Teacher and Writer
ON MUSIC AND ITS ROLE IN SCHOOLS
10 April 2018
Of the many memories I will treasure when looking back at my career in school education one day, music will be a very important one, maybe the most important. There are things that you do as a teacher, both within the curriculum and outwith, that you do out of a sense of duty and not necessarily for pleasure. Attending school concerts has never been one of them for me. I have always got a real joy of watching children perform music, solo music, instrumental ensemble music or choral music, be it pop, rock, jazz or classical music. The multi-genre nature of school music adds to its charm: it is rare to have the opportunity to watch an evening of music-making that combines songs by One Direction or Taylor Swift with movements from Beethoven’s piano sonatas or arias from Mozart operas. Only schools can get away with such arbitrary eclecticism.
There is, as we all know, something very powerful about music, something that appeals to the innermost chambers of our souls, something that provokes emotions or evokes memories: maybe a song that we associate with an important relationship, or a music event that took place on a day when something sad happened to us that we will forever associate with this event.
The power of music is such that it has been seen as a threat – Plato, for example, wanted to ban any music from his utopian republic that was sorrowful or sad, focus instead on music that stirred soldiers into courageous action and banish whole groups of instruments that were not suitable to keep the state in order and its citizens temperate – one of many points in which his dictatorial ‘Republic’, rather chillingly, foreshadows Hitler’s philosophy. (Censorship of the arts is one, euthanasia of ‘worthless’ life another).
What would Plato have said about the raucous atmosphere that is so prevalent at school music events all over the world: whether they are called lunchtime concerts, evening concerts, house music festivals, singing competitions or Sydney’s annual Encore concert where students from all over the state cheer on their HSC colleagues with good-humoured, but deafeningly noisy support.
Immanuel Kant, the boring old moralist, saw music as a rather low form of the arts, in particular purely instrumental music. In songs or arias, at least, you can add edifying words of moral value, but what’s the point (so goes his argument) of value-free notes? The concept of l’art pour l’art, of music enriching people’s lives independently of moral content, was an alien one to him.
Nowadays, of course, the value of music for its own sake and as an important part of a rich curriculum that celebrates liberal education is widely acknowledged. It is indeed so much more: a vehicle to enable quiet, reserved, often introvert children to find their voice; a way for all students to relieve stress or exam anxiety; or an opportunity for leaders to develop their skills as concertmaster, conductor or event organiser, for example through managing younger year groups, leading an impromptu choir, motivating the seasoned musical soloists as well as the amateurs to work together and enjoy the power of music as a group.
In their solo performances young musicians get the chance - maybe one they will never have again in adult life - to be accompanied by a proper orchestra. They get the opportunity to address shyness and stage fright by challenging themselves to perform in front of an audience. In choirs, ensembles and orchestras they learn the skills of teamwork and that all the cogs mesh together to make a performance into a success. Music prefects may get leadership opportunities that will stand them in good stead in later life.
Musicians learn discipline early: the discipline to manage their time and fit in early morning or after school rehearsals, whilst still staying on top of their academic commitments. They make friendships across year groups and learn significant social skills. It is a well-known fact that skills such as rhythm or note-reading are closely related to mathematical skills: recognising fractions, for example, or spatial thinking. Longitudinal research studies have shown that students who play music (which, amongst other benefits, trains the memory) perform better in standardised testing.
Resilience can also be learned from music and performing. How often have I witnessed a student make a mistake, then pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start again. When things don’t go as planned, improvisation skills come into play. An accompanist needs to be sensitive to the soloist’s mistakes or quirks and adjust their accompanying accordingly. These abilities (improvisation, creativity, consideration, resilience) are highly desirable and immensely transferable. Music aids cognitive skills, academic skills, social skills and wellbeing. This does not detract in any way from its intrinsic value.
The noisy, raucous, joyous music festivals and concerts I have attended over the years have been immense fun to watch and an immense privilege to be part of. For me as a teacher or school leader it continues to be incredibly rewarding to see a school prefect coax and train a big, unruly cohort of enthusiastic pupils to sing in harmony. It is fantastic to see a quiet student thrive on the piano or the flute, to see a confident and extrovert student content with, literally, ‘playing second fiddle’ and supporting others in the limelight, to watch the concentration on the young performers’ faces, the smiles during the cheers and the applause, and the talent that has been brought to fruition through hours and hours of dedicated practice. You uncover a side of some of your students that you might otherwise have missed.
It should never be a chore for us, always a joy, and most decidedly a central rather than peripheral part of our identity as teachers of young people. It is one of the things I will remember as giving meaning to my career and enriching my professional experience. Without music, our lives would indeed be diminished and impoverished.