Expecting to Fly

neil young In my blog “After the Goldrush – did we miss a trick?” I told my story of hanging around in a typical school art department, and how I liked the things I saw happening there.

At the end of my article, I asked the question: why couldn’t music departments be more like this? In this blog, I will briefly sketch out the reasons why it is that music lessons are not like art lessons, and why I feel this to be a bad thing. I will then try to paint a picture of what music departments could and should look like, and why we might have little to lose my moving in this direction.

It is worrying and depressing that we still have so many young adults who look back on their experiences of classroom music in less than favourable ways. “Dull, boring, irrelevant” are the words we hear. Why is this so often the case? Put simply, I think it is largely to do with the constraints music teachers feel they have to work under. GCSE and A level teachers have to spend much of their time on the statutory element of analysis of music using criteria from the Western classical canon. Nothing wrong with this in itself, except that it leaves precious little time for anything else. This is not likely to change. The Ofqual tail continues to wag the music curriculum dog. Watch this lively interchange from Music Education Expo http://buff.ly/1Fm8tFl and you will see what I mean. And it’s not just GCSE/A level lessons that suffer. Many teachers will feel under pressure to compromise their KS3 offer as ‘preparation’ for KS4/5 study. Can this be justified, given how few students actually go on to take music at KS4/5? On this recent TES chart showing A level uptake across subjects, music does not even appear! ‪bit.ly/1ctLkDG  The GCSE/A level music ‘world’ takes place in an artificial and ever diminishing space. A sealed bubble which is set to burst. An enclave which is hopelessly out of touch, with the rich and vibrant musical world that surrounds it. Consider this… Most of those who take A level music do so in order to progress to higher study. Most of these will eventually find work in preparing others to take this exam – or they will be involved in assessing them. They will be music teachers, ITE course leaders, inspectors, exam providers and resource writers. As Neil Young would say:

gotta get away from this day-to-day running around, Everybody knows this is nowhere.  

This is wrong for so many reasons, the main one being that music students are being seriously shortchanged. We have opportunities to provide rich, life enhancing and often life changing musical experiences, but we allow powerful people who understand nothing about music education to dictate and compromise what we do. We should be listening less to the people with power, and more to those people with powerful ideas. If our curricula and specifications were more like those enjoyed by our colleagues in art departments, we could transform the ways in which we teach music. If music teachers were to elect to climb off this treadmill, what might their music departments look like? What would they look like if they were more like art departments?

Well, art departments are given considerably more freedom in what they can do. Their brief is to help students:

development of personal work and lines of enquiry determined by the need to explore an idea, convey an experience or respond to a theme or issue.

And they do this in the way that professional artists do:

Explicit evidence of the relationship between process and outcome presented in such forms as sketchbooks, visual diaries, design sheets, design proposals, preparatory studies, annotated sheets and experimentation with materials, working methods and techniques.

And they make authentic connections with contemporary art culture by:

Critical and contextual work that could include visual and annotated journals, reviews, reflections and evaluations, documentation of a visit to a museum/gallery or experience of working with an artist in residence or in other work-related contexts.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our music students had similar briefs – and what might these look like in practice? Of course, in this scenario students would all be doing different things, exploring their chosen lines of enquiry.

Let’s imagine what this might look like for one hypothetical student…. Student A is a keen musician who also has interests in environmental issues. He comes across the work of Leah Barclay via a documentary exploring the value of creativity in environmental crisis. Leah is an Australian interdisciplinary artist, creative producer, composer and researcher who specialises in electroacoustic music, sound art and acoustic ecology. He researches the work that Leah has done, reads about her working methods, listens to some of her music and finds out more about how her work is funded and disseminated. His teacher advises him on the technology equipment and skills he will require to work in this way and helps him formulate a plan for working on a project, along similar lines to Barclay’s, in his locality. This is exciting and liberating for student A, but it does pose challenges for the music teacher, who also has students B through to Z to consider.

Currently the music teacher has a responsibility to transmit cultural knowledge – but what knowledge and whose? This is the problem we are grappling with in this blog. The teacher need to keep these responsibilities whilst also taking on the role of facilitator as suggested by John Finney:

Thus, teacher as cultural mediator as complementing teacher as facilitator is of interest, a distinction that I hope is worth thinking about.

This proposed realignment of music education will not be easy and will require some fundamental shifts for schools, music teachers, their students and all those involved in supporting music education in various ways. But this is a music education that would be worth fighting for.

Posted in Uncategorized
10 comments on “Expecting to Fly
  1. jfin107 says:

    Careful analysis of the specifications might come to the conclusion that the highest grade will be the property of the student who is a fluent notational audiator, that is, the student who is able to think through notation.

    Something worth thinking about.


    • jfin107 says:

      And now the publishing machines will start to role and music teacher’s precious CPD time drawn towards the ‘must attend’ GCSE Exam Board courses.


  2. algomusic says:

    Like John, Steve Dillon also makes a coherent case for focusing on facilitation as a pedagogical approach. In Steve’s case as a route to learning, meaning and transforming self. See: Dillon, S. (2007). Music, Meaning and Transformation: Meaningful Music Making for Life. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


  3. We do this in the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program already. Case in point my grade 10 music students are collaborating with the grade 10 drama students to compose music for characters/ scenes or moods in their play. One student has recorded this spooky atonal distorted guitar line after testing a range of effects pedals and being inspired by film music, another has written an acoustic pop song to accompany a scene in a cafe, and yet another has gathered and arranged everyone’s recordings to make an overture for the play. They all have to justify their compositions with relation to what other musicians do, document the skills they’ve learnt and basically follow an inquiry model. This kind of project based learning is hell to plan and works best with kids who are motivated and in a small class, but it beats drilling theory and analysis of western music traditions. I was lucky enough to have Steve Dillon as a professor in university.


  4. jfin107 says:

    David’s blog deserves more than my first comment.

    Art education trusting that the student’s artisitic development will yield knowledge and appreciation of the arts. Music education fearful and cautious in this respect.

    Art education defying the knowledge of the powerful.
    Music education not able or wishing to.

    The scope offered by the statement ‘an area of study might be, for example, a genre, style, musical device, idiom, musical process, period of time, cultural tradition or contextual influence’. (GCSE Subject content, January 2015, DfE) dismally intertpreted by the exam boards.

    Music teachers quiescent.
    Innovation in music education!!!


    • davidashworth says:

      I do agree, John. The statement you quote was the only ‘let out clause’ the boards were given – a glimmer of a chance to make the specs radically more exciting. I urged them to do this at Expo. They nodded along – and nodded off.
      Oh, for an exam board that would grab music by the scruff of the neck….. I can’t help but feel that there is a great opportunity for somebody here. Perhaps the chance has been missed this time, but there is always the future….


  5. Matt Allen says:

    Not all music teachers are quiescent and some of us are working extremely hard to innovate in a very, very tight space! David’s observations on the rapidly shrinking world of KS5 music are sadly true in my experience – school budgets and a subject with traditionally low percentage up take do not sit comfortably together. Despite, or perhaps because of (!) recent changes to GCSE there is a certain danger of KS4 following a similarly elitist route, particularly if the value of vocational education continues to be eroded.

    It seems as if Performing, Composing and Listening/Analysis are to be examined at KS4+ and prepared for at KS3- within extremely focused boundaries – as if to go outside these strictures would be the “wrong” way to study music. But that’s not how I grew into music at all and I’m not the only one! From my earliest days of improvisation pre grade 3 to my degree course at Goldsmiths’ I was taught to explore music – to go beyond what’s in the composer’s head even, to find your personal truth in a performance, to find your own voice in a composition, to argue your opinion in listening, to hear more than just the music in analysis. Music, so much like Art, should be a personal art form that enables communication of the deepest and most profound humanity to be shared socially. Music teachers, therefore, should never, ever spoon feed and mould students to fit an exam board criteria or the demands of the Senior Leadership Team. We should be the ultimate anarchists of the arts: questioning, expressing, pushing boundaries, sharing ideas, changing opinion, affecting and effecting emotion, unifying, individualising, challenging, welcoming – so many contrasts that can be simultaneous truth in Music.

    But we do not live in a Utopia. We exist as educators in an increasingly factory-based education system: get the raw product at one end, measure them as often as possible, do things to make them grow, bolt on the ability to tick the exam box, measure some more, set the target, measure again, move the target higher whenever they achieve their goal, churn out the grades at the end of the process, analyse the good and bad, keep the customer satisfied. I would not be surprised if a certain “Mr Gradgrind” felt entirely at home in most UK schools today – we are in a time where exam and even schooling systems are being reverted. How many music teachers do just that: strive hard for their exam classes to take place, then get on the treadmill with STEM and the rest; lose the art- in favour of the -work. I have found that attempts to innovate and explore are not understood by management, who want easily defined grades and targets, not open ended tasks and room to find your own boundaries or create an entirely new path. I have spoken to colleagues in academy chains find themselves almost schizophrenic in the bi-polar pull of teaching targets opposing artistic exploration.

    We must find our way through this. Music is too important to let it slip into mundanity. It is so much more than setting goals and targets, the next assessment task, the box ticked, the happy manager. Please don’t misunderstand – I fully acknowledge the importance of setting targets and assessment, of measuring progress and tracking improvement. I just feel that we have allowed these tails to wag our subject dog so much that we are in danger of losing the essential heart of our art. Music IS different – it reaches parts of the brain other subjects don’t even know about. Are we striving to take this into the classroom or are we sitting back and letting STEM practices dominate our very thinking. When I teach Science (my 2nd subject) I stand out from my science specialist colleagues and the technicians know me as positively dangerous, mainly because I bring the ideas of music exploration, experimentation and discovery into the laboratory and apply them to science experiments, exploration and discov…. hang on. Perhaps we have let these bean counters into too many areas of education.

    I think it’s time to start taking it all back. Let’s have a renaissance in the 21st century and rediscover the wonder of the avant-garde, the pioneer, the footprint in the moon dust that has been health and safety-d out of our education system. We should learn from our Art teaching colleagues who seem to have let all this pass them by somewhat, certainly more than in music. I strongly believe that we need to fight to keep our subject artistic lest it starts to mirror the popular / commercial music sausage factory and becomes more about quantity than quality. Put off the teacher and reinvigorate the musician. After all… it’s what we all do, isn’t it?


    • davidashworth says:

      Many thanks for this great response, Matt.

      The problem we have, of course, is that the current and forthcoming GCSE specs are very restrictive. Not totally the exam boards fault, as their hands were tied by Ofqual criteria. Nevertheless, if they had wanted to, they could have designed a more imaginative spec that would still work with the Ofqual requirements…

      But if we don’t offer GCSE at KS4, what are the alternatives? I hear very little talk of BTecs these days. Is this because there are problems, perceived or otherwise, with these? Does the iBac spec look better? Would our SLTs allow schools to choose this option? Or even more radical, are there any really brave schools out there who would or could offer a non-exam KS4/5 option?

      So there are three pathways open to us:
      1. business as usual – plough on with GCSEs regardless
      2. Scout around for some more ‘musical’ qualification
      3. Don’t do any exams….

      Actually, thinking about it, there is a fourth. Enter your candidates for GCSE Art. The spec is probably flexible enough to allow artistic expression through music. Not easy, but probably easier than trying to reconcile the tensions between offering your students a worthwhile music education at KS4/5 as against preparing them for these flawed exams.


  6. LJ Radick says:

    Loving your art GCSE idea. Radical & innovative.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow me on Twitter
%d bloggers like this: