving competencies’ on which they could now build. It would provide a valuable basis for their development as composers of music, for example. And it was the matter of composing music that I was involved in last Friday.

The Listen, Imagine, Compose project [1] was holding an away day sparked into life by Pam Burnard’s creative metaphors and through the presentations of three secondary school teachers who had embarked on programmes of action research and who were now reporting on it.

Fran, Ruth and Sarah were addressing important questions: why compose; how to nurture the confidence to compose; sustain pupil’s journeys as composers; achieve more meaningful composition work; understand the significance of collaborative composition. These were some of the matters enquired into and that the teachers were exceptionally articulate about.

It’s not easy here to do justice to the ways in which the teachers were involved in intense levels of reflective practice. (Their powerpoints will no doubt be available later.) But it was clear that these teachers were changing, learning – and their pupils were too. Both teachers and their pupils were coming to understand what it meant to compose music, and it seemed to me that the climate of their classrooms was changing too. Conversations were becoming richer. Dialogic practices were emerging.

Of course, I may be over interpreting to soothe my own predilections. However, together the teachers illustrated well the power of carefully conceived action research to bring about change and to secure ongoing reflective action.

Fran, Ruth and Sarah provided the meat on which we could chew for the rest of the day.

In the afternoon and before small group discussion of key themes, Kirsty Devaney tuned us up for debate by leading us in a whole-group interthinking exercise by presenting us with ‘talking points’ (or at least that’s what I call them).

Talking points are not easy to create and I thought the question ‘Is bird song music?’ an especially good one.

Kirsty asked us to literally show where we stood on this. Those responding ‘yes’ stood at one end of the room and the ‘noes’ at the other.

I quickly decided ‘no, bird song is not music’. I had in mind that music was humanly organised sound. That was that.

However, in recent days I have thought about the question again and recall reading a book called ‘The Music between Us: is music a universal language?’ [2] in which there is discussion of animal musicality. On further reflection I think the issue might revolve around whether we believe there to be a boundary between the human and the animal. I like a music education that involves thinking about music, whether about how it is made, practised, what it’s for or what it might mean.

One of the small-group discussion points that followed addressed ‘listening and the development of aural imagination’.

To imagine music is to think (bring to mind) what is not present, what is absent but that could be present. This was my starting point.

My suggestion that asking a pupil to imagine the trumpet that was being listened to be heard as a clarinet was a bit too much for other members of my group.

I had thought of this example after hearing from Hertfordshire music teacher Lizzie and about how she gets her pupils to use (perhaps its training) the aural imagination. There they are hovering over a xylophone and yes they can be asked not only to imagine what the sound they are about to make will be like but also asked to think about the sound they are about to make as something quite different to what they know the xylophone is capable of. In playing the xylophone can they, for example, imagining the sound of a flute. All very fanciful you will say.

By the way, can you catch your earworm and manipulate it?

I wondered whether pupils even know that they can imagine music. Could they be taught/trained to imagine music on the way to music lessons?

I was clearly in the wrong group as I later learnt that another group had been talking about audiation and coming much closer to my starting point. It was only a starting point for thinking about aural imagination and I recognise the danger of reducing such a vast and dynamic idea.

It’s good that days like this don’t seek to find answers or even agreement. Just get us thinking, that’s enough.

And remember First Access has a place within a much bigger scheme that is a general music education and where composing music might even have a central place.


[1] See

[2] Higgins, K. (2012) The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language? The University of Chicago Press.