Ages 11 to 14: The Barren Years

img_0029The profile of classical music in schools is complex, with provision, inclusion and expectations differing wildly between primary and secondary age groups. Professional cellist and secondary school classroom teacher Sarah Evans describes her experiences of teacher attitudes, her frustration that classical music continues to be viewed as too challenging, and her determination to let her students make up their own minds.

“As a professional musician, I have spent much of my career teaching and promoting classical music. Yet as classical audiences diminish, I feel we are fighting to try and keep our business alive and our careers worth pursuing. When I chose to train as a secondary school music teacher, I was very much conscious of the diminishing returns on my own educational investments and keen to discover why classical music is a dying art.

[image: Tiffany Bailey Flickr]

[image: Tiffany Bailey Flickr]

As a musician, I have many hours giving workshops to children around the country. I have seen the impact these have had both short and long term. Classical musicians are confident taking their skills and enthusiasm to primary schools where students have usually be primed and are almost exclusively enthusiastic and will take part in any activities on offer.

As a teacher I cannot tell you how many year 7 students have shown me what they have learnt at a Royal Opera House Schools’ Matinee, an Opera North singing project, or the Gamelan visits they participated in, sung the songs taught to them by professional singers, or enthused about the instruments they have seen and heard when specialists arrived at their school for a day. Despite the lack of funding for specialist music teachers in primary schools, these students arrive at secondary school pre-enthused, malleable, happy to sing, open minded and in some cases, well educated in a variety of musical genres. As musicians, we feel we have been educating the next generation of audience members.

However, as students reach secondary school, this musical confidence and excitement often wanes. The funding and opportunities for musicians to take part in professionally offered musical projects stops, the time and energy to discover new genres and musical paths by students stops as exam pressure kicks in, and as teenage hormones kick in, we as teachers often resort to the path of least resistance – giving them the music they are already familiar with.

800px-Boxwood_PS_Music_room

In my 17 years of giving workshops to schools and communities, I only once had the opportunity to visit a secondary school, and that was to play briefly to GCSE students – scary enough in my pre-teacher days. As a musician, the thought of trying to engage 32, 11-14 year olds filled me with dread. As a teacher, KS3 lessons can at times be a fight: Students know they can drop music at the end of year 8 or 9, so bad grades will have no impact on their future. And yet this is the age that we need to be targeting. Students start forming staunch opinions about what they do and don’t like at this stage and without giving them options, they cannot make informed choices.

There is too little support for secondary school teachers in the realms of classical music. Many schemes and projects have been recently formed to ‘gee-up’ music in the secondary school classroom, but almost all of it leaves classical music (and other equally exciting genres) as the poor cousin to rock and pop, and non-classically trained musicians somewhat in the dark.

I recently attended a secondary music teachers course and also taught in a secondary school, where my admission that I taught western notation to Year 7 and that we studied classical music in a positive way was met with shock and distain. Why was I bothering?

Teachers asked if anyone had ideas as to what classical music they could teach KS3 (years 7-9) which might be engaging as they now have to prepare their students for the new (classically inclusive) GCSE. The only responses from other music teachers? Pachelbel’s Canon, “as they can write pop songs from it,” and, “The Alton Towers Theme Tune, because they all know it.”

[image: Tiffany Bailey Flickr]

[image: Tiffany Bailey Flickr]

If classical music appears inaccessible to music teachers and musicians cannot access funding to offer support, how are we to engage the next generation of classical audience? The BBC 10 Pieces scheme is accessible, pre-planned, full of resources, engaging and challenging – it is frankly, brilliant – but teachers are still wary of starting it as the vicious circle of classical music being ‘boring’ still exists. As we all know, boring is a term used frequently by teenagers. It mostly hides a fear from lack of understanding. As teachers we are shattered and yes and if we are lucky, our departments will be given enough money in the year to rub a ukulele and a drum stick together. But we have a responsibility to challenge students, to introduce them to things that they may not otherwise come across, to break down barriers, to try new ideas and to do this without prejudice.

Listening is free, a highly underused resource in music classrooms and this is often where professional workshops succeed. Regularly offering up examples of all styles of classical music, telling the stories behind the music, the dirty details of the composers and making it interesting is so invaluable to producing students confident to engage with the genre. Now, I am not saying that classical music is in anyway the purest art form, that students will all instantly adore Beethoven, nor that it should be taught exclusively in schools. Our lives need balance and we should be opening our students’ eyes to as many musical genres as we can. But as teachers and musicians, we should be doing our research, challenging our own fears and preferences and offering up the full smorgesbord of experiences that music has to offer. As an industry, classical music could be doing so much more here to support schools, in the same way it does at primary school level. I feel exceptionally lucky to have taught in a school where all musical genres were promoted and encouraged in and out of the classroom from day one. As a result, students who set up their own Renaissance choral group and Indian classical group sat alongside those who set up their own funk band, those in the school musical and those who DJ’d.

Our opinions are based on what we know. If we don’t regularly offer children as many choices as possible throughout their education, we are limiting their options. Doing this purely at primary school age and again at GCSE is not enough – we need more funding, more education and less fear of the existing preferences of students between 11 and 14. As classical musicians and as teachers, we need to consider these barren years of KS3 if we are to train up the audiences of tomorrow.”

Sarah Evans is a professional cellist who trained at The Royal Academy of Music and Trinity College of Music. She is a qualified secondary school classroom teacher originally working in schools in London and more recently, Yorkshire.  

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