Talk to the National Liberal Club

Photo credit: © John Lubbock (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On 2 September 2015, John Kersey was the invited speaker at a lunch at the National Liberal Club. Here is the talk given on this occasion:

NLC 2 September 2015 – Music in education

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this lunchtime. I am going to venture a few remarks concerning music in education. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to teach music at all levels from junior school to postgraduate, and have examined it for graded examinations, A level and degree level, so I hope I have picked up the odd point of value along the way.

I should begin by emphasising that music is arguably the most important subject that can be taught in a school. Why do I say that? Because music engages the whole person and not merely the intellect. It also calls upon the emotions and, where singing or playing an instrument are concerned, the body. Moreover, it requires us to balance and control all of these elements of the whole person at once. Some of those who encounter music in school will go on to make careers in music. But many more will continue to enjoy music as members of amateur choirs and orchestras, or playing for their own pleasure at home or with friends, or simply listening to live or recorded music as a means of enriching their lives. It is not difficult to be an evangelist for music, because its effects are so comprehensively beneficial. I believe that music is also an important way for us to process emotional and spiritual events in our lives, leading to greater well-being and fulfilment.

It is unfortunate that these benefits are not as widely acknowledged as they should be. That this is the case is due to a philosophical difficulty on the part of government. If we look back to a Liberal Party report of 1974, we find the following,

Once the basic needs of food and shelter are met, the individual’s greatest satisfactions are to be found in love, trust and friendship, in beauty, art and music, and in learning, none of which are served by the mythology of growth for its own sake.

We are no longer living in a society where politicians make statements of this kind. Indeed, they are afraid to do so. Education in the contemporary sense has become interchangeable with training, and as such it has one purpose only, and that is to produce workers who will aid Britain’s economic growth. The concern is no longer with individual development but instead with the subordination of the individual to the aims of the prevailing system through mass social engineering. Our government supports participation in higher education not because it believes that it is an aim of a civilised society that those who can benefit from a university education should have that opportunity, but because it holds that young people in higher education are less likely to commit crime and become involved in anti-social behaviour.

Furthermore, education and society in general have increasingly accepted the agenda of mass commercialism. Western art music fares very poorly when judged by commercial standards. It is expensive to perform large-scale works and difficult to turn a profit from those performances; most instruments are relatively expensive to buy and maintain; instrumental tuition costs money, and there is also the time cost involved in the many hours of practice required to gain proficiency. Against this, pop music in particular succeeds because it makes few if any demands on its audience and is designed and marketed for nakedly commercial ends. Its exponents, who rarely need to have an advanced technique, enjoy obvious success and fame, while a career in classical music, for all its greater demands, rarely garners such rewards.

Economic arguments for music education are, to my mind, doomed to failure. But for the first time in the post-1997 period, we have also lost the cultural arguments. It was bad enough in the 1980s where politicians asked why opera should receive a greater place in the nation’s cultural life than football, given that football was both self-supporting economically and demonstrably more popular among the electorate. Now we are in a position where the question is not even asked. Austerity politics means not only that Western art music has lost much of its central funding but – and I would argue more importantly – its lack of support from the establishment has led to its disappearance from our cultural agenda. When politicians and other establishment figures appear on “Desert Island Discs”, their choice of records nowadays generally centres on pop music, which is no longer regarded as the preserve of the young. And yet to experience music merely through the series of shallow three-minute formulaic commercial vignettes that constitute mainstream pop music is merely to scratch the surface of an art form that encompasses the entirety of the human experience.

This position has been accompanied by the adoption of an ideology whereby education is measured and assessed according to reductive criteria. Success or failure are subject to what is essentially a tick-box system; we see this through our public exams, and also through the league tables by which our schools are judged. This is driven partly by an emphasis on accountability and a desire to make clear that public money is being spent wisely. But it is also driven by a mindset that is fundamentally soulless. It rejects music, which is pushed to the margins in the national curriculum, because music is too hard to quantify, because music’s benefits are too difficult to assess in reductive terms, and because music, and particularly Western art music, is now culturally alien to those making policy. For years, a special case in education was made for Western art music because of its perceived benefits and cultural status. Now, a false parity is maintained in our education system between Western art music and other forms of music, where in reality there is no valid comparison.

Western art music is differentiated from other types of music, such as non-Western art music and Western and non-Western popular music by one particular aspect: it is written down, or codified. Our culture has, for centuries, regarded codification as important. It is an act of preservation, but it is more than that: it is the means by which a work of art enters the public domain. Through codification, a piece of music is replicable by others who may never have met the composer and may indeed be several centuries removed from him or her. It can thus be discussed with reference to a central written text that permits detailed analysis and comparison with other similar works. Codification matters because it constitutes a definitive statement, even if that statement may be subsequently revised.

Codification is fundamentally alien to Western popular music and those non-Western art and popular musics, such as, for example, Indian classical music, that rely upon improvisation for their source. It is also, incidentally, alien to those recent developments of Western art music that incorporate aleatoricism, or chance events. It is symptomatic of the malaise of our current culture that we too often confuse chance events with creativity, where in fact they are simply the random or idiomatic exploration of a sound medium. Why should we be confused in this way? Firstly, because we lack the critical apparatus to assess creativity, a default which is due to inadequacy in musical education. Secondly, because of our reliance on sound recording. We confuse sound recording with the process of musical codification via a score. In fact, sound recording is like a photograph of a bird in flight. It depicts a given moment in that flight, but cannot capture the mechanism by which the bird flies. By contrast, a musical score does just this. The mechanism of the given work is captured within its notation, enabling it to take flight again and again when presented to a performer of sufficient ability.

We are ultimately doing uncodified music a disservice through the way in which it is studied. Where works in a jazz or pop idiom are set for study in GCSE or A level, they are first notated into score by transcribers employed by the exam boards, and then subjected to the same kind of analysis as any other notated score. This is absolutely not the way in which jazz or pop musicians think about their music. It ignores the most fundamental element of that music, which is that jazz in particular is by essence of the moment and is dependent upon a living interaction between performers (often also composers) and audience. For all that jazz and pop are frequently recorded, they are essentially subordinate to the live experience; because they rely on improvisation, every recording is essentially a “live recording”. The decision not to codify substantial aspects of those musics is therefore entirely deliberate. As a result, all too often we are trying to understand an improvised art form not through a genuine encounter with that form itself but merely through an artificial and constructed description of it; we are re-living the dictum that talking about such music is like dancing about architecture.

I am not seeking to imply that uncodified music is not worth studying as a cultural phenomenon. Nor do I say that it cannot appeal to the emotions or provide a source of enrichment as composer, listener or performer. But I will illustrate my point with an example. What if we were to say that we would study English literature based not on books, on novels, poems and short stories that have been codified, but instead on improvised poetry, folk tales or hip-hop lyrics? Would doing so, and thus depriving the next generation of the time that would otherwise be spent studying Shakespeare and the Brontes, not be seen as the utmost folly? If that is the case, then it is the more unfortunate that we are depriving that same generation of the means to understand and to enjoy Bach, Mozart and Beethoven because we are giving them insufficient emphasis within the musical curriculum.

The reason why this dumbing-down is taking place is fundamentally because our politicians do not see the difference. They, and unfortunately some musicians who should know better, have jumped on the bandwagon that music knows no division other than good or bad, in other words whether you like it or not. This is a philistine’s approach to artistic endeavour. What you like and what is easiest to understand are generally synonymous. We do not teach mathematics or science on the basis of what pupils like about them, but on the basis that each constitutes a body of knowledge from which our curriculum selects vital information and techniques that are necessary to grasp the subject to the level concerned.

One thing that distinguishes the great works of the Western musical tradition is that they do not give everything up at first hearing. They seek to express something that requires concentration, analysis and contextual understanding. They require hard work to pick apart, and similar work if we want to write something that emulates them. It is easier to take a music lesson where the pupils are given percussion instruments and encouraged to make some noise than to teach them musical notation, structure and harmony. But if we do not emphasise those aspects that need to be taught in order to be understood, we are not teaching them anything of value, merely providing them with an extension of the playground. To return to my comparison, if we want pupils to write English and to genuinely express themselves, we must first introduce them to grammar and structure so that their writing is comprehensible and cogent. If we want to provide facilities for pop music on top of a sound foundation, all well and good. But it is worth remembering that most of our established pop musicians succeeded on the basis of a secondary education in Western art music, not in pop. Indeed, I think many of them would recall that grounding as having given them the best opportunity to succeed in their field.

Much of these developments are due to the flight from formality that characterized the past decade. Entirely wrongly, both politicians and educators have seen the formality of musical grammar and structure as a negative attribute. They associate it, and indeed they associate much Western art music, with elitism. But it is not elitist to want for our children the best of our culture and its values. In the 1920s, coal miners and their families in Yorkshire used to form amateur string quartets, choirs and brass bands so that they could hear and play the music that they valued. No-one forced them to do it, and indeed their actions were the ultimate in anti-elitism; they brought Beethoven to the working person. They said that the best things in life were rightly theirs to aspire to, and we today should be saying the same. We live in a world where commercialized music has become a mass market product. But when we teach music, we should not simply see our role in terms of producing fodder for a system that judges quality by the yardsticks of the media and the flashy materialism it promotes. We need to aspire to raise standards, not just within schools but within our society in general. As part of that process, we should not accept unquestioningly the commercial pressures placed upon our young people, often by global brands, to become consumers of a mass market product.

The irony of the current system is that because it is depriving pupils of the means to understand and appreciate Western art music, it is making that music and indeed the musical profession ever more the preserve of those educated at independent schools, where an emphasis upon classical music is seen as a very strong selling-point. Nor are those schools embarrassed to present classical music because of the cultural relativism that seems prevalent within the maintained sector. Independent schools, indeed, have an extremely diverse student body these days because of their overseas recruitment. Those students rightly view the experience and understanding of Western art music as an indication of what it is to receive an English education. We should take note of their view.

If we are to bring about a change in musical education, several things need to be done. Firstly, we need to ensure that the foundations are sound. That means teachers who are fully and properly trained in the history and techniques of Western art music. Sadly, at the moment, many are not, because some of our university music courses lack rigour and do not, for example, prepare their students to conduct a choir or an orchestra, which should be a basic requirement of a school music teacher. Secondly, we must ensure that it is part of every primary school pupil’s experience to sing in a choir and to learn to play an instrument that can be bought cheaply and played in a group. In my day it was the recorder. It could equally well be the ukulele. Thirdly, we must ensure that music regains priority at secondary level. Each school should have a good representative selection of recordings of Western classical music and offer pupils the chance to listen to them. There should be the opportunity for choirs and orchestras in which all can participate. And there should be the opportunity to learn an instrument for all who want to do so, regardless of their financial circumstances.

About johnkersey

Historian, musician and educationalist.
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