On Music and the Arts

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“It helped me with my algebra. It helps with your interpretation and learning of different languages. You’re working as a group. It uses every single facet of what you’re taught at school. Yet it’s seen as one of the softer subjects, which is a travesty.” Myleene Klass in The Guardian

As a child, music was a huge part of my primary school experience – I was part of the choir, learnt the keyboard (the teacher eventually let me be her assistant and help teach new students!) and also played in the recorder club.

During assemblies, our music teacher would stand on her chair, hunched over, wildly playing the piano, whilst passionately encouraging us to ‘Sing louder!’. We would usually cover our hands in PVC glue before these assemblies – is there anything more joyous than singing your heart our while peeling and picking glue off your hands? The lyrics were beautifully hand-written on acetate and displayed via a whirring overhead projector.

I still remember:

• He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands
• Lord of the Dance
• Who Built the Ark?
• Give Me Oil in My Lamp
• Make Me a Channel of Your Peace
• Kum Ba Yah
• This Little Light of Mine
• Think of A World Without Any Flowers (this one always filled me with such sadness!)
• The Animals Went In Two By Two Hurrah!
• Keep Me Travelling Along With You (sung every year when the a year 6 children left!)
• Were you there? (“I was cold/I was NAKED*/ Were you there? Were you there?” *snigger)

The sheer joy of singing, chanting, clapping and rhythm permeated my primary school.

I was also lucky that my parents could afford for me to have piano lessons and that I had a talented teacher, who in my teens, allowed my to write terrible songs about teenage heartbreak and would sit and help me compose these songs on the piano. We would discuss the feel of the piece, the emotions, and he would suggest some chords and then show me how to improvise and create a song. I mean, they were awful, but as a teenager experiencing some pretty horrific homophobic bullying, music was a cathartic release.

When I first began teaching, I had no idea how to successfully deliver a music lesson. Luckily, I had a wonderful NQT mentor, who taught some music lessons for my class and let me watch and join in, allowing me to absorb everything she was so skilfully doing. The school arranged for a specialist teacher to come in and teach music to the class, which was glorious. We also had music teachers who delivered stunning lessons (during my PPA), that I often chose to sit in, observe and learn from. At one school I taught at, we had a talented music teacher, who every lesson, somehow got a whole class of children playing different instruments, singing, composing and effectively working as a band! They would perform with passion and enthusiasm for me at the end of their lessons with him. In one school, there was a brilliant singing teacher who ran all the assemblies – to hear an entire school of children, who have been taught singing by a professional music teacher, is quite something – raw, uplifting, joyous and moving.

However, as the years passed, school budget cuts soon meant that I was left delivering music lessons myself with no support, little secure subject knowledge and equipped only with an old box of broken instruments and an outdated scheme of work. I would suggest that being able to play the piano and knowing how to actually teach music to children are two very different skills. Despite my passion for music and the fact that I can read music and play the piano to Grade 5 standard, I don’t feel like my lessons ever captured that early magic that I spoke of at the beginning of my career, nor were they as effective and inspiring!
music 1I will certainly be interested in seeing the design and scope of a new music curriculum and feel that Nick Gibb’s comments in The Times have opened up a discourse about the provision of the arts in our schools, which is surely a valuable and positive step in the right direction? It’s certainly great to hear that a panel of musicians and educationalists will be involved in drawing up a new music curriculum. We cannot afford to side-line or ignore the arts.

I do wonder, however, if there’s more to a music curriculum than just being able to read the notes and being able to play an instrument? I can read music quite fluently, but my piano playing is now quite clunky – the dog usually curls in a ball on the sofa and sighs when I sit down at the piano.

For example, anyone who knows me will know of my unapologetic love for Mariah Carey, who has 18 Number One hits, and has sold over 200 million records worldwide. I won’t be swayed by anyone who questions her talent as a songwriter and I love that I’ve finally been able to include her in one of my blogs! Mariah Carey has spoken about how she cannot read music. Instead, she sits with a piano player and seasoned musicians, sings the melodies, harmonies, hooks and lyrics to them and together they craft a song. Her song-writing process is quite fascinating. Her songs speak of heartbreak, difference, diversity, self-belief, feeling like an outsider and the redemptive power of love. They have spoken to millions, comforted many and become the soundtrack to our lives.

My rather convoluted point here is that we must provide a music curriculum that is accessible and relevant to every child. What about the children and families who can’t afford lessons or afford to hire instruments? What about those who might be interested in writing songs and crafting lyrics or those interested in music programming and the use of technology? What about those who want to learn an instrument, and are talented but can only play by ear? What about the children who want to be involved in music production or music management? What about those who just want to FEEL the music or who are inspired to paint something in response to music? What about those who just want to join in and escape for a while?

These are just some thoughts and questions that I hope will be considered when designing a new music curriculum.

I wonder, also, if teachers and schools will be consulted about the pressures and constraints they face when delivering a music curriculum? Even with the pressure of testing and a focus on exam results, teachers do a brilliant job at trying to deliver a wide, robust, creative curriculum. But how will we develop and use our teachers who are experts in the field of music or those teachers who do not feel comfortable delivering music lessons? What about funding?

Recently, an article in The Guardian, had this to say:

“The poll of primary teachers by YouGov found that two-thirds of the nearly 400 surveyed said there was less arts provision now than in 2010, when the coalition government took office, while just 7% said there was more.

Similarly, 49% said the quality of arts provision in the primary schools they had worked in had worsened since 2010, compared with 14% who said it had improved.

More than half of the teachers also said they did not have the resources or support to deliver “high quality” arts education, with a higher proportion among teachers in the north of England, while just 20% said they had the resources they required.”

Teachers have fought against the narrowing of the curriculum for a long time – we’ve always known about the value of creativity and freedom and the life-changing impact of the arts on our children. We often work in desperate circumstances to deliver an inspiring curriculum, that includes music and the arts. Let’s hope that we can continue to provide these wonderful opportunities, and that this newly proposed music curriculum will provide the right kind of support, backing, funding, trust, expertise, freedom, time and space that our arts curriculum, and our children, so desperately need and deserve.

Further reading:

John Dexter’s article ‘If music be the food of love – it should be at the heart and soul of a school’ is much more informative than mine and definitely worth a read!

‘The Benefits of Music Education’ by Laura Lewis Brown

‘Arts education funding is essential for young people to showcase their creative talent’ by Grace Fearon 

An excellent, thoughtful blog ‘Traditional Primary Music’ with lots of articles and resources by Dan Guerrard

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