Instrumental skills v musical knowledge


Transcript from Musicmark discussion 24th November 2017

My original title for this session was ‘Is Instrumental Learning Killing Off the Curriculum?’ and this came from 19 years of working in and with schools as SLT and a Head of Service during which time it was pretty clear that there is a disconnect between learning a musical instrument and learning in the classroom. However, it was decided that this was a bit too contentious a title even for me and, when asking that question to test the title, there were quite a few people who simply answered ‘yes’.

Also, it is a bigger question. Not only is about the disconnect between instrumental learning and classroom learning but also the disconnect between formal musical learning and the 21st-century music industry.

So, what are we here to talk about? Well, having spoken to everyone on the panel, it is essentially about how we can work together across the music education sector to make sure that music as a curriculum subject can survive. We know that teaching at primary school is still pretty patchy and we now also have the added challenge of music at KS3 starting to be less secure. With new academy chains setting up where it is only taught as an extra-curricular discipline; whole areas of some counties having no A-Level music provision at all; and some schools dropping KS3 music entirely (and in one unfortunate case at least, this hitting the headlines), we know the struggle is real. But at least we know there are also people, including parents who are not happy and making a noise about it.

The Head of UK Music recently talked about his worry about the lack of focus on teaching children the skills that were relevant to the Creative Music Industry  and Nick Gibb is, of course, continuing to try to convince us that he is supportive of Music and the Arts in school. The Head of Google China has also highlighted that the skills you get from engagement in the Arts are the most future-proof and relevant for ongoing cultural and creative development as we move into an increasingly automated age.

It is not a particularly controversial statement to say that learning music for music’s sake is important and I don’t particularly think that it is wrong for us to keep talking about the wider benefits of musical learning either. However, we can’t shy away from the fact that, earlier this year, artsprofessional talked about the ‘downgrading’ of music as it was removed from the DCMS and lumped in with Museums and Libraries, suggesting the government’s view of music is that it is all ‘just’ about playing in an orchestra. We also can’t shy away from the fact that Nick Gibb talks about a knowledge-rich curriculum, suggesting that learning in schools is about sitting there and learning lots of interesting facts and figures. We also need to recognise that changes in school accountability measures; funding; and the decoupling of AS and A-Level Music are all adding to the pressure that is already on the survival of music in schools, at least as much if not more, than the ebacc.

The implication of the above could be, then, that children who play a musical instrument should carry on doing so outside the classroom while learning in the classroom is about sitting, listening and essentially engaging in musical appreciation. So we can return to how it always was and happily ignore everything that has gone on to broaden the appeal of music, engage with a wider demographic and support all children in making music just because it is really valuable.

Essentially, the disconnect remains and those children who do learn a musical instrument outside the classroom will continue to look at what they are learning in the classroom and make a decision as to whether it is relevant to them or not. Those who don’t learn a musical instrument will continue to look at all of those who do and decide that they are proper musicians and so make a decision pretty early about their own engagement. Likewise, all those children who are sitting at home producing music on their computer, decks, their Ableton push and uploading onto Youtube will also make a decision as to its relevance and value to them pretty quickly.

In other words, great instrumentalists aren’t taking GCSE music because they don’t need to, non-instrumentalists aren’t taking GCSE music because they think they can’t and musicians who aren’t performers (ie DJs, producers etc) aren’t taking it because it’s not relevant, despite some of the exam boards greatest efforts to make sure that it is. This probably goes some of the way to explaining why uptake at GCSE has remained at 6% for at least 15 years and actually isn’t being that affected by the introduction of the ebacc. Meanwhile, vocational courses are really popular and, arguably, do teach children the skills they need for 21st-century learning. Not saying that GCSE doesn’t but there are some wider issues involved which can wait for my next post.

So, this whole instrumental skills v musical knowledge thing. I am now at risk of agreeing with Nick Gibb. A knowledge-rich curriculum is really important. However, so is a skills-rich curriculum.

I have enjoyed reading various blogs about skills v knowledge but, I’ve got to be honest, I don’t really understand it. To expand on Jayne Werry’s excellent blog title (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘Don’t be <not very good>’, I’ve always advised people to plan their teaching to look at the knowledge you want children to develop whilst they are engaged in practical music and the instrumental skills will come along at the same time.

As an example, lots of people talk about the need for children to learn notation and how and when you go about teaching it. Short answer is, you don’t. Notation is just one aspect of the code of musical language that we are helping children to decipher, understand and master and so they develop this as they engage in practical music-making. As children move into their future musical world, it is equally important that they have the skills to read and decipher the graphics of an Audio Wavefile as it is to understand the intricacies of an ascending semiquaver chromatic scale. We can also be confident about just using musical language as we go along. Given that the average 8-year old knows and can use a fronted adverbial, there shouldn’t really be a massive issue with them being able to use and play subito piano.

The trouble is, if you look at how much music stuff there is to learn and how much music there is being accessed by children all the time, literally everywhere, it’s quite a challenge to see just how possible it is and how this can all be drawn together. I was reminded of this over the summer when I went to the World Athletics Championships. The attention to detail to make sure it was an all-consuming spectacle was amazing. It was a perfect trinity of Sport, Music and Art (none of which are in the ebacc by the way) and, speaking purely in musical terms, there were live brass fanfares, pop singalongs, pop and classical music to set specific moods and specially-composed music to create the right atmosphere of tension and celebration. There was loads of it, people understood what it did but didn’t necessarily understand how it was all put together or what the common underlying threads were. There was no way all of that was taught through classroom music alone.
The National Music Plan talks of reducing teacher isolationism and music teachers on facebook often talk about being a one-person department. There is no such thing as a one-person department or, at least, there shouldn’t be. We know that visiting professional musicians go in to work with students all the time, at primary and secondary level and, in the most successful schools, they try to link things together.

And, for me, this is key. We do need to focus on how much curriculum time there isn’t to teach the curriculum but we also need to have a great opportunity to maximise the opportunities for children to acquire the transferable skills they need to really get inside a piece of music by joining up what children are learning outside the classroom with what they are learning inside. I am not sure that it matters whether they are blowing down a tuba in their WCET lesson; standing behind some decks; sitting at a computer; part of a team of 15000 Samba drummers in a carnival; or working towards their Grade 4 violin exam:

If there is an awareness of what musical understanding they are developing as they engage and interact with the music and how this links to what they are doing elsewhere, they will be able to continue, and want to, make progress.

The MEC Seminar over the summer talked about the Future of Music Education Hubs from 2018 and beyond and it struck me that they have a huge job to do and are fairly key to the ongoing survival of music in this country. If we’re talking in the simplest terms possible, it would be great for Hubs to be the facilitators, purveyors and deliverers of great training and discussion so that non-specialists, specialists, classroom and individual tutors can move between different musical environments and support the child with the next bit of code-breaking that will help them to move forwards.

Let’s look at what we are doing a bit differently.

Dan Francis
24th November 2017



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Passionate believer in the power of music to transform lives. 19 years of experience as a teacher, senior manager and consultant within music education

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