Don’t Stop The Music – starting on the wrong note?

In February 2012 I wrote an article for Music Education UK (page 37 in the digital magazine above) calling for a revolution in school music. I suggested that the music education sector could learn an enormous amount from the Jamie Oliver experience with school meals. Jamie’s TV series brought to national attention the appalling quality of the food being served up to our children, led directly to the establishment of nutritional minimum standards and an end to head teachers’ complacency about the sorry state of their own school meals.

Imagine my surprise and delight when I was contacted earlier this year by Fresh One – the production company that made Jamie’s School Dinners and is in fact owned by Mr Oliver – to discuss a new programme that they were working on for Channel 4, focusing on the need to improve school music lessons. I had high hopes that the programme could give national exposure to the problems dogging school music and prompt real action to tackle them.

Sadly, after watching the first episode of Don’t Stop The Music this week, these hopes have been dashed.

Before Jamie made his groundbreaking series that led to the revolution in school food he had done his homework. Jamie spent time listening to experts; people like Jeanette Orrey the school cook who had transformed her school meals and knew first-hand the challenges that had to be overcome. He talked at length to The Soil Association who had researched the problems and briefed him on school food budgets. He shadowed the cooks, he visited the officials who worked in local government, he audited the school kitchens in Greenwich so he knew what equipment and skills cooks had – and didn’t have. In short, Jamie had an in-depth appreciation of the gigantic problems facing anyone who wanted to reform school food. It was from this position of knowledge that Jamie was able to propose changes that made a real difference.

Unfortunately, the people behind “Don’t Stop the Music” don’t appear to have done their homework. Having watched the first episode I can see no evidence that concert pianist James Rhodes, who fronts the programmes, is aware of the underlying problems with school music education.

The real problems with music education are much more fundamental than the lack of musical instruments. I think James is right to be angry about the inadequate music education that many of our children get. But if he wants to know why things are so bad, and what could be done to make a difference, he needs to take the time to talk to some of the people who are struggling to provide good quality music education. And especially those who, against all the odds, are succeeding.

He needs to talk to music hubs about the challenges they face trying to support schools. He needs to talk to those organisations desperate to help hard-pressed teachers provide great music lessons – organisations such as Musical Futures, Sing Up and Sound Connections. He needs to talk to outstanding music teachers such as Jane Werry, My Han Doan, Darren Chetty and David Ashworth. And he should talk to academics who are genuinely committed to understanding the problems and finding solutions, such as Martin Faultley, John Finney, Jonathon Savage and Alison Daubney. If he had done so I doubt he would have concluded that the top priority was to beg for orchestral musical instruments.

Watching the programme I shared James’ anger that those year 5 children at St Teresas in Basildon were being denied a music education. But, unlike James, my instinct was not to demand that they be given a trumpet.

Those children already have a musical instrument they need to conquer – namely their own bodies. They need to find their singing voices and use their hands and feet to explore pulse and rhythm. That has to be the starting point. As a society we seem peculiarly hung up on “proper” classical, orchestral music, but that is just one of many genres to be explored.

There are many barriers that prevent good music education taking place in our schools. Lack of orchestral instruments wouldn’t make it into my top 5.

If channel 4 is serious about wanting to see good music education, rather than just making “good telly”, can I suggest it addresses the following problems:

1. The lack of training for all primary teachers that leaves many feeling totally unconfident to teach music.
2. The pressure on heads to value literacy and numeracy above all else, which leads to music being starved of funding and time in the school day.
3. The lack of school spaces to teach music – schools are more likely to have a set of iPads than a music room.
4. The lack of appropriate school musical instruments, such as the humble triangle, claves, recorders, djembes, glockenspiels and xylophones.
5. The high cost of instrumental tuition for kids.

I think the Oxfam “instrumental amnesty” organised by the Channel 4 programme is a good idea, but I don’t think schools are the best places to manage the distribution of instruments. I would much prefer music hubs to take charge for the following reasons:

  • Hubs are more likely than schools to have the space to store instruments properly.
  • They have the expertise to asssess the instruments and organise repairs and maintenance.
  • Hubs can generally supply the good quality teaching needed.
Despite these concerns, I am going to try to make the best of the opportunity. I have registered with the “Don’t Stop The Music” campaign to receive violins that I can pass on to individual children in my school. However, without the intervention of my local music hub, Merton Music Foundation (full disclosure: I work for MMF one day a week), the children will not be able to make the best use of them.
I fear that in schools across the country, as clarinets and cellos break or decay through lack of proper care, or are found to be simply too big for small hands, and with the more fundamental problems listed above left unresolved, many of these instruments will end up shut away in cupboards unused. That in a years time, after all the publicity has died down, we will find ourselves no closer to delivering a real music education in our schools.
So don’t be cross with me James. I know that you are passionate about music and want to see dramatic improvements in the way it is taught in schools. So do I. But there are no short cuts. Throwing instruments at a few kids is not the answer.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Stop The Music – starting on the wrong note?

  1. I completely agree. Schools haven't the storage or the understanding/training for what is needed. There is no quick fix but voices are a good place to start.
    If I had a pound for every unuseable instrument I have seen in a school I would be quite wealthy!

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  2. collecting instruments is the easy part of such an initiative. what comes after that is much more complicated: having all instruments checked by professional repair technicians (budgets needed for this, logistics, intermediate storage,…), storage of instruments and coordination of dispatching, and (important) continuous maintenance of the instruments. Music Fund in Brussels (www.musicfund.eu) has since 2005 developed know-how in all this towards partner-projects in the Middle East, Africa and the Caraïben. see also: http://www.facebook.com/musicfund. Lukas Pairon, founder of Music Fund

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  3. I haven't yet seen the programme but hope he will talk about Sing Up. A return to free access to Sing Up (and very wide broadcasting of the fact that it contains resources that can be used by anyone, regardless of musical background), would in my view be much more useful than free instruments. Even a small fee can be a barrier to someone who doesn't know how or why they would use it.

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