One of the most memorable questions to have come from the audience in the keynote theatre at the Music Education Expo was directed at culture minister Ed Vaizey: ‘Have you ever been to Hungary?’ asked one delegate, with a raised eyebrow. ‘Yes, but not to visit schools,’ was the reply, and, as ever, no-one was quite sure if the minister had fully understood the question.
Well, if the admirable level of commitment to its cause that the UK Kodály community has shown over the last couple of weeks is anything to go by, he could save himself the air fare. Having kicked off our series of articles on teaching notation in the last issue, my inbox is bursting at the seams and tempers are already running high.
This might not be the best time to confess that my two-year-old son requests sol-fa sessions by saying ‘daddy do beer song’ (‘Doh, a beer, I’ll have a beer/Ray: the man who buys me beer/Me, yes please, I’ll have a beer/Far: a long way to the bar,’ etc.). We should probably be encouraging our toddlers to drink responsibly, even if they might grow up to be musicians, but, in all seriousness, what I would dearly love to see on the topic of teaching notation, whether you use songs, glockenspiels, sol-fa, number games, actions, graphic notation or electric shocks, is an open-minded dialogue.
Sharing our experiences of what works and listening with an open mind becomes all the more important as it becomes clear that attempts to get hard data on the effectiveness of teaching can raise more questions than they answer. I recently read a paper from the Harvard Graduate School summarising an experiment that, contrary to received wisdom, ‘found no evidence for the cognitive beneﬁts of music education’. A distressing conclusion, but the author, Samuel Mehr, argues that this doesn’t mean that music should not be taught in schools, rather that music education advocates ‘should argue for the intrinsic – not extrinsic – beneﬁts of music’.
I’ve always harboured heretical thoughts that ‘music for music’s sake’ might be enough of a campaign slogan, while accepting that we must do whatever it takes to ﬁ ght for music in the school setting. Rather than speculative tales of how music has helped students achieve more in other subjects, how about – just for a month or two – we do the opposite, and celebrate stories of how our broader circumstances got us into music?