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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

School music

There is concern about music education -- or the lack of it -- in England again. I say again because it has been a perennial issue to my knowledge since I sang Nymphs and Shepherds with the massed schools' choir sixty years ago under the direction of the music inspector (a counter-tenor with a hare lip, both fascinating afflictions to us small children) for whom enunciation was far more important than being in tune, and all music was either by Handel or Mendelssohn. There was a very large and ferocious lady at the piano of whom we were justly fearful.

Only a few years later music became a classroom riot, quelled only by the playing of one of the hugely popular recordings of Clive Richardson's London Fantasia, an orchestral impression of the war-time city under attack with haunting violins as air-raid sirens -- or driving the young music teacher to play Chopin's Minute Waltz ever faster until, the playing unheard amid cheering, he slammed down the piano lid and buried his face in his arms in despair. Music was what didn't matter in school, rarely to any of the pupils, and only to those staff who tried to teach it, often as a self indulgence and with little respect from any other teachers.

Roughly every decade since then there has been the sudden discovery that music has value in the school curriculum, that it can aid the development of speech, communication, motor skills, team-work, discipline and a sense of achievement. But then it falls back again into the 'free period' category, a brief and noisy escape from so-called real school work.

This failure in school could be a result of perhaps three things: genuine musical talent emerges from the genes, not the classroom; its pursuit is single minded and its severe disciplines, often self imposed, make it a minority interest; it has limited career appeal once the extent of its disciplines, modest income and highly competitive environment are recognised. With this in mind, the prospect of teaching music in schools to unwilling children in the hope of improving their reading and running is not inviting to educational administrators whose experience of music is unruly boy bands or inebriated football fans. The possibility of having enough real talent in a classroom to provide any reward to more enthusiastic teaching, especially now that so many younger teenagers suffer 'attention deficit hyperactivity disorder' and hearing impairment, is remote. In any case, music usually means messing about on a computer with headphones.

There is no problem, evidently, in recognising music's genuine value in school. The challenge has long been how to get both adults and children to take it seriously, for the craft will eventually die, like anything neglected.

Copyright © 29 April 2006 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK




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