Keep up with the classics

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Scottish traditional music is by no means a classroom panacea, says Hugh Smith

Readers may recall the early Billy Connolly sketch about school music lessons for senior boys who were forced to sing songs like "Mairi's Wedding" and listen to classical music in order to "appreciate, appreciate".

Until the late Seventies, class music lessons consisted of singing songs (including solfa) and listening to records under the guise of "music appreciation". The instrumental service added a further dimension to a pupil's education. The chance to learn an instrument depended on a selection process, which was influenced by the availability of instruments and seen by many as a reward for showing interest in aspects of the class music lesson.

Instrumental tuition in Scotland was a free service which quickly became an integral part of our schools. It ranked highly with pupils, parents, headteachers and education authority staff and was the envy of other areas of the United Kingdom.

School pupils were taught by specialist instrumental teachers who were normally conservatoire-trained in the classical tradition. A small percentage of the children would go on to become class music teachers or specialist instrumental teachers. Even fewer would take the professional performer route. But most would play in the orchestra until they left school, then never play again.

As a young music teacher in a secondary school in the Seventies, I was caught up in the changes which stemmed from the Munn and Dunning reports and Music in Scottish Schools (Curriculum Paper 16). The "music for all" strategy transformed classroom music from a stilted and passive activity into a stimulating and practical experience.

Instruments such as classroom percussion, recorders, guitars (acoustic, lead and bass), drum kit, electronic keyboards and - more recently - synthesisers, computer sequencers and other music technology tools started to feature in the class music curriculum of performing, listening and inventing.

The success of this development is indicated by the increase in certificate presentations in recent years. A further boost to numbers came with the introduction of instruments outside the classical tradition, such as saxophone, guitar and drum kit.

The instrumental service still provides an essential element of our school music curriculum, but the teaching remains largely within the classical structure. The most dramatic changes have stemmed from the creation of new local authorities. With the demise of specialist music advisers in most of the new authorities, instrumental instruction is now being coordinated by specialist staff with the titles "coordinator for instrumental instruction", "co-ordinator for expressive arts" and "head of instrumental teaching".

Colleagues who hold such positions do not have an easy task, as they strive to keep an essential part of school music education intact. Education authorities seem interested only in restricting instrumental provision and introducing or increasing tuition fees. Policy changes are driven mainly by a lack of resources and restricted budgets, rather than sound educational judgements or decisions.

This is partly because musical instrument teaching is seen by many as a peripheral activity in schools. Yet if an instrumental service were reduced or eliminated, there would be a great reduction in the number of pupils achieving a music award in school - and there would be other more subtle effects.

Learning to play an instrument is important to the personal development of pupils in a number of ways. Not only does it contribute to the musical development of an individual, but it helps to develop self-direction, motivation and persistence skills.

Recent research shows that these are the key factors in mastering an instrument, despite the commonly held belief that musical ability is the sole predictor of success. In learning to play a musical instrument pupils must have musical involvement and the systematic practice of skill. These are important life skills and can be transferred to other areas.

Music training has been shown to have an influence on the learning of foreign languages and a variety of language tasks, on mathematical skills, spatial IQ, timing, coordination, physical movement and the development of interpersonal skills through performing with other people in orchestras and bands.

In last week's TES Scotland Peter Cope was correct to suggest that for many pupils becoming a concert performer is not an appropriate goal. What is evident from pupils and parents alike is the wish to be able to perform confidently at social gatherings and, above all, to give and receive pleasure from the experience.

Tapping into Scottish traditional music may well provide a fruitful source of motivation and inspiration, but we should not abandon all of our classical traditions. It is time to integrate and strengthen the instrumental teaching service within our Scottish education system to include a variety of strategies which support our classical traditions and encourage instrumental performance for leisure and social purposes based on local and national culture.

Instrumental teaching is not effectively monitored by education authorities, and curriculum planners have failed to capitalise on its potential to develop pupils in a variety of ways. It is time the education authorities took stock and looked to the future, rather than trying to solve short-term problems.

Hugh Smith is a lecturer in music education at Moray House Institute of Education in Edinburgh. A version of this article was delivered as a paper to the Scottish Educational Research Association conference in September

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