Back in 2007, your correspondent drafted a blog post about teaching music to primary students. The blog never saw the light of day. Or night for that matter. But the issue was placed in intense focus last Monday when Richard Gill gave the 2015 Peggy Glanville Hicks Address. It came as no surprise to the audience that his presentation was challenging. The term “iconoclast” came to mind. He covered a broad spectrum under the general concept of why contemporary music matters. But of course his theme naturally reverted to why all music matters and why it is essential primary school students be given proper music education from trained music teachers. The address will be repeated in Melbourne on Friday 30 October at Deakin Edge, Federation Square. If you have any interest in the future of music, go along:
There was discussion about how best to advocate proper primary music education, and how music is distinctly different from other art forms. Decrying the lack of well trained and inspiring primary school music teachers, Gill pointed to the importance of replication of these skills if worthwhile improvement is to be achieved. He pointed to the National Music Teacher Mentoring Program he had been able to introduce with a minimum funding model which is being delivered through the Australian Youth Orchestra, as well as the work of Musica Viva in Schools.
Not mentioned, but likewise effective in this arena is the work of the Australian Children’s Music Foundation. Your correspondent had some contact with their work back in 2007 through a particularly committed and skilled music teacher friend. As one of only a small band of AMCF teachers at that stage, there was a deal of discussion about how to replicate her work to facilitate on the ground teaching by less qualified teachers in disadvantaged schools. In its execution the ACMF’s efforts have been remarkable in terms of achievement. Schools such as Hillston Primary in western NSW and the Matraville Soldiers Settlement School can be justifiably said to have transformed their music programs with wonderful effect. The following, unedited, report extracts may provide some perspective:-
“There are about 120-140 children in the primary school. Most of these children come from farming families. Children regularly have days off to help on the farm – to put up fences, or to castrate lambs. Many children travel 80 – 100 kilometres to get to school. Music was pretty low on their list of important things. Most children listened to the radio, but had never seen a musical instrument, let alone played one, or learnt about music as a subject.”
“I remember my first visit – no child would really sing. A few girls, but kids told me they hated singing. It was boring. One boy said that he would even do maths, rather than sing.”
But then the ongoing mentoring had its effect: “We gave a little concert to the whole primary school – we played Bach, Copeland, a little Tarantella for cello and piano and a song written by Martin Wesley-Smith. Every question we asked, children knew.
“What’s the name of the highest female voice?”
“What’s the name of a pattern that goes over and over again?”
“What are the cello strings made of?”
“Metal – but they used to be catgut!”
These children know their stuff. And they listened – some with open mouths, some with huge grins – but they all listened. Transfixed. No-one wanted to go at the end – so we taught them a two part song in ten minutes. They loved it. All the teachers joined in, all the children sang and sang – big country boys in year six loving it as much as the ‘good girls’ in year three.”
“Year 5, I was told, was the naughtiest class. It has far more boys in it than girls, and a handful of children are really struggling with very elementary reading. ALL of these children were fantastic – they read rhythm, they sang, they played chimes, they played kazoos, they waited patiently when others were struggling, and they were really careful with the cello. One teacher said afterwards ‘I have known some of these children since kindergarten. I have never seen some of those boys so engaged.’
And then perhaps the most telling comment of all: “The staff are teaching music. [One] music teacher (who also teaches maths) was telling me that the staff morale has really improved – because they can see the happiness that this programme is bringing these children.”
This all begs the question why teaching young children to sing together, hit cans with sticks together, or create new music together actually changes anything. The answer surely lies in the emotionally collaborative nature of music. Children who may struggle with reading or mathematical concepts find, in a collective, that they can indeed sing in tune, beat out a rhythm, understand simple notation and creative processes. What this does for them is build their self-esteem, focus their efforts on collaborating with others and the natural disciplines this encourages. And bring that elusive reward: happiness. These are wonderful building blocks for a community and of course wider society reaps the benefits. The primary school age mind is receptive and flexible, responding to musical influences in a way that cannot be precisely defined. As Richard Gill pointed out, the need for music education has nothing to do with incidental benefits such as improving performance in maths. It is necessary and sufficient all by itself.
Future generations may be thankful as primary music education becomes mainstream. It is not too great a leap of faith to claim potential to fundamentally change the society in which we live.