What do we value most in music education, creativity, widening participation, innovation or tradition? While all these are contenders, excellence is perhaps the most valuable of all, particularly in disengaged communities. The education sector is in danger of settling for musical ‘experiences’ that introduce and engage young audiences but have no clear target to strive for. Nowhere is this lack of musical aspiration more evident than in inner-city primary schools, which serve some of our poorest communities. Without pushing for excellence in this context we are underselling the art form we love and depriving children of opportunities to achieve something remarkable.
If given a chance, every child has a capacity to play an instrument and to appreciate music. Like a foreign yet familiar language, music is something everyone can learn. London Music Masters was founded on the idea that every child from the age of 4 to 11 years should be given the opportunity to learn an instrument - but more importantly they should be given the chance to excel and to foster a sense of purpose. This is particularly important in our most deprived communities where children often have fewer opportunities. The pioneers of this charity, Victoria Sharp and Itzhak Rashkovsky, partnered with the Royal College of Music, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Wigmore Hall, to provide children in inner-city schools with access to high quality musical instrument tuition and opportunities to perform in public and collaborate with professional musicians.
When working in inner-city schools without access to high quality music tuition the first question to answer is: who will teach the children? James Rhodes’ recent Channel 4 series highlighted the lack of provision for music education in schools. Where children are given a chance of a music lesson, it is often from a classroom teacher who has little or no training in music.
Conservatoire graduates have the potential to make exceptional teachers because their training has honed communication and performance skills and their expectations are high from their own experience of being taught at an elite level. LMM decided to establish its own teacher-training programme, working with such graduates to develop the right kind of skills for teaching in groups.
With 2 hours of music tuition per week over the primary school years led by young, highly-motivated teachers the musical outcomes can be remarkable. Children rise to the expectations of their peers, their parents and their teachers. Furthermore, concentration, resilience and self-discipline - all transferable skills - have a knock-on effect on academic standards as head teachers in our schools are reporting.
Recently Itzhak Rashkovsky, professor of violin at the Royal College of Music and London Music Masters’ artistic director, pioneered the Pathways programme for some of our most talented students. Under his guidance, children (aged 10 and 11) were able to achieve a level of performance and musicianship that enabled them to win places at junior departments of music schools and conservatoires including the Royal College of Music Chetham’s School of Music. Several won music scholarships to state and independent secondary schools, an unprecedented achievement which exceeded the expectations of parents and schools alike.
In a world of growing social and economic exclusion, ABRSM’s most recent report highlighted the disparity of opportunity for a music education in the UK. The last decade saw a rise in children taking up an instrument but at the same time lower income families had fewer opportunities to do so. The response to this must be more than simply giving more children opportunities to learn to play an instrument. We must raise the quality of the tuition they receive. That will enable children to develop both musical and transferable skills which last a lifetime. We expect excellence from our orchestras, our soloists and our arts organisations. We should also expect the same level of excellence from our music educators, because if we aim for excellence then anything is possible.