'Dumbed-down' courses rob music of credibility

25th April 2008 at 01:00
Universities run remedial sessions in musical literacy to bring first-year students up to scratch

Universities run remedial sessions in musical literacy to bring first-year students up to scratch

Pupils studying Higher music have to be familiar with everything from Baroque to contemporary, but basic skills such as reading music are being neglected, according to subject teachers. They also claim that a revamp of the Higher and Advanced Higher music courses two years ago has led to a "dumbing down" and loss of credibility.

Pupils sitting Higher currently need to reach at least Grade 4 standard in instrumental performance and a minimum of a Grade 5 at Advanced Higher level. Previously, the required levels were Grades 5 and 7 respectively.

This drop in performance requirements, music teachers argue, means a qualification in Higher music is no longer a credible entry qualification for university courses where students are expected to be performing at Grade 7 or 8.

Their comments come in the wake of a conference, Bridging the Gap, held on Saturday at Aberdeen University. Organised by the UK-wide Incorporated Society of Musicians, it focused on the transition from music at school to higher education.

Phillip Thorne, principal teacher at St David's High in Dalkeith and senior lecturer at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and Drama, who spoke at the conference, said: "A child playing at Grade 4 would be expected to have conceptual knowledge from Baroque, through to Renaissance, through to the present day, which is a lot. That amount of conceptual knowledge does not seem to transfer into college."

He also argued that composition - "the lifeblood of music" - no longer held the kind of position it should, since being reduced to a pass or fail at Higher.

Pupils should no longer be obliged to study two instruments, he added. "If you are not very good at the second, it pulls your mark down. There is a feeling one instrument should be studied to a much higher level."

Music teacher Alison Moir, of The Gordon Schools in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, argued that too much is crammed into the course. "You don't get time to study anything in depth, such as literacy or aural skills," she said.

Alison Reid, principal teacher of music at Portlethen Academy, also in Aberdeenshire, said that "the perceived dumbing down of the performing standard" had left teachers having to justify the subject's existence. "When the drop came, I had to convince my S6 that this was still a worthwhile qualification to take," she said.

Ms Reid argued that the lower standard de-motivated pupils, some of whom had reached Grade 4 by S1 or S2. "As a school subject, is Higher music a credible entry qualification for higher education? Increasingly the answer seems to be no."

University academics also fear the music Higher is failing pupils. Dr David Smith, a senior lecturer in music at Aberdeen University, said institutions were having to run foundation courses in musical literacy for first-year students. "People coming to university - through no fault of their own - lack the basics of musical notation," he said.

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