In need of a bit of encouragement

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Tackling the problem of getting Muslims involved in school music is a tricky one. Gerald Haigh reports

MUSIC EDUCATION AND MUSLIMS. By Diana Harris. Trentham Books. pound;16.99

A WELL-TEMPERED MIND. By Peter Perret and Janet Fox. Dana Foundation. Pounds 8

MUSIC MAKES YOUR CHILD SMARTER. By Philip Sheppard, Artemis. pound;14.99

Many teachers, particularly in secondary schools, will have encountered the reluctance of some Muslim families to engage with school music and other performing arts. There are children who mime when everyone else is singing, and others who are refused permission to take instrumental lessons or concerts. If you're a music teacher - someone who believes that music is a beautiful gift, a liberation and benison for the soul - what do you do about that?

This is the question tackled by Diana Harris in Music Education and Muslims. "What I am interested in," she writes, "is helping them (Muslims) experience the liberating power, the creative potential and the capacity for self-expression which comes with the ability to respond, or take part in, performing arts."

At the same time, though, you know well enough that you have to respect sincerely held beliefs. Diana Harris continues: "What I am not trying to do, never have nor ever will do, is to try to persuade anyone to do something that they feel is wrong."

The only way forward for the music teacher is to learn as much as possible of the various attitudes to performance within Islam at large, and particularly within the local community. After that it's a matter of building trust, shaping school practice so that it's clearly trying not to offend, accepting that there will always be those who wish to stay with their firm beliefs and that a wide range of interpretation exists within Islam.

It's a tall order for a busy teacher, but Diana Harris has done a lot of the work already. By reporting what she's learned from a wide range of Muslim scholars and educators, as well as music teachers, she shows us that there is no clear-cut consensus about music within Islam. Attitudes range from outright rejection of almost all music as superfluous and distracting for the devout believer, through to nearly complete acceptance, and there are all shades in between.

All of that is reflected in other faiths, including Christianity. (Remember Mr Slope's sermon against the choir in Trollope's Barchester Towers - his dig at "the undue preponderance (of) music over meaning"?) It's worth remembering, as something to bring into any discussion about whether music is a worthwhile study, that there's increasing evidence of its beneficial effect on children's general academic performance. Two recent books, in particular, are helpful here. A Well-Tempered Mind by Peter Perret and Janet Fox, is a detailed account of the Bolton Music Residency Project in North Carolina, where a quintet of professional players worked to co-ordinate music teaching in the curriculum, achieving some remarkable results that indicate the power of music to enhance the brain's learning power.

Directed more at parents, Music Makes your Child Smarter by Philip Sheppard, not only marshals the evidence but helps parents, with the aid of an accompanying CD, into some musical activities with young children.

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