Skip to main content

Just pick up a fiddle and play

Peter Cope warns that an orchestral obsession isstifling music in schools.

Music tuition is under threat from budget restrictions in local authorities which have led to cuts in the provision of instrument teaching. Like many supporters of school music, I have watched these with some alarm, but I have an added interest which originates partly in my own keen (but somewhat clumsy) efforts as an amateur musician and partly in my children's rather more effective musicianship. Their expertise is in playing traditional fiddle and I have gathered a number of children as pupils over the past few years although I have no formal qualifications in music and my own fiddle playing is indifferent, even on a good day.

I am an enthusiastic supporter of school music and I never fail to be impressed by the scope and quality of school shows and other musical productions. I also appreciate the enormous efforts, always well above the call of duty, which go into them. But when these efforts are directed towards building an orchestra there appear to be a number of unintentional consequences.

Many schools regard an orchestra as a performance indicator - one which tells us something about the school ethos. There are a number of questions about such assumptions. Classical music requires a high degree of precision and skill before it rises above sounding grim. Novice orchestras often choose slow pieces because they are easier to play but are then faced with the difficulty that slow classical music requires good tone production and precision of intonation, each of which is among the more difficult aspects of instrument playing, particularly in the strings.

Another assumption is the suitability or indeed the superiority of classical music as the mainstay of the repertoire. This means that children will be playing music which is probably unfamiliar to them and to their families, an outcome which does not seem to be a sensible way of ensuring the motivation and the support required for the regular practice required to become a competent instrumentalist.

There are other features of this focus on the classical repertoire which underline its socio-cultural and educational incongruity. An orchestra requires viola players, bassoon players, cello players as well as first violins, trumpets and the others which normally "play the tune". On the face of it, this allows a laudable educational breadth of provision but it raises questions about the outcome for the individual musicians concerned. What role is there for viola players once they leave school? Will they form a string quartet or find an amateur orchestra in which to play? My guess is that most people give up instruments like this once they leave school and find no social context for their skill.

There is one further serious problem about this focus on classical music. As far as instrumental tuition is concerned, the goal - implicit or explicit - is to produce a concert player. But classical instrument playing requires a technical virtuosity which is beyond the ambition of most people. It has been estimated that a professional musician completes more than 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 21. While I firmly believe that this level of skill is theoretically attainable by most people the plain fact is that most of us are not that interested.

None of the parents I have spoken to about their aspirations regarding their children's instrument playing were interested in this sort of dedication. They wanted their children to be socially competent players, to be able to play a half-decent tune at a social occasion without embarrassment. This is attainable - it requires a modest amount of regular practice. The problem is that if the concert player is the yardstick, then most children are going to fail by comparison.

There are a wide variety of alternatives to classical school music in Scotland, such as folk clubs, strathspey and reel societies, pipe bands and a rich tradition of fiddle playing which has variants in different geographical areas. For many people this sort of music is more interesting and relevant to their lives having, as it does, a firm basis in local and national culture. For the past year, I have been participating in a fiddle group which is designed to tap into the culture of traditional, rather than classical, music. One of its aims is to increase the participation rate to above the 10 per cent of children which seems to be the average for school instrument playing.

The fiddle group is based around a local primary school and holds a weekly meeting in the school at which the young fiddlers come to learn to play new tunes. There is no formal teaching and there are no formally qualified instrument teachers. There is no selection and the focus is on traditional music. Parents have been encouraged to participate by learning to play an instrument themselves and eight of them have become regular members.

One or two brave souls have taken up the fiddle but several have dug out old guitars which they strummed in their youth. Parents and children have been encouraged to form practice groups rather than rely on the solitary daily practice. The principle has been to try to make playing the fiddle feel like a culturally relevant activity for the children involved and this has been underpinned by a number of successful performances in the community.

Judging the success of the group is clearly a subjective matter. In spite of the lack of selection and the high participation rate, there have been only three drop-outs from the 25 or so children who started but these have been more than compensated for by children waiting to join so that membership is now running at more than 40 if we count the adults. Participation is, therefore, still running at around half of eligible children. As you would expect, progress in terms of musical and technical skill is varied, but the majority of the group attend regularly. They clearly enjoy the music and rise to the challenge of playing jigs and reels on an instrument which is not usually regarded as easy to get into.

I am not suggesting that instrument teachers are dispensable, The lack of formal lessons in the fiddle group is a result of necessity rather than of choice and combining cultural relevance and parental involvement with some good coaching would, I suspect, be highly effective. But I do argue that the reason for the current vulnerability of musical instrument teaching is that its lack of contact with local and national culture has made it a peripheral and elite activity. If instrument teaching really struck a chord with local culture, and if participation was running at around 50 per cent, dismantling it would be unthinkable. But it has chosen to focus largely on classical music (or jazz) and to react defensively to charges of elitism rather than to regard them as a stimulus to reappraisal.

In a recent article, an understandably defensive instrument teacher criticised "oft-repeated charges of elitism". According to him, the only alternative to the current philosophy and methodology was "to conclude that instrument tuition has no place in the equal-opportunity philosophy of state education". On the basis of our experience with the fiddle group, I disagree: another alternative is to stop being elitist.

* Next week: Hugh Smith on instrumental instruction.

Peter Cope is a senior lecturer in education at Stirling University. His article is based on a paper delivered to the British Educational Research Association conference in September.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you