Is Music Reading Outdated?

A recent article in the Guardian by Charlotte C Gill has raised some interesting questions around problems in music education, and caused a fair amount of controversy too.

In her March 27 column, Gill expresses concern over the problems in class music – uptake in music at A-Level and GCSE has dropped by 9% since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) in 2010, an issue, which we’ve previously covered under the ISM’s Bacc for the Future campaign.

The ISM has been supporting the inclusion of creative subjects in schools after researchers claimed that pressure on students to take subjects included in the EBacc meant that music was being squeezed out. According to a Sussex University study, nearly two thirds of 650 state schoolteachers surveyed said the EBacc meant fewer students were taking GCSE music.

[Image: Tiffany Bailey]

However, Gill asserts that she believes the best way to encourage more children to engage in music is to teach the subject in a ‘less academic’ way. Speaking from her own childhood experience, she says that the problem lies with the focus on notation:

This is a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education. Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.

This is the statement that has raised hackles – and unlike the other points in her article, Gill produces no statistics to back it up. Gill’s own experience of difficulty with music reading, and the fact she struggled to have her love of music recognised are clear, but do they speak for every other state school child, and can one person’s undeniably frustrating experience ever validate the undermining of an entire subject?

It’s undeniable that elitism and imbalance exist. Just 7% of the UK population attended private school. But Gill’s statement that music is only for the “white and the wealthy” does not add up. If her question is aimed at preferential provision in private schools, according to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), 29% of its pupils are from a minority background – far higher than the 14% of BAME citizens in British society as a whole.

[Image: Frank R Snyder]

Meanwhile, children from a white background have been found to make significantly less progress in school than their BAME counterparts (Centre Forum). And according the World Literacy Foundation’s 2012 report, 20% of adults in the UK struggle with basic reading and writing, indicating deeper problems in the education system that no amount of soft-soaping will solve.

Gill makes no new points with her comments. Offsted’s 2011 report on music education devoted large sections to the importance of practical music making and performance, with Sistema Scotland reporting that 93% of participants were happier as a result of their involvement in the scheme.

But Ofsted’s report showed out of 300 music lessons observed, only 30 were deemed above average. A tiny 7% of schools in a survey of 90 qualified as ‘outstanding’ providers of effective music education, while 61% were deemed satisfactory or inadequate.

Given that of these 90 schools, 66% were considered to be providing an effective education overall, this figure underlines the desperate situation into which music education has fallen. The weakest year group was found to be Key Stage 3 (years 7 to 9), “A direct consequence of weak teaching and poor curriculum provision.”

The report opposes Gill’s claims that music is seen as too academic, stating that many students see academic music as a soft option. Only those children who have been exposed to culture from a young age, and who have developed proficiency as performers tend to be encouraged to take music at GCSE and A-level. The divide between those deemed suitable to take music is set almost as soon as a child joins the school.

This would seem to imply that in order for a child to progress in music at GCSE and A-level, more provision is needed in primary schools, and that children with parents who are interested in music are at an advantage.

In May 2015, world famous concert violinist and music education supporter Nicola Benedetti argued that:

…needing the child’s approval for what they do in school is just such an alien concept when you’re talking about maths, science, history or English…but suddenly, when you bring music into the mix, it’s: ‘Oh no, we can’t show them anything that they don’t instantly love because that would be like forcing children into something that they don’t want to do.’

Benedetti’s comments underline the tendency, exemplified by Gill’s remarks, to feel that because music is profoundly personal and accesses the emotions, it does not warrant ‘restrictive’ academic study.

Gill’s comments have engendered an angry response from musicologist Ian Pace, who says her claim that music can only be read by a small number of people,

…flies in the face of countless initiatives over two centuries making musical literacy available to those of many backgrounds.

He continues:

As with written language, musical notation enables effective and accurate communication, as well as critical access to huge amounts of knowledge. In many musical fields, those without it will be at a deep disadvantage and dependent upon others.

Pace goes on to say that he agrees that “aural and other skills are equally important as those in notation,” but puts her comments about illiteracy down to “romanticisation,” warning that Gill’s position “could serve to make literate musical education even more exclusive through being marginalised in state schools yet further.”

Another article, also from the Guardian in 2015, actually highlights the fact that instrumental music tuition in the UK is more often than not excellent, but that children and parents are not always made aware of what provision is available to them. Author Sarah Derbyshire states:

We need to focus less on the ‘best’ way to learn and more on the fundamentals of engaging children and young people in excellent music of all kinds – in all settings. The starting point is to define clearly the building blocks of musical learning, which are, to my mind: singing; reading music; access to instrumental tuition (both formal and informal); digital technology; attending live performance; creative involvement in composition; improvisation and performance of their own work.

To look at the genuine problems of music reading, a blog from dyslexia experts Brightstar Learning explains that learning notation may be more difficult for dyslexic students.

Reading music may be more difficult than reading text. For one thing, the written language of music contains signs that are multifunctional, for instance, the line. Lines in music can be vertical or horizontal; they may be long or short: straight or curved; mean something on their own; or need to be combined with other symbols to make sense. There’s no doubt that someone who has a problem with visual discrimination is going to have trouble reading music.

But the blog offers a range of imaginative solutions, concluding simply that:

The main factor in teaching the dyslexic student seems to be pacing the lessons so that the student doesn’t go into overload. It will take the dyslexic student a bit longer to process the information in lessons.

As explained by USA teaching business, Musika, learning to read music is one of the hardest things a beginning instrumentalist will do, but no instrument is mastered overnight, and music reading flows in stages alongside technique. Various programmes have been devised, such as the Colourstrings Method and Suzuki Method, which have structured and specific ways of integrating music reading and musicianship into instrument learning in an holistic way, and every beginner tutor book carries careful instruction in notation.

[Image: Grunpfnul]

Looking at these facts as a whole, notation is not the main issue locking children out of genuine engagement in music education. The separate issue of sight reading which is lumped in to Gill’s complaint about the inaccessibility of notation is a red herring.

Success in sight reading is predominantly a mater of concerted practice: Since when a player is sight-reading the muscles are required to react instantly to what the eye sees, and the eye to read several beats ahead of what the hands are playing, the more the player practises this specific skill, the better and easier sight-reading will become. If sight-reading is only approached in a handful of lessons leading up to a grade exam, the child is likely to endure an embarrassing experience causing them to echo Gill’s sentiment, “I can’t sight-read.”

Gill’s article ends with the assertion that,

Diversity breeds diversity, and teaching is where this needs to start.

Again this is not quantified in her previous comments, nor does it follow from her arguments. She sites relevant issues with the wider music curriculum, which are legitimate and ongoing. But she goes on to imply that predominantly white children enjoy a private education and that those at state schools can’t be expected to learn to read music. Both of these comments are naïve and in turn elitist, and wrongly put the onus on the class teacher who is working within a strict curriculum and often with limited resources.

To follow on from Benedetti’s remarks, if a child is interested in creative writing, it does not stifle that child’s expression to teach vocabulary and grammar – expression is enhanced when the student has the tools. A budding artist will remain frustrated if he or she is not taught some of the technique of drawing. To look at Picasso’s later work, one might surmise that figurative technique and study of drawing are unnecessary to make art, but his work was informed by an immense, learned skill in draughtsmanship. Failure to teach the basics actually damages progression and ignorance never aids confidence.

[Image: The Harker School]

Ultimately, while it has less day-to-day application than general literacy, learning to read music is no more difficult than learning to read. While it is not necessary for performers of every genre to learn notation, it is enormously helpful and inclusive to be able to converse in a universal musical language that crosses other language barriers. The sticking point for some may be that music reading is best learned during one-one instrumental or singing lessons, and these are not always available or even desired.

By failing to teach notation, children who want to progress as musicians will become locked out. By pandering to the idea that music is something that everyone can naturally do, generations of knowledge and technique become unavailable. By ignoring the international nature of notation, an inclusive, wholly egalitarian means of creative communication is lost.

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