It’s education, stoopid

Stephen Hough’s recent comments about changing the length and format of classical music concerts by ditching the interval and perhaps starting concerts earlier or later in the evening has generated a lively discussion. And rightly so, because those of us who care about classical music should be concerned about keeping this wonderfully and incredibly varied art form alive and kicking. In his article for the Radio Times, Hough expresses his concerns about attracting a younger audience to classical music and notes that there is no one simple solution to attract more people to concerts.

It strikes me that whenever young people are mentioned in the context of classical music, a whole host of commentators immediately respond by saying that “it’s all about education“. They cite the woeful provision for music education in our state primary and secondary schools (true), the fact that music lessons are often the preserve of the better off (also generally true, sadly) and that our children need to be educated to understand and appreciate classical music.

As I’ve mentioned several times before on this site, I was fortunate in that I had a very good musical education as a child, initiated first by my parents, who were keen concert-goers and music lovers, and subsequently through excellent music provision and teachers at both primary and secondary school (both state schools). My enjoyment and interest in classical music was inculcated at a young age and has stayed with me: I have not, as one friend suggested, grown to love classical music as I’ve got older, only that my tastes change as I explore more repertoire. I was very very lucky – privileged, in fact – in my musical education.

The debate about music provision in our state schools is ongoing and no one seems to have the solution. Various musical celebrities such as Nicola Benedetti and James Rhodes have initiated projects to try and right this terrible wrong, and I applaud anyone who cares enough to encourage our children to enjoy classical music, in and out of school. And Stephen Hough’s ideas should not be dismissed out of hand, just because they might run counter to established ways of doing things in classical music.

But we need to be careful how we frame “educating young people to like/enjoy/appreciate classical music”. As a Twitter colleague of mine said in response to Stephen Hough’s article:

Too often, whenever people start saying “Education” is the important factor, it sounds coercive

We should not seek to “programme” people, whatever their age, to like classical music. Let us not forget that the word “teach” comes from the Old English tæcan which means to “show”, “present” or “point out”. As a music teacher, I agree with my colleague and fellow blogger Andrew Eales, who suggests in his post in response to Stephen Hough’s comments, “When it comes to generating enthusiasm for classical music (and any other genre for that matter) the responsibility truly lies with those who perform and teach it.”. Andrew then goes on to offer some simple and creative ways in which to engage young people with classical music and which do not involve sitting a bunch of 6 year olds in a classroom and force-feeding them Beethoven and Bach.

It’s very easy – and lazy – to blame the young for all the ills in our society, and debates such as music education are too often, in my experience, loaded with a sense of entitlement or superiority – that the role of educators is to produce people who think and do things our way, rather than exploring ways to engage young people. Maybe one of the first things we need to do is shift the vocabulary from “tell” to “show”, “present” or “point out”……

I don’t have all the answers either. But in my very small way as a private music teacher, and via this blog and my other musical activities, I hope I am making a contribution, albeit a tiny one…..

Further reading

No More Loo Breaks – Stephen Hough’s original article in the Radio Times magazine (PDF file)

Stephen Hough: no more loo breaks? – Article by Andrew Eales/Piano Dao

Nicola Benedetti: Every young person in Britain should be made to study classical music

 

 

2 thoughts on “It’s education, stoopid”

  1. As a performer, we occasionally do lunch-time concerts [1 – 1.45] or tea-time concerts [6 – 7]. We frequently think outside the box and, depending on the venue, sometimes we do a concert followed by supper & then the tables are cleared away while attenders have a loo break, the chairs are put round the perimeter & we have a Ceilidh.
    In the spring we prepared an orchestral concert and invited local instrumental tutors to bring their students along to sit beside the adults in rehearsals. They all stayed the course & were inspired enough to perform beyond their own expectations in the concert. After one rehearsal when they ran through the whole of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony, a 14 year old viola player went home and delightedly exclaimed to his family “I’ve just played through a WHOLE Beethoven Symphony!”. They were smitten by the variety of the programming, even though they were a little scared of it initially. By talking to their contemporaries and ther families, they’ve now introduced a whole new audience to “serious” music. And yes we had an interval – BECAUSE THE GRANDPARENTS NEED IT [it isn’t just a “loo-break”; it is also important to get up and walk around a bit, especially if you have arthritis!] as well as some of the more restless youngsters needing a change of activity before settling down to the 2nd half.

  2. ‘Too often, whenever people start saying “Education” is the important factor, it sounds coercive.

    We should not seek to “programme” people, whatever their age, to like classical music. Let us not forget that the word “teach” comes from the Old English tæcan which means to “show”, “present” or “point out”. As a music teacher, I agree with my colleague and fellow blogger Andrew Eales, who suggests in his post in response to Stephen Hough’s comments, “When it comes to generating enthusiasm for classical music (and any other genre for that matter) the responsibility truly lies with those who perform and teach it.”. Andrew then goes on to offer some simple and creative ways in which to engage young people with classical music and which do not involve sitting a bunch of 6 year olds in a classroom and force-feeding them Beethoven and Bach.’

    Is it ‘coercive’ to ‘teach’ children to eat some things other than those which will give them a quick sugar-fix, and attempt to develop their palettes accordingly?

    Is it ‘coercive’ to ‘teach’ children correct spelling and how to put a sentence together, when many of them many be reluctant or find it boring?

    Is it ‘coercive’ to ‘teach’ children to think about others as well as themselves?

    Is it ‘coercive’ to ‘teach’ children some arithmetic or basic maths?

    Is it ‘coercive’ to ‘teach’ children to learn another language as well as their own, when many will wonder what the point is?

    Is it ‘coercive’ to ‘teach’ children some history of their own countries and others, and how there is value in knowing about other times as well as the present (and other places as well as those they know)?

    Is it ‘coercive’ to ‘teach’ children reading some more demanding literature?

    And in general, is it ‘coercive’ to ‘teach’ children to move outside of their comfort zone, and the value of that which goes beyond instantaneous self-gratification?

    If not, to various of these questions, which should ‘teaching’ them about classical music be ‘coercive’? And what does it mean to ‘force-feed’ children Beethoven and Bach? To make them listen to them and tell them to pay some attention (as would be normal with other subjects)? Or have we arrived at a view whereby even six-year olds have to be viewed as ‘consumers’?

    I am more inclined to agree with Nicola Benedetti, and start thinking beyond pseudo-democratic educational ideals. The levels of state musical education in the UK are laughable when you compare with the best efforts in numerous other countries. It is not for nothing that our conservatoires are dominated by foreign and privately-educated students.

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