Putting music at the centre

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.

Mr Gradgrind

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).

Highgate School

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.



10 Responses to “Putting music at the centre”

  1. Brpn

    Absolutely agree! Good music and good singing opportunities are much needed. Here in Australia I have heard young voices trying to sing to badly chosen tunes set in far too low a key for their young voices. Probably due to guitar accompaniment. I think the lack of accompanists is an issue. This reflects an era of little or no instrument learning over past decades. It’s a complex situation and not always easy to get it all together.

  2. Flor Romero

    I can’t imagine the life of my sons without music. Both sing in a boys choir in a country in which boys are not supposed to do that (Mexico). But they love it, they sing while they do a lot of things that brings a lot of joy to the house. The youngest also plays the piano and the saxophone.

  3. Allison Hayes

    Being a retired music teacher I couldn’t agree more.
    It is very natural for me to be singing throughout my day and as a child I was always making up my own songs and singing to my family.
    Hence it was also very natural that I became a music teacher in high school so that I could impart my own love of music on to others to enrich their lives.
    I have lived a charmed life and I am very grateful.

  4. David De Seguirant

    Continuing along your line of thought, if I may; the beauty of artful music–its textures, timbres, surprises, dissonances delayed and ultimately brought to satisfying resolution–gains richness with age. The age of the music is not the subject to which I refer. For those musicians such as yourself who, due to the exposure to music throughout childhood and youth, understand the interplay of melody harmony, and rhythm (not to dismiss other essential elements), the layers of meaning within music that can seem hidden from those for whom music was not emphasized, reveals new aural vistas with every hearing.

    I would be remiss if I did not mention what I have hoped to communicate to you one day: thank you for YOUR music–not only for your compositions, but for the music that sings through your humble spirit, your love for musicians, and your inspiring words. You are a rarity in an artform where celebrity and remoteness has become the status quo. Thank you, sir, for your impact on this art.

  5. Herb Ciceri

    Having been a performer early in life I was able to apply my skills directly to work in the business world. On time delivery. preparation, being able to speak in public, thinking on my feet, problem solving on the spot etc. etc. I always felt I was a step ahead because of music training. P.S. I enjoyed your lecture at Clare College to our summer choral course this year.

  6. janet shell

    Sadly, I don’t see any government minister standing up because they love music or understand how vital it is to developing as a rounded individual. When you put music and the ability to listen at the heart of a school, you inevitably open up a more tolerant ethos. The simple act of singing together every day is very bonding in quiet ways that nobody needs to shout about, yet is felt by all. When there is no question that this, or any act of physical music making, is an acceptable thing to do as part of the spirit of a school, it develops skills of communication and togetherness – everybody has to work for a common goal – and a lot more of that and less of the ‘my way rules’ idea would not go amiss today!

  7. Gabriele Lacrampe

    My life is so much richer because of music. Choral music in particular. The communal aspect of singing in harmony with a large group of people amplifies what life could look like if everyone would do it. I met so many wonderful singers over the years -in the US and abroad- and we understand and appreciate the deeper meaning of singing together. I’m also grateful for living in a school district that offers band and choir early on and I remember fondly the many concerts and musicals, watching kids of all ages growing into the next generation of singers and musicians. Definitely not a frill.

  8. Bruce van der Graaf

    Exactly, when I started kindergarten in 1964 (oh, that was a while ago), Kindergarten teachers had to play the piano and do singing with the class. I too am thankful for my music teachers who introduced us to great music, but despair for so many children denied the same opportunities and fed on a diet of much lesser fare.

  9. Carole Knight

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful article. I have been a primary school teacher for 44years and in every school I was the Music coordinator. I volunteer in a local school as I can’t stay away from such a rewarding vocation. I have also written my memoirs up to date with a chapter on Music Education (no publishing—-just for me). As we know “Music is for all” and an essential key to learning. As well as weekly class Music lessons the whole school (5-11years) was involved in Singing Practice which was fun and challenging, an annual production and a Christmas Carol Service. I believe the most important subjects for children involve Creativity and Music and Sport Skills.
    There is much evidence for this. The standard of story writing in a Year 6 class improved no end when the children were involved in a school production. I would love to be part of a working party to put education back on the right track! Thank you for your Music.

  10. Jeremy Main

    John being a modest soul, his bottom drawer has works for this sector he’s too humble to publish. One day, John?
    As a separate thought, although you’ve written your Requiem, in a way it’s just the envoi towards the Second Christmas, much as the Eucharist is to Salvation, acceptance of the still-inchoate promise. Dufay’s L’Homme Armé cantus firmus mass started to address this, Karl Jenkins the most recent of around 80 other composers in the centuries since, but he stops short in the Peacemaking agenda we created. That peace is mundane, and the Peace of Paradise eternal. Rebecca Dale stands halfway between you, having walked slightly ahead of Karl in the extension of her Requiem to include other Mass elements, the Ave Maria heading towards In Paradisum, through Dies Irae and Libera Me. That points towards the greatest Carol of all, as the Gates of Heaven open. The polyphony of pure adoration, flying off Karl’s Let Us Hasten Thither, Adiemus, and that surely calls for your love of simplicity in grandeur. Elements of the Pilgrimage hymns of Santiago, perhaps?