I have always been passionately interested in education, and within that, of course, music education.
I am a trained generalist primary school teacher, and have many ideas about the quality of training of classroom teachers in preparation for teaching what I believe to be the most difficult subject in the school curriculum – music. I say this because every child comes to school with an agenda about music, which certainly would rarely include musical literacy and classical music, so that a high school music teacher really has little hope of presenting music seriously from scratch.
Margaret Wright. Photograph © Kim Pham, University of Canberra
I believe music literacy should be taught quite early in primary schools, so that by the time the students reach secondary school, they can at least read and have a knowledge of some of the great composers and works.
I liken this to the teaching of reading – in secondary schools the English teachers don’t have to set about teaching the alphabet before embarking on their courses.
I am always astonished that music is lumped in with the Arts, and given a bit of a look-in if the teacher feels like it. There is usually no rigorous, sequential teaching as there is with, say, mathematics.
I received a Churchill Fellowship to study music education in the UK, as a practical acknowledgement of my successes in the classroom during 10 years teaching in a state primary school. Every child in the school became musically literate, and could play one of four sizes of recorders. For the year they were in my class at the age of eight, they heard music daily by Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and so on, which they listened to in absorbed silence. ‘Silent Listening Time‘ was not background music time. I gave them information on the composers and the music. That was for their education, inspiration, and an introduction to the beauty and thrill of music. They loved it.
I should say here that there were 90 children, from the three grade two classes, all seated together on the floor with their recorders on the cloth case (made by either the parents or me, decorated so that each was individual and prized). The other two teachers were on patrol around the edge of the group. At the front of the large room, I displayed large, clear charts of music, which I had made. We ended up with dozens of these charts, showing the change to more complicated and interesting music, as their skills developed. All the music was from Renaissance or Baroque repertoire.
Seated thus, it meant that each child’s posture was good, rather than the usual crouching over the music, and I pointed to each note with my ‘conducting ruler’, as they called it. The children loved the challenge, and the keen ones wanted more music to learn and play at home.
For the first six months they were not allowed to take their recorders home, as I know how children can blast into them and annoy their families. Their daily practice was at school, with me checking their posture, the position of their hands, their ‘tonguing’ to expel air into the instrument, their tone as an ensemble, and the timing. They all learnt to read music as fluently as they learnt the alphabet, and enjoyed the code aspect of it.
At the end of each year, each successive year two class gave a concert, and to the surprise of the parents, every child participated. I remember one little boy announcing, ”Grade Two just loves Bach,” to introduce a piece by Bach in two parts, which they all played. This was not ‘the recorder’ as the parents had thought it to be!
The children, of course, had heard recordings in class of such recorder players as Michala Petri and the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, so knew that recorders were not easy to play really well; not instruments to be cavalier with!
When the children moved to the next class the following year, I offered extension music before school, after school and at lunchtime. To the surprise of the parents, these extra lessons were free. I am all too aware that most children playing orchestral and band instruments have private fee-paying lessons and these are the children who form the school orchestras, or are auditioned for the excellent (free) school instrumental music programs. Thus, most children are usually excluded.
Of course not all took advantage of the extra 10 hours of tuition I offered each week in subsequent years, but those who did, year after year, became beautiful recorder players.
I applied for, and received, a government grant to buy 12 assorted German Moeck recorders. These were added to by fundraising projects.
Primary school children taught by Margaret Wright after winning the Instrumental group section at the McDonald Sydney Eisteddfod 1991. Photograph supplied
The parents and I spent a May holiday sewing elaborate Elizabethan costumes with brocade, velvet and lace bought from op shops. By this time our recorder group was playing on the descant, treble, tenor and bass recorders, with a sopranino or great bass added if needed. I taught 12 tall grade six children Elizabethan dancing, and the musicians provided the music of pavans and galliards.
The full troupe of musicians and dancers looked very impressive in their finery. The recorder consort won every eisteddfod they entered, with one adjudicator’s comment being, “They are in a class of their own.” They played at ministerial events, at the 1990 ASME Conference in Alice Springs, and were the subject of a 1990 documentary made by Film Australia, Music the Wright Way. One of their highlights was playing on stage at the Sydney Opera House.
It was interesting to see, during my three months as a touring Churchill Fellow, much marvellous music education in the British Isles, and the generosity and hospitality I found among the teachers was second to none. However, they were all trained as specialist music teachers, and although they did great things with once a week and/or lunchtime meetings with interested children, they found it unusual that a non-specialist classroom teacher could achieve the results that I did.
My method is simple: begin with primary school children, preferably year two, every child must attend (they don’t opt out of maths), lessons are at the same time daily, the course is sequential, and those 15-20 minutes are a very happy and positive time. I believe strongly that children who participate over a number of years in a good, sequential music course will enhance their learning in all subjects.
The music teachers at the local high school thanked me for the stream of keen, musically literate, receptive students who went, each year, from ‘my’ primary school across the field to the adjacent high school. I attended the speech nights of that local high school and was thrilled to see, year after year, among the top students in all subjects, so many who had been part of my long-term music practices and events.
I have been collecting articles about the benefits of music education for about 50 years, and with these and my anecdotal evidence, I approached the head of education in a university with thoughts of formalising the study towards a higher degree. Looking back to that interview 30 years ago, I can still feel the humiliation when told that what I was proposing was nonsense. Of course, all these years on, we now know differently, and a friend in a music club in Sydney in the late 50s-early 60s, Richard Gill, did indeed become an advocate for serious music education for all children in schools.
When I returned from my tour as a Churchill Fellow, I was asked to advise on and ultimately head a school with music as its core subject. However, I had to retire before this became a reality as my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumour. After his recovery, I began teaching musical literacy in the University of the Third Age, and this I have been doing for the past 26 years. The hundreds of retired people who have passed through my hands (so to speak!) always comment on how much they appreciate the opportunity to learn to read music and to play an instrument, and to be part of my Recorder Orchestra. They had entered their ‘Third Age’ feeling disappointed that for whatever reason, they had not had that opportunity earlier.
I was awarded the OAM for my lifetime of teaching music voluntarily – first in the school, then in the community.
It was and still is my dream to have primary schools where every child is musically literate, not just those whose parents can afford lessons, or where children are auditioned out. My philosophy is quite different from every other music educator I have known or heard of – as the classroom teacher, I presented music lessons daily, to the whole class, with the logic and sequence that I applied to teaching mathematics or reading. Those who showed interest and talent could then join the specialist daily groups to expand their skills and enjoyment.
This is a huge commitment that requires a certain amount of energy from the teacher. Teachers know that running a classroom is tiring, draining and taxing enough without adding the extra two hours per day that I gave the children who volunteered to attend. Fortunately I was young, fit and energetic enough at that time to accomplish what I did. An important aspect of my method is that it is the classroom teacher, whom the children see each day and feel so comfortable with, who delivers the music lessons.
This means extra training for the teachers, because with the best will in the world, very few feel confident to deliver music as a serious discipline. It would mean much pre-service or in-service study to build up the skills and knowledge to gain the confidence to teach music, and to discover the fine music that is available in recordings if starting from a musical ‘scratch’.
I had grown up in a musical family and was exposed to classical music all my life, including being taken to concerts as a child. And somehow my parents managed to find the fees for me to have violin lessons for a few years. My four siblings did not have that practical opportunity, but all of us grew up hearing fine music all day.
As a teacher, I was criticised by a colleague for being elitist, but my reply was that, on the contrary, I gave the opportunity to every child, remembering the lack of opportunity for my siblings. What the children and I were doing, surely, was pursuing excellence for all. Her problem apparently was that it was all classical music.
If I’m teaching literature, there is a great canon of works to be explored; we wouldn’t give Mickey Mouse comics and call that the literature course. It’s surely up to educators to introduce the pupils to the great works of our culture and civilisation. Who else will bring the music of Vivaldi and Mozart to most of them if not the teachers? Certainly not the shopping malls.
Why should elitism be a ‘dirty’ word? I require my surgeon or airline pilot or bridge builder to be the elite of the group! Our sportsmen and top musicians are the elite of their specialisation.
I hope I rest my case.