Keep your hands off my maracas

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Want to improve music education? It's easy: bring back traditional assemblies, says Charlotte Phillips.

I'm a music teacher. The sort who teaches the recorder, plays the occasional hymn and likes to do creative things with unpitched percussion.

There are lots of us. You'll usually find us at the back of the hall, trying to distribute maracas with one hand while we beat a two bar introduction to "If I had a hammer" (one of my favourites, for reasons too worrying to think about) with the other. But according to some critics, most recently the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the quality of music teaching in Britain is generally poor; we're just not good enough.

This was just the fillip I needed as I put together three summer productions, preparing most of the scripts and writing the occasional song; planned the leavers' assembly; and spent several morning breaks attempting to round up the Year 2 choir, driving them in from the playground like an over-enthusiastic sheep dog.

It's simply not fair. For a start, from time immemorial, music teachers have been easy targets. Admittedly, we don't always help ourselves. What with the delicious combination of order, patterns and adding up (four crotchets=eight quavers=15 semi-quavers=I oh God, I'm one short), it's easy to see music's appeal to the obsessive character. Add our alarming tendency to become immersed in our subject to the exclusion of all others, and it's clear that music teachers just aren't equipped with the necessary defences to resist attack. Finally, and perhaps most damningly, there's our dress sense. When I was at school, you could always spot the music teachers by their porridge-coloured cardigans (worryingly, I found myself drawn to a rack of the things the last time I was in TK Maxx, but managed to tear myself free before I reached the cash desk). But things are changing, at least when it comes to performing. There are no ugly musicians; beauty is the norm. Look at any rack of classical CDs and there are pictures of gorgeous quartets, soloists, even whole orchestras.

It would make more sense to attack music teachers if music were in crisis, suffering from a shortage of performers. But it isn't; in fact there are probably too many players and not enough work. The only thing musicians seem to be lacking, judging by the propensity of music publishers to photograph their star players wearing almost nothing at all, is clothes.

If we're all really so worried about what's happening to the nation's reservoir of musical knowledge, I'd like to point critics towards a simple solution: the reintroduction of traditional school assemblies, with compulsory hymn singing. As a non-Christian, with no religious axe to grind, I can testify to its musical effectiveness. Seven years of "At the knee of Jesus", "The Lord is my Shepherd", and "There is a green hill far away" may drive you mad, but you never forget it. Even if you want to. It seems the Government thinks this tradition is a good idea: it is providing pound;30 million over three years for a "music manifesto" for schools. One of its main aims is to reverse the decline of group singing, such as whole schools singing hymns together in morning assembly.

The day I'll accept that the nation is in crisis and that music teachers must hand in their maracas and head out of the school gate is the day I see music academy scouts touting for business in Oxford Street like their fashion industry counterparts, furtively shoving clarinets at the passing shoppers; sought-after instrumental teachers abandoning their waiting lists and no longer turning away mediocre pupils because they'll push down the Associated Board grade result averages; and pushy parents ceasing to direct their children towards unusual and hard to play instruments because it makes them stand out in interviews as potential scholarship candidates.

Until then, count me in. Two bars in C major will usually do the trick.

Charlotte Phillips teaches music at Newland House prep school in Twickenham, Middlesex

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