It is incontrovertible that music education, in the UK, is being deskilled at an accelerating rate but It’s hard to distinguish where this deskilling is most transparent. It is risible that in Higher Education we have Music Professors who can’t read or play a musical instrument. What next? innumerate Mathematics Professors or illiterate Professors of English Literature? Importantly, what are these Professors who cannot read or play music going to teach their students? What is their legacy? In addition, I’m concerned, increasingly, with the effect of the current predicament of early stage music education in the UK and I ponder on the connection between my perception of that with the deskilling in HE.
Most children in the UK have their first one to one lessons at schools given by peripatetic teachers who may have, but are not required to have, any qualifications and depending on the Hub (music services) the quality of these teachers is highly variable. I have my own experiences of teaching children (at schools and privately) who have already learned for 3, or more years at school or with other private teachers and those experiences leave me staggered and saddened. It’s hard to believe that after this length of time, many are unable to read a note or to know even that the piano keys follow a repeated pattern of ABCDEFG.
The absence of a professional body for music teachers allowing anyone to set up as a private or peripatetic music teacher, is a lamentable state of affairs. Many teachers have no qualifications to teach music whatsoever. The problem is compounded with peripatetic music teachers in schools as parents naturally believe their child’s teacher is qualified – parents assume that the teacher’s employment guarantees legitimacy; and so they should. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
As governments are unwilling to regulate professional standards for one to one instrumental teaching this responsibility is devolved to Music Hubs as the suppliers of teachers. As a consequence the Hubs are self governing and have the hegemony over the quality of teaching in their boroughs. A couple of years ago I asked Nick Gibb (then the Minister for Education) if he would ensure that every child in school had a qualified music teacher and he replied he would not regulate for that as it would prevent people like Paul McCartney from teaching in a school. I can imagine Paul queuing to teach in a school for £24 per hour – with some pink elephants flying overhead.
Unqualified private teachers don’t have even to jump through the large loop of being engaged by a Hub. Two weeks ago I began teaching a young girl who is having piano lessons from a voice/piano teacher. She is about to take her Grade 5 Piano and is coming to me for Grade 5 Theory lessons. She did not know how to write a flat sign and told me she had never seen a quaver rest. She could not play the major scales with flats in them and told me she learns her pieces by memory without understanding. This is not uncommon in my experience.
Little professional development is available for unqualified teachers and too much of what there is advises against teaching the basics of theory and notation alongside playing in one to one lessons. The respected head of EPTA’s professional development says “teaching notation is detrimental” and that novice piano students should not learn to play at the piano but rather sing solfa away from the piano until some unspecified future time. Further, she asserts that scales need to be sung away from the piano long before they are played or read and that the piano should not be approached at all until solfa is truly embedded.
The opportunity to help teachers to teach the piano in an integrated way is not only being repudiated but actively advised against. ABRSM statistics blow the gaff! 67,540 students started learning a musical instrument in 2014 and took a Grade 1 practical exam. In the same year only 30,768 took a Grade 4 exam. It’s quite a cull.
If we fail to regulate for good teaching practice whilst awarding accolades on the basis of what is most “fun” and most easily engaged in, then we undermine music education. Like many children, my son played drums with wooden spoons on a saucepan when he was 2 years old. Having fun with music is innate . We don’t need qualified teachers for this – maybe that’s the point. If this philosophy is applied to music education, it costs nothing except the availability of saucepans and wooden spoons (or age appropriate equivalents) for a school to provide ‘music education’ and future professors of music.