Back in 2004 the Australian federal government announced that it would fund a comprehensive survey of music education with a view to making recommendations for changes to benefit school children across the country.
Unsurprisingly (to me, and I’m sure many other musician-educators) this comprehensive survey found that primary school children receive not too much music education throughout primary school, primary school teachers do not receive adequate training in music education, and specialist music teachers are no longer being recruited to primary schools. Most schools have paltry resources with which to provide music education, and most children do not have access to instrumental tuition. There are exceptions: Queensland has operated a strong instrumental tuition program in primary schools for years, some private schools are as well resourced as universities (possibly better than some).
So now we know the facts. Should the elimination of music in a child’s primary education be a cause for concern? On Monday Dick Letts, the head of the Music Council of Australia, said that he didn’t want to see various arts disciplines fighting amongst themselves to be included in education, and maybe music should be optional. Yesterday Richard Gill, the artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestras education program (and long-time music education guru/hero in the Australian music education scene), argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that depriving some children of music education is a form of educational discrimination that should make Australia ashamed.
You can read Richard Gill’s article here.
Richard Gill’s fundamental point is that, of all the arts, music is the one that engages the brain most holistically, and research is coming through thick and fast demonstrating the educational advantage children gain from having music as part of their educational mix.
Firstly, music education is about recognising patterns – patterns that you hear, patterns that you do, patterns that you read, patterns that you feel. The only sense organ not involved in music is taste. And the most important brain activity for developing competent, confident school leavers has to do with patterns: finding them, predicting them, creating them, performing them.
Secondly, music education is about how you feel: from the simplistic major/minor = happy/sad notions of pitch pattern meanings through the rhythmic patterns that can create agitation or calm to the contrasts of dynamics that communicate strength, intimacy and surprise. Students who have developed musical skills (specifically, being able to play an instrument) learn how to create different moods through their playing, as well as observing how other’s emotional states can impacted upon by their performances. This is a practical lesson that develops emotional maturity.
Thirdly, music education is about literacy, and the more literacy templates students develop at this primary school age the greater their literacy skills for the rest of their lives.
Music education is also frequently the means by which students experience life-changing realisations about themselves and their place in the world. A student who is encouraged to perform a short solo piece on their instrument in front of others (including parents, who may not share this skill) can create a solid sense of self-worth that had nothing to do with fake assurances from caregivers that the child is special. Singing in a choir can be the way that a shy child literally finds their voice.
And finally, music education connects through to everything else in the world: history, geography, anthropology, acoustics, engineering, economics, film studies, psychology, media… An understanding of music informs nearly every other aspect of our lives.
So, should students have music education provided to them as part of what we consider to be a basic education? In terms of the incredible benefits music education brings to students it seems like a complete no-brainer. But I suspect this argument comes down to the more practical issue of having sufficient teachers with both the skills and abilities to provide this kind of education and the resources to implement an effective program in every school.
Knowing what’s good for us and actually doing what’s good for us are two so very different things.