I attended the Westminster Education Forum on Music this Tuesday.  Speakers included: Julian Lloyd Webber, Matt Griffiths, Robin Hammerton, ProfessorAnthony Browne, Laura Gander-Howe as well as many others. At times it felt as initially this was going to be one long advert for El Sistema and other extra-curricular orchestral interventions, however there were speakers and audience members voicing concerns around this rather limited model of music making. Robin Hammerton summed up some of his thoughts around the music curriculum at KS3 and assessment whilst a Lord worried about when he was going to hear some “conservatoire bashing.”  Towards the end and somewhat against the grain of official interventions a singer songwriter called Rumer spoke about a more informal pathway.

Audience members were invited to respond to the event with a 600 word commentary. Heres mine:

One of the consistent themes of music education over the years is its irrelevance. This unites many of us more closely than the rhetorical calls to work together for the good of a music education for all. We need to critically consider what is meant by inclusive music education.

The irrelevance of music education was highlighted by the acknowledgement that GCSE music take up is remains consistently small and that hardly any one takes A-level music.

Robin Hammerton, who made some great supportive comments on assessment, claimed we do not do enough to develop the right skills for students to take GCSE. He also argued that teachers who do not teach classical music do this because they have low standards.  I disagree. The GCSE and A – level courses in music are fundamentally flawed and remain part of a system that divides young people arbitrarily into musical and non-musical.  The teaching of classical music is no guarantee of high aspirations and challenge.

Paul Willis (Moving Culture 1990) discussed how much of the creative work of young people remained hidden and neglected. He argued that we need to see how the creative already lies in young people rather than finding ways to give them Great Art. There is a tendency to see the importance of music lying in an object – those ten pieces, this challenging and profound work. Willis shows there is a huge amount of creativity in the everyday. It is in the human use of art that makes the transformative power of art possible not the Art itself.  Christopher Small uses the word musicking to point towards the importance of the activity and a relationship with music that it social and aesthetic. These views prioritise different values and suggest different purposes.

There appears to be a more missionary zeal around certain forms of outreach to young people. (The mayor’s London Music Pledge features orchestral instruments on every image – even the one picture which focuses on a vocalist still has the reassuring presence of violins in the background.)  Recently orchestral music is being used uncritically as a way of rescuing poor and disadvantaged young people. There is an implied alignment of social and cultural deprivation. I believe there is a danger in seeing poor people in need of the gift of culture – forever grateful to those who know best. This “gift” of culture replicates the same power inequalities it wishes to transform.   As a few mentioned in the audience too much talk of instrumental skill and performance pathways neglects the creative side of music making.  There are many pathways and many ways of being musical.

This was why the singer songwriter Rumer was so fascinating. Her pathway to success was built on a model that had lacked discussion. The informal pathway of a popular musician. She valued support, access to instruments, encouragement, creativity, performance opportunities and a chance to try out her own music.

There is a need for musicians to stop worrying about the critique of Conservatoires. There are plenty of powerful and rich patrons who can do that. We do need more critical thought about what we mean by inclusion, what the purpose of music education is and how we might work alongside our young people and value their creativity. We should seek more critique not less.

There is a danger that many institutions will concern themselves with tinkering around the edges and consigning themselves to irrelevance. Meanwhile young people continue to be creative working with the everyday symbols of common culture. A continued commitment to improve music educations fails because of its own good intentions

5 thoughts on “Westminster Music Education forum

  1. I didn’t actually argue that teachers who don’t teach classical music necessarily have low standards. That would be patent nonsense of the very highest order. I did say that assuming classical music it is too ‘difficult’ for children (which we find is a quite common assumption) can be an indication of low expectations. (It’s also rather patronising). These are two quite different things. I also said that classical music, while important, shouldn’t be favoured over other genres. It was a great conference, I thought. And creativity seems to me to be at the very heart of music education.


    1. The ‘all musical traditions of equal value but including classical’ music position is interesting. I am wondering which other musical traditions teachers think are too ‘difficult’ for children, presuming this question is asked.


  2. Thanks for the clarification and apologies for misrepresenting your words! I find that sometimes that people use classical music as a golden benchmark of music making but rarely critique its limitations.

    I was more ambivalent about the conference – there seems ideological differences that need more exploration and issues of who get to speak on behalf of others. It seems a very narrow social circle at times.


    1. Jason’s second paragraph exposing the ‘narrow circle’ of priveleged voices links with Gary Spruce’s comments here jfin107.wordpress.com and opens up an agenda for a different kind of conference-symposium and a fresh agenda for music education.


  3. Widening the ‘narrow social circle’ I offer a blast of fresh air………..I’ve just arrived home after attending an amazing concert of gospel singing organised by Musical Director Natalie Christian-John of an organisation called Make it Loud. The concert brought together nine choirs from eight different London schools. (I know Natalie because I taught her to play the cello.) Natalie, still in her twenties has achieved an incredible musical legacy in a very short space of time. She is utterly remarkable. The youngest performers in tonight’s concert were from the St Matthew’s Academy Primary Junior Gospel Choir. They were two and three years old and boy, they were loud. Touchingly, the oldest performers had already left school, but had formed their own gospel choir, ‘NCJ Chorale’ because they wanted to continue with the music-making that they had loved so passionately whilst at school. The concert was extremely moving – I cried – I danced – I laughed as did the entire audience. The choirs literally sang with every fibre of their being and with all of their energy. They pulled music from every corner of St George’s Cathedral in Lambeth and beyond. They sang in four part polyphony. They improvised. Many stepped up to sing solos accompanied by their choir. They sang in triple time whilst clapping in duple time. Their feet were constantly elaborating the rhythmic feel. they sang quietly, loudly, fast, slow, switching quickly between grooves and styles with virtuosity. Truly this is what music is: dynamic, infectious, joyful and utterly committed. This is live-affirming music. This is music becoming louder and even louder. The ideology is present in the sound and you could hear it.


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