Gramophone guest blog

Why are our schools pushing classical music to the margins?

AnonymousTue 23rd August 2016

A Head Boy at a large comprehensive secondary school writes...

Editorial note: this blog was written for Gramophone by a 17-year-old UK-based school pupil. We are publishing it anonymously as the author is still studying music at school.

The late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was a great advocate for music education. Having grown up in a working class family in Manchester, he said, 'whatever people in my position may achieve in life has to be done through the State Education System.' Ten symphonies, 14 string quartets and eight stage works later - not to mention a Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, a Companion of Honour, and a CBE - Maxwell Davies became one of the nation’s best-loved composers. All, in his own words from 1985, 'done through the State Education System'. Yet Maxwell Davies became increasingly alarmed by the state of music education in British schools, observing in the same speech the 'cuts in musical education, obvious or disguised' and the danger this posed.

Growing within our schools today is a disturbing trend; increasingly, music is viewed as an optional subject – something equivalent to a passion that merely runs parallel to ‘academic’ subjects – that leads to contempt for classical music borne out of an ignorance of all it contains. Maxwell Davies, speaking of his students at Cirencester Grammar School, said that 'It was extraordinary how the musical activities of those youngsters I taught influenced their whole attitude towards life inside the school, and outside. It was as if music were a catalyst or a trigger, which in so many instances sparked off a creative understanding in subjects which, on the surface, may not seem to be closely related - foreign languages, mathematics, religious studies.'

The problem today is that in many comprehensive schools music as an academic subject is not actually viewed as an academic subject at all. In many student’s - and teacher’s – eyes, it is seen as optional and insignificant. In a world and country with a rich musical heritage, a 15-year-old’s lack of acquaintance with merely the name Beethoven, let alone British composers like Purcell or Elgar, is both shocking and unacceptable. Music offers so much more than sound; it reflects society’s fears, history’s wars, religion’s beliefs, language’s words, and maths’ patterns. It thus directly assists our understanding of numerous other academic subjects. But its sound is the key to these discoveries, and if our ears remain closed, such discoveries will too. In the words of Plato, 'In the patterns of music and all the arts are the keys of learning'. This door will remain firmly locked should music continue to be shunned.

The illogicality was clear from when I started secondary education; lessons were focused on electronic music, rap and djembe drumming, and while this music is important, it completely overshadowed classical music on the curriculum. Bach: mentioned in one lesson. Elgar: mentioned in another. Meanwhile, the lesson on Mozart consisted of the first 20 minutes of the film Amadeus. This reluctance to discuss classical music (let alone hear it) at young ages generates the stigma against the form in later life; the labels so frequently attached to classical music as lacklustre, upper-class, and unendurable exist only because people have failed to listen to classical music in the first place.

In the relentless drive to maintain the perceived interest of young students, teachers seem increasingly to favour what they see as 'popular' music, which seems to be anything but classical. Whether out of fear of negative student reactions – despite the presence of classical music in a myriad of film scores – or out of a lack of knowledge on their own behalf, classical music is increasingly relegated to the side. In speaking with various Year 11 students, I found that they could name, at best, two composers: Mozart and Beethoven. Classical music, in their eyes, died in the 1700s, so there is little hope of them identifying Thomas Adès, Robin Holloway or Hugh Wood any time soon. And in GCSE Music classes, students regularly struggled to identify fundamental instruments of the orchestra, such as clarinets, trumpets and timpani. Increasingly, it seemed, classical music was becoming alien to the majority of students. 

Yet such ignorance seems largely exclusive to music. By the age of 15 the same students would have encountered several plays by Shakespeare, novels by Orwell, Steinbeck and Golding, and poetry by Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, yet not a single symphony by Beethoven. They may recognise the theorems of Pythagoras, the theories of Plato, and the work of Mendeleev (upon whom, alongside Newlands, there was an entire section in the GCSE AQA Chemistry paper). Rightly so. Yet while it is certain that many of those students could have identified Duffy as the Poet Laureate, it is doubtful they could have identified the Master of the Queen’s Music. 

Such contempt for classical music means that children must approach the form themselves, rather than being introduced to suitable works by enthusiastic teachers. This reliance on self-discovery – a direct result of the curriculum – means many students who could be drawn to classical music miss out. Realistically, people need to be given a guiding hand into classical music in order for it to become intelligible in many cases; otherwise, an hour-long symphony appears more as a rambling to a young person, unless they comprehend the complexities of sonata form, thematic development and the context in which it was written. By restricting the curriculum to more popular styles, the greater length of many classical pieces compared to popular songs can alienate many teenagers simply by seeming so complex. That is why teachers must provide them with select pieces and composers to start them off, otherwise the plethora of classical works can seem immensely daunting. Yet, if the teachers themselves try desperately to avoid classical music in Key Stage 3 classes, there is less hope for the majority of students to discover this music. It is left to the enterprising, ambitious individual to uncover such treasures for themselves, inevitably restricting the interests of classical music to a minority.

The increasing normalisation of viewing classical music as a niche market, as a long-forgotten relic of our past, has undoubtedly led many young people to overlook its qualities, meaning many who may have forged a lifelong passion for classical music have not. We must not overlook the power of a school curriculum to shape popular beliefs, and if a curriculum sidelines a musical genre, we will likely choose to sideline that genre ourselves. Curriculums lead to discovery, to the creation of lifelong interests, and it must take that responsibility in music too. If classical music remains alien to many young people in their youth - when they are arguably most receptive - it becomes harder and harder for them to access it in adulthood. If teachers fear teaching classical music because it might upset the class, then what hope is there to convince the students that there is worth within classical music? Art lessons teach Monet, English lessons Shakespeare, science lessons Newton, and not a single student is shocked by that. Pupils’ claims at the tiresome nature of classical music in lessons is thus a direct result of the teachers’ avoidance of it in class; if Bach was a household name from childhood, just like Monet or Shakespeare, then students would not question Bach being taught in class. Indeed, the sheer power of a live classical performance is enough to demonstrate its worth to many young people - observe the marvellous reactions of primary school students to James Rhodes’ piano recital in his Channel 4 programme Don’t Stop the Music – and this alone should prove the necessity of bringing classical music to the students. 

Just as authors visit schools, and journalists deliver assemblies, so should musicians interact with the classroom. Meeting musicians in the flesh, and hearing an instrument played live, may well convince those who neglect classical music that it has a wealth of treasures worth discovering. You only have to glance at the BBC’s Ten Pieces scheme to realise the effectiveness of such programmes. Bring classical music into the classroom so that students don’t have to leave school to hear it; let classical music embrace the students, and then it will work the other way round. But if those opportunities don’t exist, and teachers themselves neglect their own duty to show an interest in and understanding of classical music, then few will take an interest. Adults must engage with classical music to encourage our children to do the same. 

To return to the wisdom of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: ‘One moment of insight, one moment of real experience of that kind of music illuminates a lifetime, and the sheer joy of it justifies music education.' It only takes a moment to generate a lifelong passion for classical music. If school curriculums continue to neglect classical music, they serve only to deny many children the right to benefit from the works of the masters. 

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