To play or not to play;Secondary;Music for the Millennium

1st May 1998 at 01:00
Why are fewer and fewer young people taking up - and continuing to play - musical instruments? That is the question that the music boards would like an answer to. Kate Worsley reports

Parents may despair over it, teachers can puzzle about it, and the child will probably regret it, but no one can quite pin down why one child makes the decision to give up music when another, apparently less gifted child, ploughs ahead.

George, who's "nearly 17", used to sing like an angel, recalls his elder sister. "He has perfect pitch." George took up the trumpet, then the piano, then the guitar. Each one he gave up after a few years; he gave away his guitar to a friend last year. Now, deep in GCSE revision, he's wandering the house in a dishevelled dressing gown and music is the last thing on his mind. "There'd be no point playing now anyway. I haven't got any melody left, any fluency."

His younger sister Sarah, 13, on the other hand, has just bounced in after her grade 3 piano exam. She plays the trombone too, to grade 4. "I don't think I did very well," she says brightly, betraying not a bit of chagrin. "I've never got better than a pass." Despite family protests about the din, she persists in practising the trombone in the front room for everyone to see - and hear.

There seem to be far more Georges than Sarahs about in British schools these days. Education authorities and the music boards are worried, and even the music industry is concerned. The number of children playing instruments has dwindled, and even more young people have dropped out of music lessonsat school.

Often children will take up an instrument for a short while and then drop it when they move into secondary education, or, at 14, when music ceases to be a compulsory subject. After the age of 10 interest declines rapidly - if you don't start playing an instrument before then, it's unlikely you ever will.

Ironically, this is just the age when music - popular and classical - is at its most potent in forming identity and allegiances, and expressing dreams and anxieties. Giving up also deprives children of the social opportunities, artistic growth and study skills that playing an instrument can offer. So what is turning children off playing music for themselves?

Researchers from Keele University are addressing precisely that question in a new Economic and Social Research Council-funded project. Financial constraints aside, the key element seems to be motivation. "We suspect that what matters is a combination of individuals' beliefs about their ability and their subjective values - how much effort it is worth putting into music, rather than, say, football or their social life," explains Keele psychologist and flute teacher Susan O'Neill.

The early teens are crucial to acquiring a musical skill. Around the age of 12 children begin to make the distinction between effort and ability, realising that, however hard they try, their basic ability can limit how well they do. Their reactions tend to be a mix of what the Keele researchers call "helpless" and "mastery" behaviour.

Helpless children will avoid difficult pieces or give up altogether, blaming their lack of talent and dreading the humiliation of doing badly despite trying their best. They view the teacher as a judge, exams as a trial and effort as a risk. Earlier research by Dr O'Neill found that children who reacted this way did significantly less well after a year of musical tuition than those who displayed mastery behaviour - positive outlook and persistence. These children see the teacher as a resource, exams as a staging post and effort as an investment.

The Keele researchers say that past research in this area has neglected the ways in which social factors influence indivi-duals' beliefs and behaviour. Over the next three years they will interview a thousand 11 to 16-year-olds from 20 state schools in the north-west and Midlands for clues to what makes a George give up and a Sarah soldier on.

Most of George and Sarah's friends in their comfortable part of north London play instruments, and their schools provide orchestras and bands. Sarah likes a challenge and loves to be noticed. "It's good, I'm the only person I know who plays the trombone." She started the piano relatively late, aged 10, and the trombone at 11. She has a half-hour trombone lesson at school once a week, and goes to a friend's house after school on Tuesdays for a 45-minute piano lesson. But she only practises when she "has to - the night before". She says she enjoys the feeling of getting better, and thinks "playing an instrument makes you cleverer".

George started much earlier, playing the trumpet at six, but "quit because it started inflaming my cheeks". Piano to Grade 4 stopped when he moved schools and got a tutor "who was no good". Then he took Spanish guitar for an hour twice a week at school for four years until "I just threw my guitar down and walked out" in an argument with his tutor last year. "He was an arrogant hippy, totally out of it. As I look back on it now it was a shame. I also used to jam with a mate in a sound-proof shed - that was nice." Although he'd like to play guitar again, he doesn't want another music teacher. "When I play I enjoy the independence, and the sound I make, and the knowledge that I'm creating something."

Sarah thinks a good teacher is crucial. "If your teacher is horrible to you or tells you off for not practising enough, you start not to enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it there's no point," she says. Both are clear that musical skill is an asset socially. "I think it's really cool when grown-ups like my mum's friend come round and they just start playing," enthuses Sarah. "I want to be like that."

"It does make you a lot more popular," confides George. He has 12 friends who play instruments and are encouraging him to start again. "After exams I'm going to buy myself a Fender electrical guitar treble - one of my mates has got one going cheap. And an amp."

George and Sarah mention most of the factors we think are important, observes Dr O'Neill. "The support the school environment gives often functions on a more unconscious level, while the social context is at the forefront of their minds. There's also the issue of children who think if they have to put in a lot of effort they can't be any good. This belief is often by the brightest individuals. It can be a very powerful barrier to success."


* Practice

Practice is essential. On average top players have put in 10,000 hours by the time they are 18. But practice has to be enjoyable. Provide goals such as performances for friends and family. Easy-to-remember tips such as "remember to count" and "play slowly at first" help young players stay focused and become their own teacher when practising. Be clear about how much practice you expect them to do and help them set realistic goals.

* Exams

Exams should not replace enjoyment as a motive for playing. Remember, too, that children who are concerned about gaining praise and avoiding criticism may avoid such challenges as too risky and humiliating if they fail. Don't enter children for exams before they are ready.

* New material

Interest in music thrives on a sense of autonomy. Play three new pieces, ask them to talk about what they hear and allow them to choose their favourite. Give them a good start on new pieces in lessons, so that they leave with a sense of achievement.

* Scales

Scales are difficult and hard to remember, and best practised before school. Make sure they can say the letter names of scales before they play them to focus their attention and concentration.

* Parents

Get parents on your side. Let them know what, how much and when their child should be practising, to prevent practice sessions turning into a battle zone at home.

* Flexibility

What works with one child may put another off for life. Try a variety of methods, but make them feel positive about playing their instrument from the very first lesson.

* Challenge

When children find they can do something they didn't think they could manage, it boosts their self-esteem and interest. Try to provide this every lesson, so that they learn that effort is the key to improving.

12 SECONDARY neil turner Musical conundrum: why has George, who has perfect pitch, given up music lessons, while his younger sister Sarah soldiers on?

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