Musical Education in School

Posted by the edtapper on 13.06.2018


We all know that children love music. From a few months old, babies visibly respond to a simple tune when they hear it 'hummed' by a parent. We acquire the secret of how to get the baby’s attention, delighting in the little staring eyes gazing at us from the cot and when we see there is an engagement, we repeat the tune that won the smile! Fast forward a year or two and no sooner can they walk than they can dance. “Dancing is poetry with arms and legs,” wrote Charles Baudelaire.   It is no wonder then that this lethal combination of melody and rhythm has captivated humankind for as long as we can recall. We have it in our musical bones before we can even speak!

Music touches us all because we are innately wired to connect with it. The Labi Siffre song declares what could be so true about music- ‘there’s something inside so strong.’ It is at the very core of who we are and what it means to be human. Plato went so far as to say that ‘music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe.’ Such is the profound impact that music has had on the human race that it deserves to be continually explored and studied in every generation.

Music education is more than ‘just music!’ It is about communication and creativity, language and listening, pleasure and perseverance, counting and confidence. In the world of early learning, it is about phonics, sounds eye-hand co-ordination, spatial-awareness rhythm, patterns and above all the sheer emotion of happiness.

At one time before the millenium year, high school students had the option to study an O’Level subject - ‘Appreciation of Music.’ This specific emphasize on musical ‘appreciation’ was to help increase our knowledge, understanding and experience of all styles of music in its historical and cultural context. Even if we were never to learn music per se or play an instrument, the greater understanding of the powers of music can inform us of how it can be used for the benefit of individuals, societies, and those in need.

In recent years, music as a class subject has fought for its survival in a number of schools as it tended to be ‘cut’ when educational budgets were tightened. It is fair to ask if such decisions have been somewhat short-sighted Have we failed to comprehend the importance of music in schools?

Speaking at The Classic BRIT Awards in The Royal Albert Hall in June 2018, Andrew Lloyd Webber, to a rapturous applause  had this to say about music: "It is the empowering thing that crosses all denominations, creeds and religions. It is vital that we keep music in our schools. It is absolutely essential. It is not about necessarily turning children into musicians - it is about empowering them in many different ways, teaching them how to be all-round human-beings at a time when its really important that we celebrate not just the individual but what we collectively have to do. Music is the empowering force that we can all do.......everything we can do to bring music to our schools, we must do." He concluded by reminding the audience "that if it wasn't for the fact that the Royal College of Music down the road from here was free when I was a kid, I might not be standing here now."

Such a testimony to the value of music is not new or infrequent. Many have spken about the influence and power of music stressing its links with good communication. Research supports the view that exposure to music from an early age strengthens communication development both in terms of literacy skills and spoken language. Because music stimulates the whole of the brain and is multi-sensory, fun and engaging, children learn many new skills without even realizing it. While Baudelaire described dancing as poetry, London born poet Adrian Mitchell saw poetry as "your mind dancing to the drumbeat of your heart." (The Orchard Book of Poems 1996). The 'drumbeat' he speaks about is the innate natural rhythm that calls for expresson through words, with emphazise on syllables around which we build our speech, sentences, stories, poems and songs. 

Concerns that children in primary schools from disadvantaged backgrounds struggle academically because of their limited vocabulary, led the Department of Education to recently issue advice to parents on the learning of language through nursery rhymes in pre-school years.

A report from Oxford University Press found that almost half of children aged five and six could potentially underperform in school due to what teachers call the ‘word-gap’. Two programmes costing £13.5m and designed to offer extra support to parents were launched early 2018 in an effort to improve parent communication skills at home. One of these programmes stressed that ‘nursery rhymes’ have always been an important part of a child’s early learning. Through singing or being 'sung to' as children, we learn about concentration, anticipation and prediction, eye-contact, creativity, memory, pitch, rhythm, phonics, sentences and sequencing. Rhyming words and phonetical sounds have always been at the beginning of sound recognition and speech development.

We all remember learning our ABC’s with a simple sung melody. When teachers encouraged us to sing these letters with rhyming line endings, we were simultaneously acknowledging the power of communication through music.

All of these attributes of communication are enhanced when we play a musical instrument and learn music as a subject or for personal interest. One question that parents often raise is - At what age should a child begin to learn how to play an Instrument?

Many primary or elementary schools offer the chance for pupils to learn how to play a musical Instrument. Children as young as three years of age have learned to play violin or piano through the Suzuki method, a system that teaches children to play by initially relying on their musical ear and so, learning music as if they were learning a language.

Once a child has acquired the ability to read, count and understand instruction, formal music lessons are the next step. These call for daily practice times and a discipline generally expected from children aged six and above.

Whilst the opportunity for private lessons is usually the preserve of those who can afford to pay for musical tuition it in early years, most children will have their first experience of music at school either in the classroom or as part of the school choir. While music touches the lives of all young people, the disadvantaged can benefit most.

One centuries-old method of learning that is created to develop the aural capacity and song sight-reading of a child is the tonic-sol-fa system. Widely used in Victorian England, this method found more frequent use in the schools of Europe and Canada over the last hundred years and was seen as a worthy introduction to learning music through stave-notation. Many who were taught and who later hmastered the sol-fa system testify that it remained with them for evermore as a crucial asset in their musical careers. To the amazement of a live audience in a recent program televised on Ireland's RTE, Paddy Moloney a piper from the Irish traditional music group ‘The Chieftains’ and violinist (fiddler) John Sheahan from the group ‘The Dubliners’ effortlessly and spontaneously demonstrated the power of sol-fa by singing two well-known Irish pieces using 'doh-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-doh.'

While the Sol-fa system can be taught a in classroom situation, it is even more appropriate for the school choir, especially in situations where not everyone can read music.

In the UK and Ireland, the profile of the school choir has been raised in recent years with the broadcasting of popular school choir competitions on TV. According to a ‘Chorus Impact Study’ published in 2011 by ‘Chorus America,’ theirs is a different story.

· More than 1 in 4 educators say there is no choral program in their schools.

· Of those who said that their school has no choir program today, 31% said their school used to have choirs.

· The Nation’s Report Card on Music & Visual Arts reports only 17% of eighth graders sing in a choir.

Choirs differ in size and kinds of voices that are available but whatever the circumstance, the choir offers a wonderful learning opportunity for students and is an integral part of arts education. Singing in choir provides a sense of real belonging, discipline and achievement. It has been well documented that it helps students succeed in school, in work and in life, developing thinking and social skills, self-confidence, imagination, reasoning and motivation to learn.

When the Young Voices Concerts at the Manchester Arena and London’s O2 brought together an amalgamation of school choirs to raise the roof with up to 8000 singing children. The performance precision, energy and vitality at each of the concerts left everyone in the audience elated. Teachers who felt ‘left out’ were asking about what they could do to form a choir in school. It is always possible to build a choir wherever a group of people exists. There is room for all voices. If a singer has found his or her voice in the shower, then the next step is to share the gift and make music is its own reward.

The Beatles’ sang that famous opening verse from the Joe Cocker song ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ and no doubt they echo in the minds of those who are too fearful to take the risk of joining the choir.

‘What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me? Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song, I will try not to sing out of key.’

The crucial advice in the song is that 'you’ll get by with a little help from your friends.' The choir is about togetherness, a blend of voices rather than one and unless the aim is to perform at the highest competitive level, the real achievement is to do one’s best and be happy just singing whether in unison or harmony.

The choir is often called upon to sing at special events in the academic year and is usually the centre-piece of the school concert. The chance to showcase their musical and other talents in the school show or concert is one that pupils actively enjoy. It allows them to express themselves, work together towards a common goal and gain some experience in the whole process of stage production.

There are many things to take account of when planning the concert to ensure the smooth running of the event. It takes the commitment and involvement of a large number of people, from those dealing with stage management, ticketing and production to the artists providing the actual content material. Then there is the programming and positioning of acts, an important part of the process in deciding what fits best in terms of the overall effect and order.

The whole is made up of many parts and the end result is the expression of ourselves. St Paul called it ‘music in your heart,’ a music already deep inside us that will always beg to be released and burst forth into joy.

Don´t stop the music,
The world will keep turning if you use it,

Get out there and don´t stop the music,
People keep on dancing - You can do it! (Rihanna)

Topics: Music in Education

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