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Are hierarchical attitudes to genre holding young people back?

Anita Holford and Dyfan Wyn Owen find out if young people are being short-changed by genre bias in music education

Anita Holford and Dyfan Wyn Owen find out if young people are being short-changed by genre bias in music education

We live in a century that’s rich with musical diversity. In one week – in the schoolyard, in bedrooms and in living rooms – our children may be exposed to anything from acoustic blues to ambient, from break beat to bhangra, from Chicago blues to contemporary folk – to name just a few genres. In schools in the UK, the music curricula enable teachers to be more pluralistic too. Yet it seems Western classical music continues to be by far the dominant force in music education here – and in the way the media portrays it.

Music education hubs, set up in 2013 in England, are funded by the Department for Education through Arts Council England to work with schools and other organisation to create joined-up music education provision and respond to the needs of young people and schools in their area. However, Arts Council England’s data report on music education hubs in 2013 found that their work was dominated by ‘a core repertoire of mainly classical and chamber music, tiered progression ensembles’ and ‘few examples of hip hop, digital, folk or ethnic/world ensembles’.

The first major initiative that’s seen the BBC and music education hubs working together is an ambitious campaign – Ten Pieces – to get school pupils involved in developing their own creative responses to 10 musical pieces – all classical. At around the same time, ABRSM launched its Classical 100 campaign to Primary schools, providing recordings and resources for 100 classical music pieces.

So, even in this richly diverse 21st century, is the message that most children receive from ‘the establishment’ that it’s great to make other types of music but the foundation on which a music education should be built, and the pinnacle of achievement, is Western classical music? And why does this matter?

Melanie Stevens from South Wales, a parent of two children aged 9 and 10, says:

‘I love the fact that my kids are part of the local music service’s music centres and they do enjoy playing orchestral instruments. But I can’t help feeling this, and their music lessons in school, is out of place with their experience of music ‘in the real world’ – and they’re beginning to express that themselves. Perhaps if it was more linked to the music they’re passionate about, it would light a spark and they would be more motivated to learn and progress in music. As it is, I think they’ll drop music as soon as they get to Secondary or at least to their GCSE options.’

Inspiring Music for All, a review of music in schools funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation in 2014, said that ‘there is often a lack of effective connection between music in the classroom and music beyond the classroom’.

Making Music, a report by ABRSM in the same year, found that although increasing numbers of children are playing a wider variety of instruments, particularly pop music instruments, there is a social grade divide in instrument choice. String, brass, piano and woodwind players, for example, are disproportionately from AB households*.

So it seems that many young musicians aren’t receiving the same support and encouragement as their classical musician peers. And for those who aren’t yet making music, there’s a risk that if they’re not inspired by music in school, they’ll see themselves as ‘not musical’ and be lost to making music.

Intrinsic motivation is a holy grail in education so perhaps music can win greater headway by better exploiting young people’s passion for music?

Matt Griffiths, Chief Executive of Youth Music, a charity that invests in music-making projects for children and young people experiencing challenging circumstances, says that:

‘Unless we challenge the accepted notion that some genres are better than others and that one type of musical practice is better than another, we will never really be in a position to give every child and young person access to music education that meets their needs and fosters life-long participation.’

Jim Pinchen, freelance music educator and Surrey Music Hub Inclusion Manager, agrees:

‘The words, ‘a diverse music offer’, are being echoed at every music education meeting across the country and this is an opportunity to work in partnership to ensure that this is the reality for young people. A cello should be as common in a secure unit as a Kaoss Pad as should Ableton Live Looping in a Wider Opportunities [Whole Class instrumental teaching] session. We have the tools and skills collectively to make this happen and deliver on our promises, however, that may involve a change in culture of our organisations and service.’

Video: What’s challenging the status quo? The Up! Orchestra – Surrey’s first county music orchestra for young people with Special Educational Needs

Change is happening, it seems, but not everywhere and many believe not fast enough: While many music education hubs in England and music services in other countries of the UK have re-shaped their offer, there has been criticism that many are still ‘the old music service’, failing to work in partnership or to diversify their offer.

James Dickinson, Head of Hertfordshire Music Service, the lead partner for Hertfordshire’s hub, says that ‘genres should be threads that link together different [aspects of a hub] … not the end in themselves’ and that hubs need to balance being led by demand and promoting traditional as well as contemporary pathways.

‘There is far more informal music-making [i.e. non-classical] than five years ago so you might ask is there a role for music education to promote, preserve and develop traditional music-making such as youth orchestras so that we’ll see increased levels of UK students going to conservatoires?’

The other extreme, he suggests, is that ‘if young people need to have an active role in their choice of music, if they want to learn the electric guitar rather than the violin, should we just go where the market takes us?’

In reality, he continues, hubs probably have to do a bit of both but it’s not straightforward: ‘Practically, you need to look at local circumstances and respond to those and that includes the availability of staff with specific skills as well as enabling children and young people to make an informed decision that’s right for them. That’s as much to do with supporting people on traditional music-making as informal music-making.’

Pete Moser, CEO of More Music, a community music organisation based in Morecambe, Lancashire, believes that hubs and others need to be more open about these issues and the wider issues they link to: ‘I think there is a mystery about musical genre that is linked to political class issues,’ he continues. ‘I think we could do with being more ‘out’ in our discussions and talk about the differences between the genres and the role that music plays in our lives, have honest discussions and value everything in a particular way.’

Video: More Music, cross-genre work in communities in Lancashire

Perhaps, as Pete says, the key is better, more honest conversations about genres amongst parents, music educators and young people themselves. Letting young people have more of a say in their music education certainly seems to shake up adults’ preconceptions and prejudices around genre – as the BBC has found.

The BBC has a range of initiatives to celebrate and inspire musicians of all genres such as Radio 2 Folk Awards, BBC Young Jazz Musician, Urban Prom and BBC Introducing. So why the focus on classical for Ten Pieces? Ellara Wakely, Senior Learning Manager BBC Proms and London Performing Groups, believes that, actually, BBC’s Ten Pieces has shown just what can be achieved when young people’s creativity is given free reign: ‘One of the main ambitions of the project is to make great orchestral music accessible to all school children in the UK. We felt that the best way to do that was to present it in a fresh, accessible way that teachers wouldn’t be scared to use in the classroom. While it stems from orchestral music, the responses could not have been more varied – from rap to dance, songwriting, even synchronised swimming! The children involved (4 million and counting!) have shown no boundaries in the way that they respond to this music.’

She continues: ‘I think key to that is the fact that children don’t classify by genre; if we can present music to them with a lack of pre-conception – about contemporary music being ‘difficult’ or classical music being ‘boring’ – and allow them to respond to it in their own terms, then they can make their own decisions about it – but they can’t do that if we don’t give them the opportunity to explore it.’

Video: Pop music video on the theme of bullying, inspired by Handel’s Zadok the Priest, created by pupils from Ystrad Mynach Primary School with Lewis School Pengam, Wales

Musical Futures is a movement to transform music education in schools through learning that’s relevant to pupils. Their recent Twitter chat on hierarchies in music education showed that music educators working within and outside schools are only too aware of the complexities of the issue:

Perhaps, in order to encourage greater acknowledgement of musical diversity, we all – parents, music educators and young people – need to model ‘good genre diversity behaviour’, respecting diversity, challenging misconceptions, not accepting lazy thinking and prejudice around genres and hierarchies and championing musicians that young people wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to through the mainstream or their education.

*Higher & intermediate managerial, administrative, professional occupations