Recently I have come across more calls to teach High Culture. The Cultural White Paper and many education bloggers (Martin Robinson et al) have taken up the cause of High Culture. It would seem its time for me to consider more carefully my curriculum and enable all my students to have the confidence to be comfortable talking about Bach and Beyonce.


When I think about it many of my students have been let down by me not insisting they engage more with High Culture. For example just a couple of weeks ago I bumped into an ex student whilst shopping at Lidl. He told me he was training to be a manager at Lidl and DJ’d in his spare time as well as looking after his kids. He looked tired. He lacked the inspiration of High Culture.


Speaking to him made me think of the opportunities he had missed in not studying Bartok or Stravinsky. I think being a DJ is ok as far it goes but just imagine how many more opportunities would have been opened to him if he had listened to Mahler. At the very least he might be working for Waitrose.

I realise that High Culture is not specific to a white male Western tradition – some jazz musicians are pretty good too – we all know Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker and Miles Davies are talented musicians. It’s a shame they were heavy drug users. This doesn’t mean they can’t be an inspiration to our young – though taking drugs is obviously a bad thing. Their day-to-day struggles with life, drugs and racism can be separated out from their music. 

“There was a lot of dope around the music scene and a lot of musicians were deep into drug, especially heroin. People–musicians–were considered hip in some circles if they shot smack. Some of the younger guys like Dexter Gordan, Art Blakey, J.J Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, and myself -all of us–started getting heavily into heroin around the same time. Despite the fact that Freddie Webster had died from some bad stuff. Besides Bird, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons were all using heroin, not to mention Joe Guy and Billie Holiday too.   There were a lot of white musicians–Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Red Rodney, and Chet Baker who were also heavily into shooting drugs.”

Someone like Amy Winehouse (who hasn’t heard an Amy Winehouse cover in a school music concert!) isn’t High Culture – yes she was a good singer and yes she struggled with drugs but her music hasn’t Stood the Test of Time. And also she wasn’t really jazz or anything.

So Billie Holiday is in and Amy Winehouse is out!


However, replacing the simple-minded pop of Rehab and Valerie with the jazz of So What is just a first step. I need to re-evaluate my curriculum and remove stuff that does not develop my student’s ability to feel confident with the world of High Culture.


Lets talk about the Blues.


I always felt the Blues was a bit of a waste of time. The same three chords over and over again with some miserable singer moaning about life. Many Blues musicians haven’t really understood the nature of existence like Mahler did with “Das Lied von der Erde.” Blues musicians tend to sing about very specific and particular things rooted in their experience of life in racist America whereas Mahler was able to reach out to all humans with his symphony about the Song for Earth. Mahler sings a farewell, but his song of and to the earth is, at its close, a song of love and of life. Lets face it who speaks more powerfully about our existence? So the parochial Blues is ditched – in favour of the universal music of Middle Class High Culture – “Das Lied Von Der Erde”.

I’ve also wondered if my Stomp project is too rooted in progressive ideas of fun and engagement rather than real educational values like rigour and progress. Any fool can bash a few broomsticks together and pretend to be making “alternative music.” Really? Who is fooled by this nonsense – Stomp are a sell out West End phenomenon – their musical value is compromised by their need to make money. Something like Stravinsky and Rite of Spring would be much more rigorous – with those complex time signatures just blowing out of the water the syncopations and poly-rhythms of Stomp.


Also, just imagine the look of wonder on my students’ faces when I talk about how people actually rioted because of their horror at the dancing! They might also be interested in the story of a young virgin being sacrificed. Stravinsky notes:

The Chosen One dances to death in the presence of the old men, in the great “Sacrificial Dance”.

Hopefully this might connect with their fascination with blood and gore and reinforce patriarchal, misogynistic narratives. Hold on! This is clearly not the right tone for High Culture – the young virgin bit doesn’t really matter – what counts is the amazing tone colours and harmony. The Dance bits and sacrificing young women are not that important and really distract from the music. No, Stomp with its commercialism and silliness is out and the universal High Culture of The Rite of Spring is in!

I should really get rid of the Salsa, djembe and Taiko Drumming projects too. Its all very well trying to encourage students to appreciate different musical cultures and traditions but when curriculum time is tight they are missing out on the best that has been thought and said and wasting it on music which is really lacking in the sophistication and timelessness of true High Culture. Yes Taiko Drumming is a tradition of its own but is it High Culture? I know some people might think so but do they really know? They probably haven’t listened to enough Schoenberg to realise.

I don’t need to engage with the idea that Salsa is High Culture so tainted it is with its association with dance. As for using djembes – how many symphonies have you heard with a djembe?


So I’m nearly there. I’ve rid myself of some unnecessary world music and pop music. I really need to rethink the folk music and song-writing project.


Who thought a project on folk music was a good idea? Have you heard how many different chords they use? The only good folk song I heard was the theme tune from the Detectorists. I’m not sure all that political unrest and dissent in the lyrics is suitable. The Pogues protesting about the Guildford 4 and Birmingham 6 was not really music –just a bit of attention seeking. I know their TV performance was stopped and pulled from the air as it broadcast just before the contentious lyrics but did Shane McGowen really know how to sing in tune?

Folk music is out and Beethoven is in. Who better than to illustrate the importance of the individual finding a voice in an oppressive society? Beethoven knew that individual freedom was an illusion – something those Folk Singers with their petty social causes knew little about.

While I’m removing those projects that are not really musically challenging I think the rap project should go. First of all – is it really music? I mean do people really think it counts? Yes its popular, but does that mean anything? Okay so Kendrick Lamar wrote some of the most important songs so far this century but is it really music? I know there is a long list of musicologists who point out that the division between popular music and classical music is an artificial and meaningless divide but did they really mean to include “To Pimp a Butterfly” -probably not. I don’t think hip hop can count as High Culture – there’s something that doesn’t feel right.

Hip Hop is out and Schubert is in. He knew how to craft a melody and speak of things that really mattered.

The most pressing change though will be to my Musical Futures SOL. Who can imagine what good can come of allowing students to make music they love and identity with? Okay so my uptake at GCSE went from 40 to 120 students after the introduction of Musical Futures lessons but what does this really say?

The real message is that what students want is the easiest way to success. If students had been encouraged to study say Mozart and Bizet – there might be less students at GCSE but they would have been the right ones.

The students would be taking GCSE music for the right reasons. Not because they felt moved and empowered by their music making, not because in their music making they recognised something of themselves that gave them strength and confidence, not because they realised that actually music was for them and they could be musical but because they realised that High Culture opened doors that other cultures closed.