TEACHING SCHOOL CHILDREN ABOUT GREAT CONCERT MUSIC Should the government get involved?

I’ve noticed of late various despatches that raise the important issue of classical music education in schools and the government’s failure to lend it support. Of course, all learning is of value and music in particular has been scientifically proven to have a beneficial effect on children’s thought processes. But wait a minute, is school the best entry point for a child’s musical appreciation? Shouldn’t it rather be a home-grown thing, parents taking their children to concerts, inspiring them to take up an instrument because they themselves play or even playing them cds? To deal with the former option first, imagine this situation: Dad takes little Jenny to a concert where Mullova or Vengerov are playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. Jenny has never been to a live concert before; she has no knowledge of the violin and Mendelssohn is a total mystery to her, but she’s bowled over. ‘Dad, can I have one of those for Christmas please?’ she asks excitedly, and come December 25th she unwraps a quarter-size violin. The seed is sown, not at school, but in the context of an inseparable bond between father and daughter, who egg each other on. The music is an extension of the love between them. Or there’s the family ensemble, which Jenny joins as soon as she’s old enough and able enough, simply because she wants to be part of the conversation.

My guess is that while some kids will gravitate to Mozart or Beethoven during school assembly, most won’t. Rock is the thing, music that keeps time with their quickened pulses. I started off that way (Elvis, Lonnie Donegan, Buddy Holly), but a long spell of illness found me discovering Wagner by accident, and from there I was up and away. Here was music that seemed to recall the passion and excitement of favourite film soundtracks composed by the likes of Steiner, Korngold or Newman.  Music heard on radio and TV can have the same effect. Then again school trips to the concert hall, to real live events, can only be a good thing. The musical initiatives of the philanthropist Robert Mayer gave countless children a chance to explore the thrill of a live concert and that, surely, must have stayed with them for life.

And there’s the crucial issue of how much you can actually teach a child. Countless musicians who I have interviewed claim that while learning to manipulate a violin neck and bow, or the keys and pedals on a piano, is often an effortful slog, unless your coordination is shot to ribbons, or virtually non-existent to start with (as mine is), learning the physical aspects of playing isn’t all that difficult. What is difficult is learning how to deal with silences, how to breathe and phrase musically. As the great pianist Artur Schnabel once said ‘I don’t think I handle the notes much differently from other pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, there is where the artistry lies!!’  He also said the he was only attracted to music which he considered better than it can be performed. So here’s a challenge for you. Take Schnabel’s 1932 HMV recording of Beethoven’s last Sonata Op 111 from your shelves. Go to the beginning of the second movement, the Arietta, listen to the way Schnabel sustains the pauses and weights the chords at an extremely broad tempo, and if you have a piano in the room, try to imitate his style of playing. If you haven’t, I’ll save you the trouble anyway: it’s impossible. Even Schnabel himself couldn’t quite upstage his former self on his later recording of the work for RCA. This is the ultimate example of Schnabel teaching me a lesson that, had I been  a great teacher, I could never have taught him.

Another example of this magical phenomenon is a music college concert I attended years ago where a friend’s hugely gifted daughter gave a brilliant performance of a violin showpiece. But for me that wasn’t the concert’s highlight. A few minutes later a very young child walked onto the stage with her harp. She played a simple folksong and I can tell you that the effect was magical, not because of the way she manipulated the notes, but because of her mastery of the silences between them. She too was teaching me what I could never have taught her, nor could any teacher.

So I suppose the upshot of what I’m suggesting here is that a love of music ‘will out’, no matter what, just like a love of art or literature. Yes, if it’s possible let’s please readmit classical or concert music to the school curriculum, but my guess is that a real appreciation of the greatest repertoire comes from outside of the school’s gates or, more likely still, is the result of an inbuilt love that was there from the start. It’s a question of pushing all the right buttons and with the potential threat of mocking peers or worst still unsupportive parents and siblings there’s a real danger that those buttons will remain under a solid glass casing for life. Still, nature here has the potential to upstage nurture. The willing home nurturers therefore have a duty to identify a ‘creative nature’ and encourage it.

Thoughts please?

20 thoughts on “TEACHING SCHOOL CHILDREN ABOUT GREAT CONCERT MUSIC Should the government get involved?

  1. Oh dear, Mr. Cowan (sigh). The very first thing that strikes me is your presumption that parents are sufficiently wealthy to take their children to concerts. The second thing is your presumption that a parent has sufficient knowledge and experience to select and go to a concert. School music should be there to give equal opportunity to all pupils to engage and commit in music making and listening, and to allow them to develop an understanding of the skills involved in this form of communication.

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    1. Thanks Roz
      To be truthful there are no presumptions in what I say. In fact when I was young more working class than middle class parents took their children to concerts. Selecting music is easy via Spotify or YouTube. Just choose something that your child enjoys (from Bach to Bartók), check what’s on and go from there. My principal point is that while I agree with the equal opportunities idea as a general rule ‘classical’ music has a minority appeal. The thing is to spot it, and nurture it. Best and thanks for writing. Rob

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    2. I do agree. I believe it’s naive to think children will pick up an interest if it’s not part of their culture at home nor at school. Sadly, classical music is beginning to drift out of the UK’s culture. I do hope (perhaps against hope) that the money, said to have been pledged by the government for music lessons, will appear in fact

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      1. Thank you for that John. There are so many ways of bringing music into peoples’ lives. Walk along the underpass to Euston Square Station and its always playing. It’s there in doctors’ surgeries on Classic FM. That haven for youngsters, the internet, is full of it, whether on Spotify, Mac Music, YouTube, or access via Google and Yahoo. There are countless tutorials available free online. Look up Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and your searches could fill a year’s worth of looking and listening – films, scores, countless recordings from the 1920s to the present day. All it needs is a friendly guide to set the ball rolling and you’re set for life. What would I have done for this sort of facility when I was a kid! From the early 1990s Classic FM made ‘Classical Music’ part of our everyday lives. The only people who balked against it were the elitists. It makes me laugh when people say that CFM is a ‘lifestyle’ station, like Radio 3 isn’t. Different lifestyles, which is fair enough. But to say that Classical music is drifting out of the UK’s culture strikes me more as a political statement (though don’t ask me whether it’s coming from the left, right or middle) than a statement of fact. Pan back 40 years and tell me honestly when you could switch on the radio any time of day and listen to Classical music? You couldn’t. And lps were, pro-rata, many times more expensive than cds, even dvds. Let’s not forget what a goldmine is freely available to us out there, and we shouldn’t let our children forget it either.

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      2. Thanks Rob,
        Mine was certainly not intended as a party political point and I completely agree with you that all that’s needed is a friendly guide but without parents or school who will show the way for further delving?

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      3. The political reference wasn’t meant too literally John! But a friendly guide? In my case peers, an uncle next door who was mad about opera (who gave me my first [Cetra] lp of Carmen highlights) and another uncle who gave me a complete recording of Smetana’s Má vlast on 78s. They all learned how much I wanted to absorb the stuff and picked up on my energy and enthusiasm. I think that’s what we all have to do. My oldest daughter saw a rather moving coming-of-age film which used The Lark Ascending as a soundtrack (I think it was called ‘The Year my Voice Broke’), and she was instantly hooked on the piece. Just looking for ways to knit great music into the stream of life is I suppose what I mean, which I still do on a regular basis. It’s a sort of mission. Anyway thanks for writing back. Best. Rob

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      4. Of course I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly and I feel very privileged to have had people around me doing exactly that when I was growing up. Meanwhile thanks for all you do to keep it in the stream!

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  2. Rob – I couldn’t agree more. For the ‘musically-gifted’ (though unaware of it) child, even if there is no piano, no instrument, no radio, no anything, they will still find music. And it will find them. I found classical music probably from the TV test-card. I stared at that image for days and weeks on end waiting for Grieg Holberg Suite to come round, or Holst’s folk-songs, a pretty bit of Bach or whatever. Something ‘easy’ first, but still at the top of it’s game. I absorbed ‘Carmen’, ‘Porgy & Bess’, from the feature films until Fred Astaire guided me into just about everything else. We certainly weren’t listening to John Cage! There doesn’t need to be any real ‘facilities’ either until you get to around 8-10 years old. By that time you’ll have experienced your own natural ‘way in’, and that early, lonely period will likely prove to be the most important of your life.

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  3. With you all the way there Tot. I’ll never forget chancing up Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite on what was the BBC Third Programme. I was 13 and we were about to go on holiday. I had just two pounds pocket money for two weeks. I immediately blew the lot on the lp (Chicago Symphony, Antál Doráti). I’ve always maintained that youngsters are more likely to respond to Stravinsky, Bartók, Shostakovich or Copland than to Mozart or Beethoven. The new music chimes more readily with their inner selves. Very best. Rob

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  4. Sarah Moyse

    HI Rob
    Reading your article I was left wondering how many parents would be the slightest bit interested in taking their children to concerts. I do think we all come to music in different ways, but if there is no exposure either at home or at school then there is very little chance that the knowledge will filter through and develop. I grew up in a family where it seemed to me that classical music was for adults and not for children and being the first child I was exposed to much more than my younger siblings and at a younger age. By the time I was about 10 I was the only one in the family at all interested in music, and it became an obsession almost, though without any support or interest from the rest of the family or any friends at school I only had the chance to be involved through the church choir. I would have loved to play an instrument well, but without a supportive environment somewhere I believe it is nigh on impossible. I feel that there should be the facilities in schools for children who want to be involved as well as some opportunities for introducing classical music to children who would never otherwise hear any. Although films have really wonderful music sometimes, my own experience was that I never heard it consciously at all. And even when it was drawn to my attention by others, I still found it difficult to notice – I often find the same when I go to operas – unless I really know the music before I go, I am often so spellbound by the visual spectacle that the music seems to pass by unnoticed.
    But more than anything, I can’t help being aware of how much people are missing out on when they don’t have the chance to be involved in music whether as a listener or a performer. Not only is it a recognised enhancer of brain function, but the benefit of music for mood and stress management are enormous. It seems really wrong not to provide everyone with the chance to develop a knowledge and interest at school when they may not have any opportunity elsewhere.

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    1. ‘It seems really wrong not to provide everyone with the chance to develop a knowledge and interest at school when they may not have any opportunity elsewhere.’ Absolutely Sarah. I suppose that having had a lifelong obsession with introducing people to classical music on a one-to-one, or at the very least, small group basis – talking about personal reactions etc – it’s that personal element that means most to me. I too was the only one in our household who really loved music (everyone else thought I was stark raving mad!) though my mother was occasionally responsive. Exposure to music is the crucial issue, whichever way you manage it. Let me modify what I originally wrote and say that if a teacher who passionately believes in music can be found to preach the gospel of the great classics then by all means snap him/her up!

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  5. Mark

    Great article Rob, really enjoyed reading. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the subject. My sister was a primary school teacher, and her two girls are in school now (aged 10 and 12). Classical music is forced on them at school. They are made to play the violin. They loathe it. At home, grandad listens to classic fm and tries to point out interesting music to them. They are bored (no offence!)

    However, in the front room they like to have dance parties. Favourites include Will Smith (aladdin), Dolly Parton, Stravinsky, Horrible Histories (tv show), and Mr Scruff (their dad likes 90s dance music).

    That’s right – Stravinsky. They love petrushka and race around pretending to be horse racing. Their view of music is “can we dance to it at our dance party”. Not is it classical, rock, electronic. If they can dance to it, they love it. And because it’s their dance party, they feel ownership of the music. This is theirs, not something that was forced on them at school. And I think this is the key…how to get kids to feel ownership of classical music.

    Each succesive generation has to take ownership of language, of art, of music. I wonder if the classical music world is too hung up on “be careful you’ll break it” rather than “take it, it’s yours”.

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  6. ‘I wonder if the classical music world is too hung up on “be careful you’ll break it” rather than “take it, it’s yours”. So very true Mark. Re Petrushka, although not a school subject my French teacher Derek Tee gave me a copy of the Stokowski Symphony Orchestra HMV lp (it’s now out on a Testament CD) which I virtually wore out – the fairground-style vividness of it, madcap excitement, the pathos, and emotional clout, brilliance too…. a real trip. I prefer it even to The Rite of Spring which is the Stravinsky that first caught me off my guard (after that erotically driven Bartók Mandarin).
    Me too, if I can dance to it – Bach, Vivaldi, Bartók, Dvorák, Enescu – I love it, still. This and works like it awaken the eternal child in us.

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    1. Mark

      Rob, just in addition to talking about young people needing to take “ownership” of classical music – are you aware of the trend of heavy metal arrangements of Shostakovich?

      It seems in the last few years Shostakovich has been adopted by young fans of metal music as “one of their own”, and arrangements of his music now proliferate. Classical music fully absorbed and brought to life in a whole new way. Here’s one example – interested to know your thoughts!

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  7. Tully Potter

    Rob, I think it’s essential for the government, or preferably the local authority, to get involved. Just having a short piece of classical music played at assembly will accustom children to the idea that there are some great tunes there, never mind anything else. So much dross is available at every point in our lives that I think it’s hopeless to expect anyone to reach out for better music without a tactful nudge. School music lessons can be a real drag if the teacher is not inspired, so it’s up to the powers-that-be to train more music teachers, or even draft in music students who want to earn some extra money by doing a stint. It isn’t beyond the power of man or woman to solve the problem. By doing nothing, we lose any chance of gaining anything. And I have seen it proved, time and again, that a good peripatetic instrumental teaching system gets results. Right now, our rulers think music is an optional extra, to be cut at the first whiff of a cash shortage. I think it’s a necessity, for all sorts of reasons. Jill, or Mrs Potter as I call her, was a school music teacher for some 30 years and both she and I believe there is no substitute for a real person playing the piano for a school choir, or organising an orchestra, or putting on an end-of-term show.

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    1. Wouldn’t disagree with any of that Tully. Still I hear that the Government has in the face of potential BBC cuts protectively ring-fenced Radio 3, so at least they have that going for them. I’d agree entirely about the inspirational value of a good teacher – and many a tactful nudge has resulted in a lifelong love. Great to hear from you. Rob

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  8. David Edwards

    Is school the best entry point? You can’t give a general rule. But it’s one possible entry point, and if it’s not there the consequences can be very serious. I live most of the year in France, where thanks to the secular culture there are no morning services in schools, so no necessity for large halls (which are then used for drama and so many other things), no necessity for children to sing together with all that that teaches them about listening, about rhythm, about the excitement of particpating in live, collective music-making, and similarly fewer chances to be surprised by a piece of music played while everyone is assembling that by chance one day will reveal some new unsuspected world of wonder and beauty. The consequence is that music other than rock is often relegated to the conservatoire, considered something for the rich or only for experts, for others. I have a friend here, a man of fabulously rich intellectual and artistic culture, a highly original performer of ‘noise’ instruments himself with a wonderful collection of to me very obscure free jazz and underground recorded music: evenings spent with him and his wife are wondrous affairs. But there’s not the slightest chance of my returning the favour by playing him recordings of contemporary ‘classical’ – oh no, that’s the music of the elite, he’s not going to listen to any of that stuff out of class solidarity! And in less extreme form it results in even classical concert goers who have no reaction to or opinion about what they have just heard – I’ve had discussions where people wlll say ‘what do I know?’ – generally the more famous an artist is the louder they clap, and if the artist is French, well twice as loud. (In case you think this is mere personal cynicism, a French professional violinist friend, playing in one of the country’s leading orchestras, said – I translate – “Absolutely. It’s a catastrophe The public like it when it’s fast and loud.”)

    But I am sure there is no point in trying to ram it down children’s throats – we had music appreciation sessions at school too, and all I remember about those is the limited repertoire (heavens I got sick of the Young Persons’s Guide to the Orchestra’!), the chalk-covered discs which the music teacher (who was a musician and was probably totally bored by having to talk about and play us reproduced music) would wipe with the sleeve of her cardigan and the terribly primitive sound. But I can still remember hearing Delius’s Sleigh Ride by chance one afternoon when they were testing the new speakers they had just installed in the school hall, or my grand-mother playing me the Teddy Bears’ Picnic on her piano in the days before she slipped on the ice, broke her hand which was reset at the wrong angle and had to give up playing (I would have been less than 4 I guess), or a chance invitation to participate in a school outing to hear a performance of Winterreise about 11 years later. No one can tell which moment will work the magic, but if music happens elsewhere and for others, it’s probably never going to happen – and what a tragedy!

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    1. Lovely reply David, thank you – and such a vivid portrayal of the randomness of it all.
      I recall so many chance encounters. One day when I was a kid I took myself out for a walk and passed a car where the driver was sitting listening to unfamiliar music that enthralled me – it was the ‘Intermezzo’ from Kodály’s Háry János. I waited for the announcer to spill the beans, made a mental note of what I had heard and the following day was off to the library to borrow an LP of the music. Such is my life story, a biography led by footnotes!
      Best. Rob

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