This is my response to two separate things that have really got me thinking about what I deliver in my classroom and why. The first was a blog by Musical Futures prompted by an email sent to a Musical Futures champion school office. The second, the publication of OFSTED’s What Hubs Must Do report today.

As a classically trained musician, I can read music. I understand theory to a high level and have played in numerous bands, orchestras and have sung in many choirs. I started my musical training at the age of 8 and continued to study music formally for the next 14 years. I had weekly instrumental lessons on 2 instruments and approximately 4 or 5 hours a week in ensembles and groups. My parents funded this.

What did I gain from this personally?

Well I didn’t really listen to much music because I was lazy. My instrumental teachers didn’t push me to listen to music and most of the music that I played was limited to classical orchestral music, some classical piano music and a bit of big band stuff that I played in the school concert band. The music I listened to was on Radio 1.

Playing in the ensembles challenged me. I had to be confident enough in myself:

  • to take solo lines
  • to perform in front of others.
  • to practice and give up my time to get my part right
  • to work towards grade exams as this was the expectation and without them I couldn’t progress through the system.

I made many friends and developed socially through making music with others. I found out what kinds of music I liked and didn’t like and developed a passion for big symphonies with soaring themes and crunchy harmonies.

Fast forward and I am currently teaching children aged between 11-18 in groups of up to 30 in a large state secondary school (actually we are an academy but we don’t shout about it). The total time most of them have in music is one hour a week. They have all come from a massive variety of primary schools all with different experiences in music. Some have sung, others have had a year playing Djembe, ukulele, ‘woodwind’ or ‘brass’.

I don’t have any Djembe, or any orchestral instruments in my department. There has been no funding allocated to secondary schools to sustain the whole class music activities from primary school and our department budget is spent on buying instruments that are cheap, fit into the small spaces we have available and then we pay to repair them until they fall apart completely.

My students play, beatbox and sing in their lessons. We workshop and explore different pieces of music as a class, in small groups, individually. They use original material, copying by ear lines and chord patterns that I think would take them many months to learn from notation. For homework, they listen to music I suggest for them, YouTube videos are embedded into my class blog and they listen and comment on what they have heard. They design their projects with me, listening to the learning journey they have been on and diagnosing what they have done and what we all need to do next. The department is full of music, in every lesson they have to be confident enough:

  • to take solo lines
  • to perform in front of others
  • to practice and give up their time to get their part right (they come back at break and lunchtime to do this and pick up instruments at home that have sat idle as their interest in learning them formally has dwindled)
  • to create their own music using the new mobile technology they have around them and the skills and understanding they have picked up in their lessons.

I know this because their parents tell me, they tell me and I see it around me every day.

We have 60 hours of instrumental tuition every week in our school with a waiting list of many more including those eligilble for Free School Meals and our vunerable children, a growing number of whom are now accessing the system with support from the school. Our extra curricular groups range from ‘music club’ where anyone can come and workshop material, regardless of whether they can read music or have had instrumental lessons, to the chamber orchestra performing a piece by Elgar at open evening complete with harp purchased by the school. I think there is something for everyone and we push our students to get involved.

There is only one difference between the experiences I had and the experiences I believe my students have. The outcomes are the same. They perform to each other as I did in my orchestras and ensembles. They work hard to get their work better, as I did when taking my grade exams. They listen probably more than I did in this age of digital technology and are free in sharing ideas and music that they have found and engaged with. And thanks to mobile technology and social media, they have new ways available for them to explore and be creative with sounds in a way that we never could. They are growing in confidence, their social skills are improving as they move through the school.

The difference? I can read notation, most of them can’t.

The debate about what constitutes a ‘rigorous’ and ‘academic’ music education cannot and should not revolve around whether students are taught theory and notation. We need to rewind and work out why we are in schools in the first place and what is feasibly possible and most useful to students as they move on from music once it is no longer compulsory given the relatively small amounts of time and limited resources we have available in our schools. In the time that I have with them, I could teach them to play a nursery rhyme or simple piece from notation on an instrument, recite the tones and semitones in a major scale or I can create a musician. For me at least, that’s not a choice, it’s a vocation.