Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Damage limitation

Four breakages in one session last week and none in any others. Coincidence? The children were not unruly and in each case the damage could be put down to 'fair wear and tear'.

This session was different in that, because the materials had not arrived for the instrument-making session I had intended, I implemented a Plan B. The session was one that is familiar to music teachers across the land. In fact I'd walked in on one earlier in the week. Every child held some kind of percussion instrument and was ostensibly composing a piece of music. The teacher was sitting at a desk in the corner, beyond numb. It was impossible to hear what any of the groups (each of three or four children) was playing and I doubt the participants had any real sense of what they had created until they premiered it for the rest of the class at the end of the lesson.

The casualties in my session were an mbira (key detached), a dulcimer (broken string), a stick tambourine (jingles fell off) and my beloved kokiriko, pictured (the string snapped). The first three are easily mended but the kokiriko was assembled by the hands of someone who knew their craft. Restringing it will be a project in itself.

So why the damage? It's no coincidence that when teenagers form bands they usually do it in groups of three or four and don't practise in the same room as all the other bands. When you can't hear the instrument you are playing it's natural to play it a bit louder. If you still can't hear it you play it louder still.

The fact is that good instruments, of the kind that inspire children, are often delicate and expensive and need close supervision. You need instruments built like tanks for the kind of session described above.

So why do we teach music in this way? If you learn an instrument you are usually taught one-to-one or occasionally in small groups. It is accepted that you need to hear what you are doing. There are lots of useful things we could teach children but choose not to either because we lack the facilities (astronomy, skiing, bricklaying) or because we simply choose not to (typing, cycle maintenance). So why do we persevere with classroom music when we lack the space and staff to make it worthwhile? It has reputation amongst children as being a 'doss' subject. Unfortunate, perhaps, but fully deserved under the circumstances.

My childhood experience of classroom music involved a genial old bloke chatting to us about everything under the sun, including, but only occasionally and in passing, music. (I didn't really get what we were doing until I studied philosophy at university some years later.) There was a piano in the room but he never played it, perhaps because he didn't think we would appreciate it or perhaps because he knew better than to turn his back on us. Or maybe he couldn't bear the fact that it remained untuned from one year to the next. I wonder what he would have made of the National Curriculum? It's contents may be workable in a school with excellent facilities and well-disciplined, bright and motivated children. In many places even trying to implement it smacks of appeasement and I'm sure the old chap would have had none of it.


  1. Yes. The way music is taught in most schools does probably switch kids off....that's step one scuppered then. It is quite a specialist subject...like car mechanics, welding, astronomy etc to aim pass out to everyone. I wonder if Jane Austin told us it had to be on the timetable. Sustainable living, social skills, and finding stuff out are examples of more universal and relevant subjects from which a more colourful life could launch and show interest in specialist things like playing music.

    I think.

  2. Not sure I agree with Molly here. Every human culture that you can find makes (or has made, if it is extinct) music of some kind, so I'm of the opinion that it is universal rather than specialist.

  3. We had a kindly old chap for music...I suppose he was about 27. He used to put records of classical music on and then go outside for a ciggie. At the time we thought he was lazy and it wasn't a proper music lesson. With hindsight all us girls swooned to the incidental music of Carmen and I'm still hooked. His real teaching happened when he trusted us completely with the stack of records and buggered off. We really listened I still do.

  4. I have discussed with my musician husband all the benefits of music and it's many cross curricular links and how, when it's taught well, it can develop parts of the brain no other subject can reach so I retract my comment and put the WAY it is taught under question rather than why it should be taught.

  5. I agree that music is, or should be, universal. In Britain, for the most part, we have surrendered it to 'musicians'. These are specialists who make it for us. The way it is taught makes its creation seem even more remote and difficult. I agree it could be taught far better. I think the fact it is considered 'fun' means it is given low priority, hence poor funding and resources.

    Ultimately I think Sandra's teacher probably had it about right. Give the kids the means, light the blue touch paper and stand well back. Then they will direct their own learning and come for assistance as they need it.