Mike Adcock

From the blog

Learning to play: Instrumental teaching in primary schools


This article first appeared in the Children issue of Unknown Public.

I came across a statistic recently which really made me stop in my tracks. Apparently only one per cent of the population of Britain is actively involved in any form of music-making. For anyone making their living through teaching people to play – and I spend part of my week giving keyboard lessons in two Hertfordshire junior schools – this is a sobering thought. And if you consider that the majority of those who do play are musicians involved in some form of popular music and generally self-taught, it makes you wonder what effect the millions of pounds being spent on formal instrumental teaching can be having?

The answer lies in the fact that despite the broadening of music education that has taken place over the last few decades, most instrumental teachers working for county music services have a classical background and ultimately it is a mainly classical model which continues to be presented through lessons. Even though it may not always be recognized in these terms, the main purpose of instrumental teaching has been to serve and maintain a gifted elite. Lessons are paid for by parents who can afford it, subsidized with what is available from central funding.

It is a commonly held view amongst instrumental teachers – and one that I heard stated again at a recent in-service training course – that the hope is that a few students will go on to become professional players and that the rest will become well-informed patrons of the art. Such a justification just won’t do any longer. When I give keyboard lessons to children, it is in the hope of showing them a way out of being merely consumers, taking what is fed to them by their betters. I want them to learn that they can become active participants in the rewarding process of making music in any number of ways. The classical model creates a few successes and leaves the rest aware of their shortcomings. The enormous failure rate of instrumental teaching – the vast majority of those who have had instrumental lessons clearly end up not playing – suggests that something has gone seriously wrong in this aspect of music education.

The profession of instrumental teaching is by and large lagging well behind developments in classroom music teaching. These days, music in the junior classroom, while not given as much time as it deserves, is nevertheless generally a fun activity: inclusive, inventive and participatory. For those who leave the classroom for an instrumental lesson they are likely to face a quite different learning experience. Most instrumental teaching is primarily concerned with the acquisition of notation skills. Development of technique, combined with regular disciplined practice, is seen as a prerequisite for going on to play “difficult” pieces. Creative work with the instrument, improvisation and composition, is given low priority. In fairness, things are starting to change: there are excellent teachers around whose lessons are imaginative and inspiring. The music service I work for, for one, is recognizing the need for a different approach but they are up against a profession that remains, in the main, innately conservative.

I found the “one per cent” statistic in a book that came out a couple of years ago, How Popular Musicians Learn by Dr Lucy Green of the University of London Institute of Education. Subtitled A Way Ahead for Music Education, the book presents a formidable challenge to music educators. The book was the outcome of research looking at the way a sample group of mainly rock musicians had developed their skills through informal learning. Green showed how they had learnt, in a way that will be familiar to any self-taught musician, through listening to, soaking up and copying music they liked. Rather than acquiring a bank of techniques which they could subsequently draw from in performing music they encountered, they would be more likely to play along with CD’s, or get together playing with some mates, getting a feel for the music through directly encountering it and not by deciphering it from notation. They had found an efficient learning method that had little in common with conventional instrumental teaching. One outcome of this research is that Lucy Green and others are starting a pilot scheme called Musical Futures involving a number of secondary schools in Hertfordshire, Leeds and Nottingham. Whether a more widely relevant approach to instrumental teaching will develop from it remains to be seen.

Most self-taught musicians begin playing their instrument of choice in their teen years. However, this is often not their first experience of playing a musical instrument. As a child, showing an interest in music, they might well begin to have instrumental lessons at junior school and if they stick with it for a few years become reasonably competent at playing a number of pieces from notation. Eventually, however, the technical demands of playing an increasingly difficult repertoire can become too great, at a time when he or she is also getting to an age when they want to assert their own identity through the music they play. Unfortunately their instrumental lessons have not prepared them for this: they are hide-bound by a skill-based form of playing tied to reading notation. The possibility of self-expression is extremely limited in the classical model of playing until the player reaches the lofty heights of the virtuoso. So it is at this much more lowly stage that many give up, unable to find the means to adapt their acquired skills to creative, intuitive playing. The musical aptitude still being there, the only choice is to take up a new instrument and start again, learning in a different, informal and self-taught way. Those who do this are the fortunate ones, thanks to personal determination or mixing with the right people. The rest give up, later identifying themselves by the words “I wish I’d carried on playing”.

I believe, therefore, that it is in the early years of instrumental teaching where there needs to be a radical and widespread reappraisal of the process taking place. Most children who begin learning an instrument have a real excitement about what they are embarking on, but it is an enthusiasm which is in danger of being drained as soon as it is realized that there are right and wrong ways of doing things, that in between you and playing there is a new language to learn (notation) that can get in the way of making the sounds you want to hear. That there are disciplines to be learned is undeniable, but what must be preserved is the pleasure of playing, the joy of spontaneity, the will to be creative. I do teach notation; I think it’s a useful skill to have and I wish I had been taught it better. But however tempting it is to fall back on the structure provided by the repertoire in a tutor book, I try to ensure there is a creative element in every lesson, often involving improvisation. Most children at junior level are not inhibited about intuitive playing. It is a sense of discovery, of experimentation, of play, that got them interested in the first place. Play. Play music. It’s there in the language.

Children respond differently to challenges. For some, notation is quickly taken on board and gives them a means of playing pieces they choose to. To others it doesn’t come so easily, in fact it’s a continual struggle and those are usually the first to give up. The awful mistake they then make is to assume that their inability to read notation is an indication of their lack of musical ability, when so often the opposite is the case. Many are the times that I have found the children who struggle most, week after week, to make sense of notation are the ones who are capable of the most sensitive and imaginative improvisation, the ones who are able to keep a sense of play in playing music. If I shut the book on the piece they have been battling with and let them hear how it goes, let them watch what my fingers do, they discover they can play it after all.

Notation is, therefore, just one strategy to be used. One of the problems with it is that not only does it set down what is the correct thing to play, but it also defines limits. The child is kept in place, implicitly told that there are things they are not yet ready to do. But if you watch a child trying to master a piece he or she wants to play, because they have seen someone else play it – whether it be the theme music from Titanic or Chopsticks – they utilize techniques far more sophisticated than their tutor book is telling them they are ready for. Where there’s a will there’s a way. Sometimes when one of my pupils plays a wrong note in a piece they are learning from notation, they come up with an extraordinary flurry of notes, previously unimagined, to get them back on track. I like to celebrate that with them.

Most of the teaching I do is in groups – generally three pupils for a half hour lesson. This reflects a current trend in British music education. Although not universally popular and being introduced, I suspect, for economic reasons rather more than for purely educational ones, I think the move towards group teaching is a healthy development. It means that playing music is presented at the outset as a social activity with peer group support. Listening becomes part of the activity, whether passive (listening to someone else play) or in interactive playing. In contrast, an individual lesson centred on reading from notation can become a task demanding co-ordination between visual perception, mental interpretation and manual manipulation with the resultant sound becoming almost incidental.

When Lucy Green presented her “one per cent” statistic, she contrasted that with John Blacking’s experience, recalled in his book How musical is man, visiting the Anang Ibopo people of Nigeria where each member of the community was also a musician: “…we searched in vain for the ‘non-musical’ person”. We cannot hope to emulate that or even get near, but it does seem to me that if the profession of instrumental teachers is to do its job properly, it needs to start from a different premise. The premise that I start from – and it may be a flawed one but it helps me justify what I do – is that music-making is an intrinsically worthwhile activity, that we are psychologically and socially better off for doing it. If formal music education [Instrumental teaching] is to have a role to play in the musical life of the majority of people and not only in nurturing the talents of the exceptional, then that process needs to start early on. Children at junior level are open-minded and also impressionable. They are prepared to try out a range of musical experiences, going along with an adult suggestion on trust. But they are also vulnerable. Following a proposed path, adhering to a set way of playing, they may find out too late that it has given them a straightjacket offering little room for movement. A broad approach to instrumental playing at this early stage is essential.

[As well as being an improviser myself, I compose music and have written solo and ensemble pieces for the children I teach. When someone comes along to a lesson having practiced a piece – whether one of mine or from a tutor book – and gives a convincing performance of it, of course I am delighted and I happily acknowledge their achievement. But what is particularly gratifying is when a child comes to a lesson and asks if they can play me a piece they have composed. I am delighted, not just because perhaps the improvisation and composition work we have done in the class has given them the confidence to try out something on their own, but also because they feel they can bring something along of their own which will be seen as valid. For this reason the examples I have chosen to submit for this issue’s CD are not my own music but pupil compositions produced with little or no prompting from myself.]

In a development that has come as something of a surprise to music educators, the British government has made a pledge that, over time, all children in primary education should have the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. To increase the availability of such learning would require a significant financial investment as well as a restructuring of instrumental lessons, probably involving teaching in much larger groups than generally occurs now. Encouraged by this government initiative and in response to current thinking such as that put forward in Lucy Green’s book, another pilot scheme, this time for junior schools, entitled Wider Opportunities is now under way. This shifts the pattern of instrumental teaching from individual and small group lessons to whole classes. Recorder and percussion have been taught in large groups before. Only recently, in Britain at least, has there been any serious attempt at teaching strings, brass and woodwind in such numbers. If this new initiative succeeds, and to do so it needs a change of mind-set in the profession of instrumental teaching, this could mark the start of a radical and seismic change in our attitude towards playing music. Having some ability on a musical instrument, developed from an early age could become the norm rather than the exception. Having a love for music – and millions of us do – could mean many more of us playing the stuff and not just having the ability to download thousands of MP3 files. The music education system is facing a great challenge and a tremendous opportunity and in my view it’s in the junior schools where the biggest change needs to take place.