The cost of complacency
As teachers, are we doing all we can to win the argument about music education? Pat Field argues that we need to do a lot more – it’s time to modernise, develop our skills and agitate, in this article from the Autumn 2011 issue of Arco
The September issue of The Strad carried a new comment page, “Teacher’s Notes” , written by ESTA member and senior lecturer in music education at the RNCM, Philippa Bunting. It was thought provoking and cleverly poetic that such a small article could touch on so many issues in string teaching. My hopes were raised in anticipation that, at last, someone might be about to shed some light on some of the more pressing problems that string teachers face but by the end of the article all I could sense was the presence of shoulder shrugging, English modesty and not wanting to be seen to be pretentious. I felt I needed to respond.
Philippa started by raising the issue of how we would describe our occupation for a mortgage application, suggesting that perhaps our work isn’t given much recognition by a society that doesn’t have a suitable box to tick when applying for a loan to buy a home. What I would like to do is turn this around and ask, how is it that everyone else, certainly anyone whose job training takes a good few years to complete, is given so much recognition, when we have so little?
I can throw in a few thoughts of my own, and I’m sure some of you will have many more ideas. I have a circular picture, which starts with a lack of active professional bodies to promote our self interest, and musicians who have a fluid idea about what they really do for a living. They might not join a professional teaching organisation even if it promised them the moon if it costs more than they can earn on a single gig. And, in any case, many young musicians want to establish themselves as performers, having neither the time nor possibly the inclination to give to teaching. Then we arrive at education where a qualification as a geography teacher might once have secured me a job teaching strings but there have been no widely available and appropriate qualifications until recently to cover the teaching of strings in schools.
Confusingly, the picture of instrumental music teaching in schools is often presented in the media as one of success. Teachers who can only give lessons in lunch hours and after school, sometimes in store cupboards and who are definitely not allowed a mug in the staffroom might ask how these two things tie together? All too often schools make it very clear to students and teachers, both implicitly and explicitly, that instrumental music is a third class subject. The third class conditions and low pay only serve to confirm the picture.
Let’s face it, instrumental provision across the country is patchy. It may exist or not on personal whim rather than on any clearly defined government policy. Mix in our bungled financial systems and where we arrive at is musicians losing the back, but not insignificant end, of their portfolio career. This of course is the much trumpeted portfolio career, spun as something to gladden the heart in difficult times but to my cynical ear this sounds like nothing more than the weasel words of failing government. Rather a lot of musicians, already with portfolio careers aren’t really earning that much money. In fact they are so busy trying to earn a crust that they have no time or inclination to think about anything as idealistic as a professional organisation. And so we go round in a circle, nothing gets better and we shrug our shoulders. C’est la vie, how dare we think above ourselves?
Well, why shouldn’t we think above ourselves; since thinking beneath ourselves clearly isn’t achieving a great deal? Is it because playing is something we enjoy so that should be enough reward? Surveys have reported that job satisfaction tends to increase with pay so I’ll ignore that one. Is it because we (apparently) do something easily that others don’t find so easy to do themselves? They may want to be able to play themselves and will sometimes turn up for lessons to learn some of our secrets but really we are just different, gifted, so maybe this doesn’t count. Do we feel as if we haven’t studied enough, when in fact many musicians will have started studies before starting school and will have given up most of their school holidays to attend essential courses? Perhaps we can only think above ourselves if we sit at the top of the musical hierarchy, which is mostly ordered by executive ability and fame? All very well, but these are often unusual people with extreme ability, maybe from a protected environment or protected by their own insularity. They may live in the same world as me, but they don’t work in the same place.
And this is where we arrive at the nub of the problem. As far as teaching is concerned we are not teaching versions of ourselves very often, let alone the super talented; we are teaching ordinary mortals who like the sound of music and would like to get a slice of the action for themselves. We are teaching children who don’t always know why or what they are doing but they do know they would like some enjoyment and success. Sometimes we are teaching children who will need the extra skills required for a professional career, or they may have disabilities, learning difficulties, have chaotic lives. And what about the student who arrives saying they want to learn because their mother died last year?
Most of these teaching situations have very little to do with the rarefied area of super-talent and protected worlds but they have much more in common with the realities and challenges of society and education. I don’t think it would go down very well in schools if the maths teacher said, “I’m going to teach these students here, they have a proven aptitude for maths” or if the English teacher said, “These students can learn because they have heard of Shakespeare”. This isn’t how we do education and we really need to learn from this because this, in effect, is what happens too often with instrumental teaching. We have the idea that musical ability can be spotted easily and quickly and that these students are the ones we choose to teach. Spotting a child who has been singing at home or who has unusual musical intuition is relatively easy, but we haven’t considered the many other factors that add up to forming a successful long term learner. And more importantly, we don’t learn to teach by working mostly with children who can intuit what to do. We flatter ourselves. We may come to see the rest as failing, students who don’t have what it takes.
But perhaps it isn’t the students who are failing, maybe it is us? At this point please don’t all rush out to find your flagellation switches or rifles, depending on where you prefer to take out your grievances. This is a situation that has a history full of conflicting interests and competing stories that add up to cancelling each other out, going round in circles and leading nowhere. A lot of smoke, a little heat but definitely no illumination. We have arrived in this situation but we really don’t need to spend any more time here.
If, as I suggest, we are really involved in education and not in top class performance we should have our sights set much more clearly in that arena. We need to be better equipped, better skilled and better qualified. And now we come to another thorny issue. I can speak from my own experience here and I’ve a sneaking suspicion that I might get some support on this. Philippa points out that “real teaching” is meant to be “planned, delivered and evaluated in relation to defined aims and objectives derived from published schemes of work, demonstrating creative use of technology and blended learning, carefully differentiated….”, and so it goes on. She comments that many instrumental teachers do this already but may not have a language for it. Well, I’m sure I do a lot of these things, but mostly my teaching looks nothing like this list of jargon.
What is effective in my teaching is an ability to work without a plan or devised schemes of work and assessment apart from the dreaded graded exams, which usually bring learning to a frustrating state of going nowhere fast. Now the conflicting interests are beginning to accumulate. This obviously won’t work in schools. What I do would probably not even be recognised as teaching against the background of current educational practice although paradoxically the fit with ideology – creativity, holistic, child centred teaching – is much better. Where I am coming to here is that we need training and qualifications but there are far too many contexts for a one size fits all approach for what we do and, additionally, most qualifications these days are time limited. Society moves so fast that what might have been useful two decades ago has little application today. But at the same time, ideas move so fast that the baby can easily go out with the bath water. Sometimes I think we have been left holding the baby but we have been stunned into silence by our lack of qualified credibility, rendering the treasures we possess well-nigh invisible.
What are we to do? Current educational thinking has brought us good things like Wider Opportunities but the proportion of teaching being delivered in this way must be in the fractions of a per cent. Much of the teaching needed to advance students to the profession is in actuality still done by individual teachers. Many people learn at a later stage in life. And many very able musicians take a bit more effort to teach because they don’t think in quite the same way as Joe Average. Current mainstream teaching practice doesn’t adequately address what we do and in this country, music colleges have always pursued the performance agenda, paying mainly lip service to work that most of their graduates will undertake at some point in their career.
To my mind, the obvious solution is for an old-fashioned guild type of organisation with up to date training opportunities relevant for members’ current work situations, delivered reasonably locally at reasonable cost. Bolt together qualifications which have recognised status along with accreditation for teaching experience, hours of teaching, performance level, proof of teaching via video tape, statements from satisfied employers, parents and students and so on is all possible and within reach.
And the baby that we have been left holding? We know so much about teaching, both individually and collectively that we must begin to take ourselves seriously. No one else will if we don’t. The way forward here has to be through research into string teaching and teachers. We can do our own research or commission others to do it. ESTA as a whole could be used as a giant data collector for researchers to do some serious number crunching or we could put together the often more truthful qualitative research that would bring some flesh to the quality of many unspoken experiences of instrumental learning.
The possibilities are there. Let’s not sit around for another generation hoping that someone will sort everything out for us. It simply isn’t going to happen. We owe it to the next generation to hand on the possibility of working in a rich, meaningful, complex world but we can’t do it by looking backwards, applying old methods and out-dated values. We have to modernise, broaden our scope, become visible, agitate, take ourselves seriously and get our heads well above the parapet. We are already members of an organisation that could play a large part in all of this. ESTA could be the way forward and what we need is support, activity, and involvement. What do you think about this? ESTA isn’t someone else; ESTA is you.
Pat Field teaches violin and viola privately and at the Junior Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, works as a counsellor and organises the Glasgow ESTA Centre.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2011 issue of Arco. ESTA members receive three copies of Arco a year, as well as multiple copies of Jesta to give to their students. Find out more about membership benefits here.