This week i’m working to finish my new book on ‘music in learning’. It’s based on interviews with musicians and music fans to understand how the process of learning music, of creating music, has changed them. Throughout this week i’m sharing extracts from the book. Today, thinking about how we are formally taught music in schools.
I remember the audition for the school choir. We all lined up and a sense of familiar impending dread descended upon us. Starting at one end, we warbled, croaked, squeaked and in one or two cases trilled our way down the line. When my turn came, blind panic took over, so i can’t quite remember the moment, but it must have been magnificent (ahem) because i was selected. True, so were approximately forty percent of the rest, but clearly i had made my mark.
School is where we first learn about music in a formal sense, our first realisation that it’s something more than background noise, but it’s often a terrifying or, worse, depressing experience. Hours spent carefully drawing pencilled notes onto yellowing paper have left me with nothing more than a vague memory that ‘every good boy deserves football’, which is a shame as i can’t stand it. Clearly i was born to be bad.
Teaching is often thwarted in this way: it tries to reduce creativity to process, to rules, to consistent behaviours. For language, it’s the rules of grammar, yet one more thing that has slipped from my mind as soon as the opportunity allowed, not that i can see to the detriment of my writing (cue abuse from various friends…). I remember once in art class that we had to do pencil drawings. I drew a ladybird and, if i say so myself, it was a damn good ladybird. Honestly, it had the right number of legs and everything. But i got told off because the shading wasn’t right. Wasn’t right? It was my shading! I think i’ll be the judge of whether the ladybird was right or not…
Although i suppose that since then i’ve developed my own language around art: unlike music, i kept up my drawing and painting to the point where, now, i feel competent. Indeed, i feel that more often than not i can ‘speak’ the language.
I don’t often talk about drawing because i find it hard to describe, but there are creative expressions there that i can’t easily articulate in other mediums. Take how you frame the image (i don’t mean how to put the painting in a frame, but rather how you choose the view to paint). I only paint outside, just quick sketches really, but always from life and always from the ‘right’ location. Don’t ask me how i know when it’s right, but i always know. If i sit in the ‘wrong’ spot, it feels dreadful, it feels wrong. It’s instinctive now, but i could feel that when i started to take more photos, i took that with me. I frame photos in the same way that i frame paintings, but then i developed it further. With photos i’ve become far more interested in textures and detail, so whilst my paintings tend to be broad and somewhat abstract, my photos tend to be granular and detailed. I can feel how it developed.
So the visual language is comfortable for me, i can see palettes of colours and i feel that i have a good feel for how the paints ‘work’. With watercolour, you have to learn to float the pigment over the water, you don’t put down exactly what you see, you kind of build it slowly, or at least i do. It’s not something i could have learnt at school, it’s something that took me twenty years to get a feel for.
Written language is comfortable too: i love words, i love playing with them. In fact, i love to write! There’s nothing about it that i find hard, be it formal texts, conversational writing (my favourite) or poetry. I like the different voices i can use on Twitter, in the blog, but with music i have no voice. I am confident enough with painting, with photography, with poetry, to use it for learning, but music, no way! I feel like the rank amateur.
“When I was at school, about 11, I remember that every morning as we were going in to assembly a classical music record was played. It continued to be played to the end of the movement or section, not just turned off when we were all in.”
“The next day the next section would be played, until by the end of the week we had heard, in silence and without interruption, the whole piece. It was a valuable lesson and undoubtedly helped to foster an interest in classical music without seeming to be forced upon us, although of course it was!”
“We also listened to music, again in silence, during needlework lessons. It sounds almost Victorian now! We were introduced to lots of different composers and also to some music from the shows that were around then. I remember that one of the girls was related to Julie Andrews and she brought in a record of My Fair Lady before it became generally available.
I still love music but I hate sewing!!”
My own mother there reflecting on her own experiences of learning music in school. This type of osmotic approach to learning is probably not uncommon, and probably not without value. After all, that’s how i discover new music today: i listen to something, like it and ask what it was. Or these days i Shazam it (for those of you not in the know, that’s the App on my phone that listens to songs and tells you what they are: AMAZING!)
I can see the value in hearing a range of music, indeed, i don’t remember my own school learning involving listening to anything, or at least anything other than some dreadful choral pieces. Maybe we did and it just passed me by.
But i come back to the fact that music may be harder to learn, certainly a harder language to master than the written word or, indeed, art. This may be one reason why we see it used so little in learning in our adult lives.