Americans eh? Give them a microphone and a room full of people and pretty soon they’ll be reaching out and feeling the love in the room right? I have a typical reserved British view of the American exuberant approach to life, observing the ‘Hell Yeah’s” and the “Hi 5s” with a tight smile and slight sense of awkwardness if it comes my way. But in just a few days I’ve seen that beneath this is an inspirational commitment to something that I think we are in danger of losing in the UK. That it really IS all about the kids.
I’m in New York to look at Little Kids Rock, a primary programme that aims to engage kids in school music. They provide instruments to schools and training and resources for teachers. There’s no restriction on or requirements around how it’s used. If teachers want to embed the ideas in class, into after school programmes, for a class performance that’s fine. Our visit coincided with their annual fundraising benefit, a massive undertaking that brought in $1.5 million dollars which funds their work in schools. More about that later.
We are also looking at how the programme is running in schools across the city. We saw a thriving after-school programme and watched lessons in schools in Queens and Harlem. All very different schools but a few things were constant. Firstly the teachers in these schools work really hard. They teach class after class of music then in some cases long after school sessions as well. The lessons we saw were led by specialists and there was a similar ‘pull’ between musical values that was familiar to me in UK schools. There’s music theory, notation, Kodaly and Orff approaches and now there’s Little Kids Rock. Looking round the walls, I could see references to all of these things and sensed that total immersion in the LKR programme could be a massive leap of faith. But I also saw engagement, fun and good music learning.
In one classroom, we weren’t the only visitors. The teachers introduced us to the parents of a boy who had been having some issues in school. They watched him in the lesson as he stepped up to play drums with the class performance and the pride in their faces was incredibly moving to watch. At the end of the lesson they were humble in their thanks to the class teacher and to the Little Kids Rock representative for allowing their child to succeed in this way.
That evening we were part of the Annual Little Kids Rock Benefit. It was amazing to see so many people all gathered together around one cause-improving school music for children. During the auction, where hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised, the phrase “it’s for the kids” was used repeatedly to raise bids and it was quickly adopted by us for the remainder of our trip. The night ended with some student performances and then some incredible rock musicians took to the stage to perform songs in honour of the ‘Rocker of the Year’ Joan Jett. The artists were similarly gushing about how awesome Little Kids Rock and school music really are as they introduced their performances. Over the top? Hell yeah! Completely exhilarating and impossible not to feel inspired by? Absolutely.
Seeing children singing on stage for the finale alongside Alice Cooper, Billie Joe Armstrong, Cheap Trick and more brought me back to something I’ve been thinking about since our trip to Australia in June. There I asked whether it’s OK to be unapologetic about focussing on just one genre in music. One thing that jumped out at me from the Benefit was that the Little Kids Rock students are joining a very strong tradition of rock music. Being able to track that process through to hearing fantastic live performances by top artists must be really inspiring and motivational for them. I’m not sure that without such a narrow focus the same can be said for school music that’s pieced together in often random ways in the name of a broad and balanced curriculum. Who in your music curriculum would you aspire to be?
In just 2 days, I have so much to reflect on:
1. Should we be more ‘American’ in celebrating the value of music in our schools?
2. How can we better engage parents with school music? Do we really know or care what parents actually want for their children in music lessons, have we ever asked? How can parents in this country have access to what their children do well in our classes like those we saw in tears in the lesson where they watched their child succeed.
3. We must refocus our vision on the students. It’s too easy to drift away from this with the pressures on teachers and schools – do we know what our students want/need/value in school music?
4. What do children in our music classes aspire to, what inspires them about our lessons? That strong linear tradition of rock music and bands is compelling, I certainly felt quite emotional after hearing those amazing artists performing and praising school music and its value.
5. Should big name artists be getting behind school music in this country as they did in New York? If so how can we engage them with our mission?