Tuesday, 31 October 2006

16: Why Teach Music in School?

16: Why Teach Music in School?

Janet Mills

Research Fellow, Royal College of Music, London

There is recorded music almost everywhere in everyday life, but so little music making, and so much misunderstanding of what music is all about. People think that they are 'not musical'. Or that to play an instrument you first have to learn to read music. Or that if they have tried to learn an instrument, but did not make too much progress, this was necessarily their fault. Or that you have to be Mozart to compose. Or that music teachers are only interested in classical music composed by men who are long dead.

Teaching music in school enables us to put all this right before it goes wrong. We build on the natural affinity for and joy in making music – including making up music – that all children bring to their first day at school, and help them in the early stages to achieving their full musical potential. We avoid dogmatic approaches to music teaching that constrain children, but rather guide them as they grow musically, and exceed our very high expectations of them. We make it easy for children to carry on thinking that making music is just as natural as speaking, reading and writing. We show children that there is much more to music than the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' or 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'. We engage with the music of children's own culture, and also help them to broaden their musical perspectives. We help the children who become so passionate about music that they want a career in it to achieve their goals. And we also show all the other children that music can be a major force in their lives, if that is what they want.

We teach music in school primarily because we want children – all children - to grow as musicians. But music, also, improves the mind. While it is hard to catch the results of this in a scientific experiment, or to plan music teaching so that this will necessarily happen, no-one who has had the privilege of observing really good music teaching, and has watched children grow intellectually in front of them, can doubt that this is the case. It may be the raising of children's self-esteem through success in music making that helps them towards achievement more generally. It may be that enjoying music helps children to enjoy school more. It may be that chemical changes induced in the brain by music facilitate learning more generally. Or perhaps the thought experiments that musicians must carry out to improve their performing and composing help children to extend their thinking more generally. I don't much mind what the reason is, but am certain that it happens.

Music making is something that we can draw on to make the bad times in life more bearable. Sometimes this is just in little ways. But I know an elderly man who struggles to make himself understood in words through the fog of Parkinson's disease. The other day, he stood up from the dinner table, moved to the piano, and played the songs of his youth perfectly, and with such communication. I know a much younger man, an outstanding physicist, who has cystic fibrosis. When the frustrations of his life now, and his limited prospects, become too much, he sits down at the piano and improvises for hours and hours ……

But music is mainly about good times, and making them more frequent and even better. Music is not a gift but a right. By teaching it in schools, and teaching it as musically and as inclusively as possible, we give all children the best opportunity in the world to make the most of music for themselves as they move through life.

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