School music is moving to a global rhythm

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Japanese taiko drumming is more than mere rhythm: it blends limbs, head, and heart in a way that expresses the Japanese soul. Yet this arcane art-form will soon be on the menu for whole classes of 12-year-olds in selected Nottingham schools: a four-week stint will give them enough of the fundamentals to perform - if not quite to the standards of the Kodo drummers - at least a basic taiko routine. "My aim is to get taiko happening all over the country," says prime mover Jonathan Kirby. In Japan, a small drum of the kind his pupils use costs £1,000, but by stretching tarpaulin across plastic drainage piping, he's devised a version that costs one tenth of that, and he's already sold 15 such drums to the music service in Devon. "The way we teach taiko, it's about doing simple things well," he explains. "It's about team-work, self-respect, and respect for others. It feels great, and sounds great. No matter what background the kids come from, taiko connects with all of them, and they all get enthused."

The Government's latest decision on school music - to stop ring-fencing funds for it, so that schools can simply use their music budget for other purposes - is lamentably par for the Blairite course. And it's easy to mock the Music Manifesto - fine thoughts, without a penny attached - but the nine-minute film put out to promote it does to a certain extent disarm criticism. Made by composer (and born-again Blairite) Howard Goodall, Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Young Musicians Embrace the Future is a dense tissue of interviews suggesting that the future is indeed being embraced. "I've discovered classical music is not just for old, posh people," says one boy. "Some of it's really cool." No class or colour boundaries define these teenagers' views: they're articulate, open-minded, and notably free from prejudice. One pairs Debussy and Paul McCartney as his favourite composers, another links jungle tunes and Ligeti. A black girl was surprised to find that Carmen was "really funky." "Jazz is the highest form of chamber music," opines a serious boy with a harp. Some of these pupils are at private schools, but most are in the state system, which in some places is clearly capable of delivering the goods.

This pluralism is a relatively recent thing: until the advent of GCSE in 1988, school music was rooted in the Western classical tradition. When Wilfrid Mellers - professor of music at York University - wrote in praise of the Beatles in the Seventies, the educational world quivered with shock; when his colleagues began to promote the idea that children's creativity should be brought into the school music equation, that shock was compounded. GCSE established a theoretical equality between performing, listening, and composing, and a little primer put out by Her Majesty's Inspectorate laid out a new landscape for music education.

By no means all music teachers welcomed this change: some of the older ones decided the ideological wrench was too much, and took early retirement instead. But the change was overdue: the teaching of visual art, dance, and drama had long enshrined creativity at their centre. The national curriculum in its present form is, in musical terms, largely content-free, until pupils reach the age of 14: apart from a nudge towards the appreciation of British folk music - odd, given that there's so little of it, and that it's on the whole pretty boring - teachers have a free hand in deciding how to foster listening, playing, composition, and analysis.

"This is good, assuming music teachers are competent to operate across a broad range," says Sarah Hennessy, a music lecturer at Exeter University and chair of the National Association of Music Educators. The issue now, she says, is that we still have a higher education system dominated by Western classical music, which tends to exert an influence back down. She points to the research studies showing how low the GCSE take-up in music is, compared with other arts subjects: "Many pupils just don't find any connection between music teaching in school, and the music they listen to or play outside school hours. There's a huge amount of music making going on outside school, and it's now dawning on teachers that they could do a lot more to tap into it. There should be no prohibition on schools engaging with classical music, but equally there should be no suggestion that some forms of music are to be excluded from the curriculum.

"School music used to be a homogenous thing, a monoculture - but not any more. In a sense, it's not important what the genre is - what is important is that what's being done with it should be musical." The idea of the music teacher being an omniscient expert is eroding, she says: "They are increasingly being seen as enablers, and their departments as a resource. They can design a curriculum, drawing on a wide variety of musicians - peripatetic teachers, community musicians, freelancers - who they bring in as partners."

This is very much what is happening at Guildford County School, where community arts adviser Matthew Southcombe brings in 13 visiting instrumental teachers to service a curriculum which, as he puts it, "promotes every genre as equally valid". And for pupils of all abilities: when some Indian musicians came in last year, he insisted they work with a whole year group, not just the gifted ones. He's now getting an instrument maker to provide violins for an entire primary class.

Meanwhile in Barnsley College, music teacher Richard Tolson is basking in reflected glory from the indie rock group the Arctic Monkeys, who graduated straight from his A-level music technology course to the top of the charts. He sends his pianistic high-fliers to the conservatoires, but the studio skills which his pop musicians acquire are no less effective a launch pad.

What part are the examining boards playing in all this? The answer, in some cases, is a large one. While the venerable Associated Board remains firmly rooted in the Western classical tradition - its overseas market, with its conservative bias, virtually dictates that - the syllabus of the Trinity College London board is on the move. As its deputy director Nick Beach points out, show songs are now enshrined in the singing syllabus, and the board has just announced graded exams for Indian classical music. Meanwhile it has set up fiddle exams for Shetland pupils, and will replicate that scheme in Northumberland, where each village has its own style.

Anyone wanting further proof of the eclecticism now prevailing in school music should consider how widespread gamelan is, and how individual teachers are bringing their personal enthusiasms for everything from samba to Malian kora-playing into the classroom. But as Gavin Henderson, chair of Youth Music, points out, these grafts need to be delicately made. "It's not just a matter of adding on a bit of hip-hop and thinking the job is done, because there are huge cultural issues to confront," he says. And particularly so, when music is intertwined with dance, as in India, or when it's bound up with religion, as in Africa and the Far East. But all that's just part of this fascinating game.