Appreciating the deeply unsatisfactory

‘Most pupils end up as artistic illiterates’ and ‘arts education … cannot produce creative pupils in the proper sense of the term’. What is the proper sense of the term ‘creative’? And why does music and art in schools prevent proper creativity? Is a realistic expectation only to cultivate appreciation in the arts and should we diminish the creative elements? Is the study of ‘great’ works, basking in their (supposed) glory mean we’re providing an enriching and significant learning experience?

Does appreciation mean we focus on artistic literacy and the cultivation of ‘technical knowledge’? My main query is that this technical knowledge might be culturally specific. Are we seeking to cultivate the appreciation of a particular technical knowledge indicative of a particular musical tradition? Can we compare music with physics in that the latter does have a body of technical knowledge beyond cultural boundary? Music has a sociocultural consideration that seems odd to ignore.

If we are seeing musical creativity as the key way of experiencing a music(al) curriculum do we need technical knowledge? This, for me, comes back to musical literacy and the subject of notation. I am conflicted in the notation debate. I have seen a great deal of under-confidence in pupils intimidated by their musically literate peers. It can be a confrontation of what they can’t do, and rather than inspire and empower it disables and undermines. It can feel like an impenetrable club of elites who have special knowledge. These blobs and sticks can make pupils feel inadequate. They’re also not easy to learn (though I can’t recall ever learning how to read). They quickly can match symbol to name with some instruction but matching symbol to sound is a much more sophisticated endeavour when we move beyond single musical instances such as individual notes. Instrumental teachers regularly moan about pupils that can’t sight-read and even those that have achieved high examination grades can struggle to actualise seemingly simple musical data into sound. The various layers to produce in sound are complicated enough but we fundamentally have a system of symbols that is not only an approximation but it requires quite sophisticated knowledge to translate and translate again. I am in awe of young people who can sight-read and do this multiple translation effortlessly. But I have seen that isn’t the norm, and many pupils struggle to sight-read with fluency. I’d love to know what the average sight-Reading mark is for each grade.

I don’t think there is much useful thinking to be done on music without some technical knowledge of form and other musical elements. But is there useful creative thinking to be with music without some technical knowledge, and is there some different and equally useful creative thinking to be done with sound with or without technical knowledge?

If artistic illiterates are the product of 11 years of schooling in the arts then we might have a starting point for an engaging debate about what it means to be musically literate. What balance is achieved between an aural literacy and technical literacy? Is it enough to be confident to recognise the musicotechnical or do we need pupils to be able to explain and define? Do we want pupils to use and manipulate the technical more than we want them to explain and define?

My colleague in a previous school would say things like ‘we need to teach them Beethoven 5’ and I’d retort with ‘why?’. No response. Similarly an well-respected academic several years ago commented students don’t know the canon when they arrive at the first year of their music degree. A colleague piped up, ‘but did you know the canon when you arrived at undergraduate study?’. There can be genuine pleasure in knowing a canon, in explaining why a Beethoven symphony needs to be shared and rather than make up vacuous advocacy statements about how music will make you travel back in time, cure IBS and reverse climate change we need to be honest about what it is and what it can do. Instrumentalising music for the sake of preserving it degrades the subject.

Advocating for the preservation of a canon of musical technical language through embedding it in the curriculum might seem the right thing to do, but it might undermine the educational philosophy of a teacher delivering their curriculum if they prefer and believe engaging with music through sound is the priority. It might be a question of balance and timing. Knowing when to up the technical knowledge (as a pupil might be approaching GCSE and A-level) but reflecting on which threshold concepts might usefully be embedded earlier so pupils cannot be said to be hindered in any further musical study.

But what would we want to teach to ensure a musical literacy that is more than notation? And why might it be worth teaching it explicitly so pupils know this technical language?

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