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Recently, an ex-student of mine telephoned me to say that he was at his wits’ end. As a secondary music teacher, he is doing great things in his high school – breadth and depth of repertoire, singing-based programmes and strong instrumental work. However, his children attending the local State primary school, are experiencing something quite different.
The children, aged five to 12, are given a teacher, who, despite having skills in only one discipline, must teach the same group of children music, dance, drama and visual arts. Often, this teacher is the classroom teacher who could, quite credibly, have no skills in any of the arts disciplines. How is this possible in a so-called educated country such as Australia?
Had these teachers been given four years of arts education preparation at university, with regularly scheduled classes amounting to at least 20 hours in each discipline, then the requirement to teach these subjects might be considered reasonable.
My ex-student’s concerns are further exacerbated when his children come home and tell him that “music has rhythm and beat” and that the two are “exactly the same thing” or that “minor keys tend to be soft and major keys tend to be loud”. This rubbishy, half-baked, ignorant, dangerous mumbo-jumbo is not dissimilar to the claptrap spouted by certain politicians when they are questioned on medical issues! How have we arrived at this state of affairs?
We have arrived at this state of affairs because there is a national obsession with raising standards in literacy and numeracy to the point where we are actually going backwards by excluding from the curriculum the very lifeblood of literacy and numeracy – namely, the arts.
Teachers are being asked to become more accountable and less responsible. The time they spend on accounting for their actions, the testing and assessing, reduces the responsibilities they have to the minds, hearts, spirits and imaginations of the children; things which can’t be ticked off and easily assessed.
Is there hope? Yes, there is. Recently I was in Perth visiting two schools: one private, one state. The music in both schools is of an incredibly high standard. Many of the brightest and best in both schools are music students. The schools are not obsessed with literacy and numeracy and the teachers are, without exception, all hugely responsible individuals.
Can we fix this lamentable circumstance and stop treating our children as if they are all inherently stupid? Yes, we can. We need a universal recognition that music education should be a mandatory aspect of a child’s early education and that this education should be delivered by a qualified and trained specialist music teacher or someone who has had at least 240 hours of training in an undergraduate or post-graduate programme.
We need to acknowledge that musical literacy is a fundamental right of every child, and that improvising and composing are also fundamental components of a musically balanced education and at the forefront of the reasons for doing music.
We need to be wary of those who would suggest that music is just for fun and should be about mucking around with instruments. Is medicine for fun and just about mucking around with surgical instruments?
We also need to know that all music has some value, even the worst kind of music. Irrespective of the origins, genres or types of bad music, we can learn from them because the good examples shine out like beacons and grow ever brighter.
We also need to stop pitting method against method and start talking about music teaching: I’m a Kodály teacher, I’m an Orff teacher; style against style; I’m a jazz teacher, I’m a contemporary teacher, I’m a classical teacher... In a school, we should teach as much of all music as we can. If we do it properly, students can make up their own minds as to where their loyalties and preferences will lie.
Be assured, however, that the alarm bells are ringing loudly and clearly. You can play a part by advocating for change. Send an email now to a politician letting her or him know that because of the current state of education, her or his constituents are in real and present danger of never realising their full potentials. What do they suggest as a remedy?