Music Education – turning the corner?

In the light of recent reports and initiatives, Orchestras Live Chief Executive Sarah Derbyshire shares some thoughts on the current state of music education and the implications for the orchestral profession.

31 May 2019

Members of Able Orchestra (c) Mark Nelson – Inspire Culture – Nottingham TRCH

Last week, in the space of just five days, I attended three concerts that were impressive in their ambition, originality and impassioned performance. Britten Sinfonia performed Beethoven and a new Viola Concerto by Gerald Barry; Southbank Sinfonia gave a fabulous programme featuring works by the all-too-rarely heard Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz in the Kings Place Venus Unwrapped series; and finally Joglaresa opened the Beverley Early Music with their Virgin Queen programme including medieval works from the Sephardic tradition. In all three I was heartened to see strong examples of the shift towards a more equitable gender balance on stage, repertoire featuring newly commissioned work and work by female composers across the ages, all enthusiastically received by substantial audiences. 

A shift is taking hold in the programming, presentation and marketing of classical music. The gender balance on stage is improving, at last; musicians engage with their audiences direct from the stage and young players not only rise to the challenge but fully expect that their professional performing lives will be more holistic, engaging with audiences both on and off the platform. Our music education system continues to be a pipeline for fine, committed players and interventions and initiatives to ensure greater equity of opportunity are beginning to demonstrate that audiences will embrace orchestras and programmes that break away from the established model. This is barely the beginning, but surely the results must encourage us to up our game in pushing for more inclusion of diverse performers from all social and cultural backgrounds who are representative of the audiences to whom they wish to perform.

First Time Live in Luton (c) Luton Sixth Form College

BUT – and it’s a big but – what will this all look like in 20 years’ time?  Will that pipeline still exist? Will it be wider, identifying and supporting a greater diversity of people from an early age who show musical promise?  Or will it narrow even further, limited to children whose families can afford the time and money to support their musical development? 

Judging by recent investigations, reports and headlines about the state of music education today, I would say there is considerable anxiety that the pipeline itself is under threat.

Two months ago, The Music Commission published its ten-year vision for music education: Retuning our Ambition for Music Learning. This calls for “every young person, regardless of background or circumstances, to be supported to realise her or his full musical potential”. The Commission sets out eight steps towards that goal which remind me very much of the recommendations in my own report on music education – Musical Routes – produced in association with the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2015.  I identified many strengths along with weaknesses and called for initiatives to address the inequity of opportunity offered through the music education landscape at that time.

Sax Score project with Jess Gillam (c) Scott Akoz Photography

This summer, we can expect to hear from another group: the Expert Panel for the development of a Model Music Curriculum set up by government Minister Nick Gibb to provide a framework from which schools can base their own programmes of study. The Minister’s stated aim is that all children should “have access to a world-class music education”. Something with which I could hardly disagree. And yet any recommendations will be set against a backdrop of government policies that have actively driven students away from taking up music and creative subjects.

The Minister’s failure to acknowledge the evidence of this has led MPs themselves to call for an explanation and a change in policy to reverse the trend (Changing Lives: the social impact of participation in culture and sport from the Common Select Committee for Culture, Media & Sport). In a corresponding move, universities are taking matters into their own hands by scrapping their list of ‘preferred A levels’ which has led students and their families to believe that arts and creative subjects are second-rate. These are encouraging actions that should add even more weight, if such be needed, to the Bacc for the Future campaign led by the ISM to scrap the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).

So it seems that patience is finally wearing thin and there are signs that those of us involved in the education and performing professions are making our own interventions that will  reshape the landscape for young musicians of all genres.

THePETEBOX and Able Orchestra (c) Mark Nelson – Inspire Culture – Nottingham TRCH

The most recent in this flurry of reports was published last week: a study by Birmingham City University of Youth Music’s innovative four-year programme Exchanging Notes. The media, somewhat predictably, picked up and ran with the report’s suggestion that more young people would be encouraged to take up music if the curriculum offered Stormzy alongside Mozart. Could such a move even supplant the established composers of the classical canon?

Really? It’s so disappointing that commentators landed on this as the core finding from the report, when there was much more to celebrate in the evidence of benefits to young people engaged in music of all kinds – social, educational, creative, wellbeing – whilst making realistic calls to the government for minimum levels of music education and Ofsted related assessments. Implementing such simple ideas could have a radical impact, bolstering the currently devalued image of music in schools with heads, governors and parents. And with that kind of support and encouragement, I would be happy to bet that many more students from a far wider range of backgrounds will make their own choices to engage with the giants of musical culture, whether classical or grime.

You only had to go to the Royal Festival Hall last night to see the Philharmonia’s new Principal Conductor Santtu-Mathias Rouvali, who was a drummer in rock bands before taking up conducting, to know what an exciting prospect that is. 

Sarah Derbyshire, Chief Executive