29th June 2001 at 01:00
ISSUES IN MUSIC TEACHING. Edited by Chris Philpott and Charles Plummeridge. Routledge Falmer. pound;15.99.

Music education has been a contentious topic since the time of Plato, so it's little surprise that the arrival of yet another version of the national curriculum hasn't stilled the sound of controversy. The contributors to this book don't sing one distinct tune. The competing and complementary voices make a stimulating polyphony, in which the only shared theme concerns the need to look critically rather than passively at what we are now expected to teach.

The book falls into three parts: an account of music's philosophical, psychological and social significance; a wide-ranging exposition of what it means to teach music today; and a survey of how teachers are equipped to do the teaching. There is a salutary reminder that the term "progressive" could apply to methods developed during the 1920s and that the experimental and liberating 1970s also left some people feeling confused as to their direction.

Tradition, as one contributor reminds us, regularly needs to be invented. Nor are there irrefutable justifications available for music education itself, despite the headline-catching claims about the transferability of skills. Rather, when lessons encompass commitment and delight, "the practice is the justification".

Many pieces remind us in their own ways that musical language is metaphorical rather than logical, that it has its roots in the body and constructs its meaning in action. Musical literacy involves the physical nature of musical experience; learning isn't a simple linear process but is complex and diverse. Teachers and pupils need "the sound before the sign", to be musical before reflecting theoretically on musicality.

But, as Tim Cain puts it in a polemical essay, we're obliged by law to use a simplified linear model. Several writers are eloquent on the need nonetheless to accommodate real developmental differences among young musicians.

Elsewhere, this attack on "controlled uniformity" touches on the problem of inappropriate methods of assessment and the paradoxes within the national curriculum, where a generous pluralism concerning repertoire is partly contradicted by a narrowness about judging performance.

Pluralism, cultural diversity, inclusion of those with special needs and the introduction of new technologies all take time. This book doesn't provide solutions, but it points to the need to undertake more active research, to back hunches with facts and not simply submit to centralised policy-making.

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