Rediscovering the whole musician

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The Independent Culture
Should we learn music by performing and making our own, or concentrate on studying the great composers and their works? This year's arguments over the National Curriculum brought the profession out noisily in favour of hands-on music. They won a few concessions from the Government, but the feeling remains strong that this was only a start. Now it is up to the musicians and the teachers to do what they can. Here three leading practitioners give their views on the story so far, and some of the possible ways ahead


As education director of the London Sinfonietta, Gillian Moore works with composers and professional performers in schools, prisons, and many other 'real- life' settings. She was a member of the music working group for the National Curriculum

IN THE spring, Simon Rattle appeared on The Late Show, Pierre Boulez wrote to the Guardian, and Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Michael Tippett and Sir Charles Groves added their name to a list of starry signatures as long as your arm in a letter to the Prime Minister. They were all talking about the National Curriculum in Music, and protesting at changes which the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, Kenneth Clarke, had made to the proposals of a specialist working group of which I was a member.

But why was all this media attention given to music education, a subject which is surely not 'sexy'? And why were leading conductors, performers and composers taking an interest in the minutiae of what is taught in schools? One answer must be that, over the last decade or so, the music profession has had a direct influence on what happens in schools and, perhaps more surprisingly, developments in school music have had a significant effect on the very top of the music profession.

The kind of education programmes which orchestras and opera companies have developed over the last decade have shifted away from the concerts-for- schools approach which, however laudable, aimed simply to help young people appreciate music 'as it is', and have moved towards a creative and participatory style which allows them to have a say over 'how it could be'. The fact that leading musicians have regular working contact with children in schools and, for that matter, with people in prisons, in adult education and in the wider community, is in my view beginning to have tangible effects on music-making at the highest level.

Composers can open up their work to a wider set of influences, and some have said that the actual notes they put on the page have been directly affected by involvement with a particular education project. This year, for example, Mark Anthony Turnage's television opera for the BBC, Killing Time, was inspired by his work in Wormwood Scrubs with members of the London Sinfonietta. Performers involved in education work have to develop skills in new directions, learning to be flexible and responsive, to improvise and compose, to be able to cross the barrier between popular and serious music and to work with musicians from other cultures.

In order to strengthen these new skills in their musicians, some orchestras offer training schemes in composing, improvising, non-Western music, working in groups, and communication. Many of the techniques used in these sessions have been borrowed directly from teachers in schools. The same ways of working which have made primary and secondary schools music lessons come alive over the past 20 years have been found to be directly relevant in developing the skills of the country's top musicians.

It is hardly surprising that, at a time when the music profession found itself being radicalised by contact with music in schools, they were dismayed to find that we were in danger of regressing into the dark ages of music education. Mr Clarke saw the Music Working Group's proposals as advocating exoticism at the expense of the Western classical tradition and practical work at the expense of knowledge.

His draft orders were a defensive shoring-up of what he perceived as the Western classical tradition - a Hundred Best Tunes world which excluded anything non-Western, anything before 1600, anything by a living composer (with the exception of Michael Tippett) and, most celebratedly, named only two musical forms as worthy of legal enforcement - symphony and oratorio.

But thanks to the intervention of the very people Mr Clarke thought he was protecting - the pillars of the classical musical establishment - some of the ludicrous requirements have disappeared from the final orders and we have a music curriculum which, although it may have missed some exciting opportunities, will allow teachers and professional musicians to continue to do good work in schools.

The London Sinfonietta opens its 25th anniversary season next Tuesday


The Australian-born composer Alison Bauld has just published a method for learning to play the piano creatively. She talked to Robert Maycock

'I FEEL we've lost sight of teaching the piano as one might have done for proper musicians in the 18th century. There is some Hungarian research that shows brain function is improved by learning music. Well, it isn't the way we're doing it. The entire middle class is obsessed with vitamins and mother's milk and forgets about the neurological systems.'

Alison Bauld is passionate about engaging the brain in the early stages of learning an instrument and in most other things too. We reduce the operation of a piano to a mechanical business that is learned more or less by rote. Then we wonder why children give up after the first few lessons. Her own long experience in piano teaching - she first came to study in England in 1969 - has convinced her that boredom and fear are the enemies. 'The idea is that the child should experiment individually, taking however long they need, and not be panicked. As soon as you set time-bound goals you've introduced the concept of failure.'

She discovered that broader principles could work with students who had acquired, in their progress towards the 'grade' examinations that punctuate the early stages of musical study, the stigma of being thought bound to fail. Nothing had really caught their imagination. They certainly had not been used to improvising or thinking compositionally. The various aspects of music, listening or playing or creating, had all been put into separate pigeonholes. So she set about bringing them back together in her teaching, and a couple of years ago she persuaded her publisher, Novello, that she ought to be passing on her experience to a wider audience of teachers and students. The result is Play Your Way, a concise three-volume method now in print.

Bauld's approach is friendly and down-to-earth, accompanied by her own illustrations. 'It is like sitting at a table in a restaurant,' she writes early in the first volume. 'Fingers should be lightly curved, as if covering a hamburger, but do not squeeze the ketchup out of the bun.' The tone is generally direct rather than jokey. Not long after the first explorations of the keyboard she is showing you what middle C is and how to write it down, and when you have played and read a few sequences of Cs you are asked to make some up and write them down too. 'Your Composition on C' arrives on page 18.

By the third volume students are enjoying modern techniques of composing and notation, and sharing with Stravinsky the idea of 'wrong' notes as a creative principle. 'Treat the occasional slip as an alternative,' Bauld writes. 'Benefit from the mistake and don't panic.' This is all of a piece with her positive attitude to playing around - the sort of improvisatory attitude to the score that most beginners find much more fun than 'proper' practice but are made to feel guilty about.

It is not meant to be a total solution: 'I'd expect any sensible music teacher to use it in conjunction with other books to develop pianistic technique.' But it also has a powerful message for the teachers themselves. 'They come out of college bursting with ideals, and the idealism gets corrupted because of insecurity, or they haven't got the energy. So they fall back on the old ways they learned themselves. It's insecurity that makes them conservative.' She hopes to build confidence; to rescue the improvising skills habitual two centuries ago and now almost lost (within the Western classical tradition, at least), and to recapture the vision of the whole musician instead of the keyboard operative. 'And we must publicise the need to make music important in our lives again. We have to go beyond the musicians who care. With 10 per cent of the workforce unemployed, we must ensure that music education thrives in the schools or it will only be the children of the affluent or of musicians who have the chance to learn.'

Play Your Way, Novello, vol 1 pounds 5.95, vols 2 and 3 pounds 4.95 each


The percussionist Evelyn Glennie plays Panufnik's Concertino tomorrow night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

WITHOUT question learning a musical instrument can improve our discipline and ability to work with others, but it has an even greater potential. I would like to tell you what occurs almost without exception when I give master classes. A good example is the snare drum lesson.

Playing in the centre of the drum creates a deep, fat sound. Playing on the edge of the drum produces a thin, weak sound. When asked to play quietly, students invariably play at the edge of the drum as it is easier to accomplish and, anyway, this is often how they have been taught. However, playing at the edge only produces a quiet, thin sound. So if I ask a student to play a quiet, fat sound, he or she will at first be confused, try playing the edge of the drum briefly and then usually give up.

This raises the important point that the student has taken the words of his or her teacher as gospel instead of experimenting and learning about the capabilities of the drum for his or herself. I give around 40 master classes a year and spend all my time trying to break students' externally or self-imposed sets of rules.

Playing quietly (softly) in the centre of the drum produces a different type of 'quiet' to that produced at the edge. Suddenly we have a choice. It is a subjective choice. Both parts of the drum can be used to fulfil the composer's requirement of piano. I encourage the student to experiment until the type of quiet is the way he or she wishes. Surprisingly in the end it is not producing the different quality of sound that students find difficult, but which quality of sound to use in a particular situation. They want instructions from me and easy answers.

My task then is to widen their horizons by showing how the notes on the page are merely a guide and that the real music involves a series of personal decisions. If I provide the answers, then the music is mine and the students are merely imitating. They must make their own decisions and discover their own justifications.

Unfortunately at this stage we normally run out of time. Nevertheless, I hope that I have managed, at least in part, to help the student be aware of a new freedom within the apparently strict rules of classical music performance by placing a new perspective on the student's existing set of rigid rules. Thus the story of the snare drum lessons has a moral, which I hope goes beyond music.

Initially the new National Curriculum for music provided a positive opportunity to encourage a personal expression by allowing for practical work and by enabling professional musicians to visit schools frequently to impart their experience. I feel that a great opportunity has been missed. In my view there is now too much emphasis on academic requirements - it is presumably easier to mark students on their knowledge of Beethoven's dates than it is to judge personal expression. We are, after all, trying to engender a uniquely emotional human experience - that of music.

Postscript: I have just realised that I could not give you Beethoven's exact dates without looking them up. Does this mean that I would fail?

The articles by Gillian Moore and Evelyn Glennie are to appear in the annual report of the Arts Council, which is published next week