In the world of education, ideas go in and out of fashion—does anyone now remember the daft Initial Teaching Alphabet, much in vogue in the 1960s? No one really knows exactly how children learn or what will best prepare them for their adult lives, so there is ample scope for forming theories which, if convincing enough, prevail in colleges of education until someone comes up with a new one.
Victorians believed in rote learning, the three Rs, conformity, and punishment for those who fell behind or stepped out of line, as embodied in Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind. In reaction against that, educationalists such as Friedrich Froebel (inventor of kindergartens) and Rudolf Steiner came into fashion: they argued for nurturing the development of the whole child—mentally, emotionally and physically—by emphasising music, healthy exercise, communing with nature, and cultivating arts and crafts. I started school at the tail end of this period, enduring winter walks in the park two abreast in a shivering crocodile, bracing hours of Swedish drill (synchronised jumping around in a gym), much fashioning of papier-maché pots and raffia mats . . . plus, for me, the pearl in the oyster, lots of singing and music. I can still deliver from memory a complete All things bright and beautiful or O, no John, first sung in lusty chorus at school before I lost my milk teeth. My sister has a similar total recall of the admirable BBC schools broadcasts Music and Movement and Singing together (the titles say it all).
Music at my next school was presided over by a peppery but secretly soft-hearted organist named Martindale Sidwell who taught us the rudiments of vocal technique and showed us that a Schubert song such as Die Forelle or An die Musik could still be beautiful when sung by a class of ten-year-olds. On to senior school, where the director of music, Edward Chapman, no mean composer himself, encouraged us to regard composition as an entirely normal activity and succeeded in getting over 300 out of a school of 650 scruffy North London lads to join the concert chorus, not just to sing obvious choral warhorses like The Creation and Elijah, but, in a spirit of adventure, Tippett’s A Child of our Time (the school orchestra struggled a bit with that one). The more select chapel choir sang its way through the easier gems of the cathedral repertoire, and each December presented a Festival of Lessons and Carols, its repertoire generally following a year or two behind King’s College Cambridge.
Did this educational background turn us all into high achievers in later life? Perhaps not, but it did give us the keys to the magic kingdom of music—there was no problem filling the newly-built Royal Festival Hall for even the most routine classical concert—and we were probably a calmer generation than our more restless and anxious children and grandchildren are, though admittedly the downgrading of music in education can’t be entirely blamed for the current prevalence of such symptoms of malaise as eating disorders, self-harm, and social media addiction.
Others can write passionately of the demonstrable benefits of music as a central plank in a child’s education—the improvements it brings across a range of subjects and skills, and the enhancement of well-being generally—and I just hope they can convince those who devise and implement our educational curriculum. The wheel of fashion needs a spin to rediscover music as the newest, brightest idea in education. It’s not a frill, it needs to be at the centre.