Music is wonderful; why is music education so difficult?

Music is wonderful! Children and young people love music. Yet the recent Ofsted triennial tells us that music is really not very good in two thirds of our schools, and that’s against a backdrop of unprecedented effort over recent years to support music education. Put plainly, why are we finding it so hard to get music education right?

(This article appeared originally as a guest editorial on the Teaching Music website.)

Music is wonderful! Children and young people love music. We’re discovering increasingly, from neuroscience and anthropology, how music seems to be innate to us. Yet the recent Ofsted triennial tells us that music is really not very good in two thirds of our schools, and that’s against a backdrop of unprecedented effort over recent years to support music education. Put plainly, why are we finding it so hard to get music education right?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m absolutely not doing down the formidable efforts and achievements of the last fifteen or so years, nor am I blind to the complexity of some of the challenges. But listening to a group of music education leaders recently, I was struck wondering if perhaps we were sometimes tinkering at the edges when instead we need to stand back and take a good look at what’s going on. I’ve been in the very fortunate position over the last few years to come into contact with a very broad diversity of different music educations and ways of nurturing children and young people’s music making, and in this editorial I’m trying to draw on some of this to give my starter for ten on that opening question.



First up, we need to believe in children and young people, in their music, in their musicality, in their creativity, in their propensity for enquiry and learning, in their play and exploration, in their ability to lead and to support themselves and each other.

Did you know that German new-borns have very different cries to French ones? In the womb, foetuses listen carefully to the speech melodies and inflections of surrounding voices (principally their mother’s) and, when they’re born, mimic them in their cries. On the same thread, I recently saw some incredible photos of one-day-old babies whose parents had agreed to their heads being covered with sound sensors. From this research emerged the finding that tiny babies are incredibly good at recognising pitch difference. (Bizarrely, we often seem to find that some children cannot recognise the difference between high and low; consider that the principal meaning of ‘high’ and ‘low’ – height – really have little to do with the pitch of sound!) And new-born babies can learn to predict melodic inflections and pattern sequences, and far faster than adults can. There’s a great deal of research on these lines, pointing to all children’s musicality: something for us to believe in.

Another thing for us to believe in is children’s creativity. I found much to agree with in the recent-ish Henley II Cultural Review, apart from an assertion that children become creative. No. All children are incredibly creative at birth but, neuroscience tells us, their creativity is very vulnerable: if it is stifled and not nurtured, it withers away. Looking forward, there’s a large body of evidence and consensus (the OECD, the RSA, the National Curriculum Review expert review panel, etc.) around the importance of creativity in the careers of the future: our children will need their creativity. So creativity is there at the beginning, and it needs to be there in adulthood. In the middle is us, in childhood education. We need to believe in children’s creativity and to nurture it carefully. Music and the ‘creative arts’ aren’t the exclusive domain of creativity of course but they have a special role to play. (And we should note that musical creativity is not the same as composition.)

What about believing in children’s music? In my opinion, one of the things that really troubles, stifles and impedes music education is taste. One of the great things about musicians in education and music educators is our passion for music. But it’s also, far too often, our Achilles heal, because it’s often a passion for a particular kind of music or music-making, that we want our children to have too, and which we use to assess and evaluate their music-making. People will deny it but, time and again, I’ve seen the musical tastes of those in education taking a disproportionate role in valuing children and young people’s music-making. Today’s excellence can inspire today’s learners; we should be cautious about allowing today’s excellence to be our goals for tomorrow’s generation.

This is further complicated by all of the socio-cultural values, snobberies, inverse snobberies etc. that are attached so strongly to music: sometimes we want the social values so we have to buy into the musical tastes too. This is essential to musical culture but complicated for musical education.

Sometimes, the taste issue seems to be about fear: we’re worried that musical heritage (particularly Western Classical) will be lost and that children won’t value what we value. I think this is misplaced: we need to rationalise the perceived threat to cherished culture, and to be able to let go of what we hold valuable so that it can develop. Culture is lived and created, not just bestowed and inherited. We live in an increasingly culturally meritocratic world: the good bits will stick around, and they might even get better.

Why is all of this stuff about taste important for that question about getting music education right? Children and young people have strong tastes just as much as adults (and they start forming them at a very early age). So if music education wants to be about particular musical tastes, if cultural learning tries to be about enculturation, it’s going to hit a wall – its own wall.

And where taste gets in the way, supporting creativity can be difficult: creativity is sometimes difficult to identify if you think you already know what’s being created. I recently saw a wonderful film of a four-year-old boy who was singing, drawing and imagining falling rain. The organisation who were working with him only spotted it because they stood back with enquiring minds and listened carefully to his music, in amongst a busy classroom. And they believed in it enough to go on and help him develop it.



A piano teacher once said to me, ‘the most important thing I can teach you is to teach yourself’. My first reaction was that this sounded like a bit of a rip-off but then I worked out that it made sense. We need to believe in things (children, adults, their potential, their abilities) and, I’d suggest, we need to do more to empower people to discover, create and share, rather than telling them what to do, or how to do it. The Victorians saw education as filling the empty vessels that are children’s heads; with the degree of change that is now the norm in our world, we cannot afford to approach education this way with today’s children if we want them to survive and succeed. We need to get back to the roots of the word ‘education’: e-ducare – to lead out from within.

If we’re going to get music education right, we need to empower teachers: to teach musically, to teach creatively, to be musical, to be creative. We should stop handing them answers (schemes of work, musical goals for children, etc.) and support them to ask questions (structured self-reflection, learning from others, sharing their own practice, embedding a hunger for professional development etc.).

And we need to focus on empowering children and young people. Many people working with children and young people in challenging circumstances, particularly in the non-formal sector, can give inspirational examples of when highly disruptive young people have been given the opportunity to express themselves in music, to be listened to and trusted, to take responsibility and lead others in music-making, and sometimes to come to be employed as music educators themselves. Young musicians are being empowered and supported as young music leaders across the country, from the NYO and the Purcell School, through Arts Award, DofE awards, to the 17,000 young singing leaders in Sing Up. We can unlock the potential of all young musicians to be not just recipients but agents of music education.

But young music leadership doesn’t tend to work unless the supporting organisations believe in it. Empowering takes trust, confidence, risk-taking and belief. It also tends to take longer: giving someone an answer is quicker than helping them to solve a challenge themselves but it’s an essential investment for an education. ‘Give a man [or woman] a fish and he’ll feed himself for a day; teach him to fish and he’ll feed his family for a lifetime’, the proverb goes. I’d add, for 21st-century musical adults: ‘teach him to teach and to learn, and introduce him to a community of fishermen, and they will feed and develop their community for generations.’ How often do we still hand out fish?



Finally, to work, this – children, young people, parents, teachers, senior leaders, organisations – will need support: challenge and motivation; critical feedback and meaningful recognition and praise; appropriate interventions, guidance and direction; inspiration and exposure to diversity; appropriate structure; managing inter-generational wisdom and taking from the past to give to the future - long-term, sustained, progressive support.

But I’d suggest it does need to be this combination of believing, empowering and supporting rather than trying to direct large numbers of young people towards pre-determined musical goals, as the following metaphor tries to demonstrate. If you wanted to build a house, you would form a picture of the house, draw up the plans for what it would look like and fit together, then build the foundations, the walls, the floors, fill in the plumbing and decoration, finesse it and complete it. But if you wanted to grow a garden from collection of unknown seeds, you wouldn’t decide that you wanted roses, sow the seeds and train them up walls and canes: they might be acorns or they might be cress seeds! You’d carefully place them in the ground, nurturing them with warmth and water and, as they emerged and developed, you would support them as they needed. Are we hoping for a garden city or a flourishing ecosystem of colourful musical adults? Are children houses waiting to be constructed or seeds waiting to grow?

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