A musical interlude

Last night, I was doing my typical Friday night thing of fighting extreme end-of-week exhaustion and staying up late just because I can. (even though we get up early for football, there’s always that psychological Friday feeling that gives you permission to relax).

I’m glad I did because I caught a rather fabulous programme on BBC 2 called Artsnight, which was presented by the excellent Armando Iannucci (I’d be totally lying if I said I’d typed that without checking the spelling).

It looked at why elements of culture were labelled as “high culture” therefore rendering them inaccessible to wide groups of people and featured excellent insights from the brilliant Josie Long and equally brilliant Kate Tempest (whose brilliance I was unaware of until last night).

It looked at music and how it is taught in school, particularly relating to classical music demonstrating that where children are exposed to it early they enjoy it and aren’t so afraid of it later on in life. Common sense really but It got me thinking about my musical education and how Toby responds to music too.

Toby has recently admitted that he doesn’t like music at school. This is actually the first time he’s said he doesn’t like something he’s taught at school.

As a child he likes music though. When he visits my Nan he happily plays on her piano, tinkering away and absorbing the snippets that she teaches him. She of course thinks he’s got some natural musical talent but I’m not yet convinced.

He’s very much developing his taste in pop music too. He absolutely hates anything I put on: Lou Reed, Velvet Underground, Stone Roses, Rolling Stones, and I chuckle knowing that there will come a time when he’ll discover these artists and talk about them with grave superiority like he is the only person who understands their merit in a world that values and rewards bubblegum pop and manufactured hit machines. (or maybe that’s just me then!).

He loves tunes he’s cherry picked from the commercial radio stations and will play their youtube videos on a loop, performing them when he thinks I’m not looking. Pretty much how I used to behave as a kid too. What he’s identified as his favourite tracks (and what I’m growing accustomed to hearing on repeat) are:

  • Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk – this is the current favourite and I’ve got to admit it’s a terrific track, with lots of musical layers and influences. I approve of this one but maybe not after the 100th listen!
  • One Republic’s Counting Stars – He’s stuck with this one for a couple of years now. Passable if a little bland.
  • Avici – Makes my ears bleed but I think there’s something in the rhythm of these songs that is appealing to him and his musicality.
  • John Newman’s Will you Love me Again – Got to admit it’s not a bad tune possessing some musical substance.

The point is he knows how to appreciate music but yet music teaching at school is such a turn-off. Add to that that access to playing a musical instrument is limited to a select few and those who do get the privilege invariably are from the sort of homes that would be exposing them to this sort of opportunity anyway.

I’ve asked him what it is about music he doesn’t like and bearing in mind that getting T to talk about school is a little like prising a straight answer out of a politician, he said.

“I can’t do it.”

“I don’t like the tunes”

He told me that they play on xylophones which sounds very similar to my school music experience 30 years ago! He also said that his friend’s class get to do Gangnam Style in music and he’d prefer to do that. I have yet to test the credibility of that claim.

I don’t know what the answer is and without viewing what goes on in the class I wouldn’t want to make judgements about the quality of the lesson. It can’t be easy to teach young children music – it requires patience and discipline and laying down the basics can be boring and repetitive.

But maybe there’s space for a bit more dynamism and creativity. Music is a hugely dynamic creative discipline after all.

I remember music in secondary school with not much affection. Many of my peers were really passionate about music – the Madchester baggy scene, the rave scene and later Britpop all featured heavily in our cultural lives but the subject of music itself and the teachers who taught it represented popularity suicide. It really wasn’t cool.

Why not? We got to play drums!

It was the way it was taught. I remember being talked to for 45 minutes in one lesson. There wasn’t a great deal of passion for music coming through in the teaching. I suspect they may have only been interested in those with real ability.

But surely the teaching of music doesn’t need to be solely about learning to play. What music does culturally is surely worth studying too.

And yes, teenagers can be a tough crowd but once you engage their interests and passions, you’ve got them. They’re just like anyone else, really.

So as well as broadening my son’s literature and reading horizons, I will start seeking out different musical experiences for him too because with increasing curriculum and workload pressures piled upon schools and teachers, it’s unlikely to happen there.

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