Sunday, 2 April 2017

Music notation - a world of possibilities

Thanks to the marvels of social media, I have just been directed towards an article by Charlotte C. Gill, published earlier this week in The Guardian where Gill describes learning the skill to read music notation as being the the preserve of "the white and the wealthy elite". 

Whilst Gill makes valid points about the huge contribution the creative arts industry makes to the UK economy, and also the worrying state of music education in our schools (especially in light of the proposed EBacc which excludes creative subjects altogether), she really completely misses the point regarding learning to read music notation.

From my perspective on a 5-state tour of the USA researching for my Winston Churchill Fellowship in guitar education, every single guitar program I have visited has all the students reading notation fluently, confidently and with pleasure. These are children who are often as far from the "white and the wealthy elite" that C.C Gill writes of as you can possibly imagine; children from schools with less than 10% white students, students at schools in which over 85% receive free school meals, children at risk, children in school on Apache Indian reservations, and children in juvenile detention centres; whatever their backgrounds, they are all fully immersed and engaged in making music together as a class, playing in ensemble using standard notated music, and what is more, in many cases it is exactly these lessons that inspire them to remain 'in school' long enough to learn anything else. 

The beauty of all these programs is that everyone learns guitar together in their classroom music lesson and this is the medium through which all the other aspects of general music education are taught. There is no compromise with repertoire; there is no 'dumbing down'; there is genuine interest, vocally expressed in class, in the theory behind the music, and what is more, this all works; this vital and easily absorbed skill of reading notation gives these children a whole world of music to discover, whether it is alongside their peers in class, or on their own at home. Gill's claim that music is "a cryptic, tricky language that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education" simply does not bear scrutiny. 

Just yesterday, I visited Catalina High School in Tucson, Arizona which perfectly represents the demographic I have just described. Students there have a 65% mobility rate which is considered to be an indicator of children at extreme risk (meaning they do not complete their full 4-year high school education at one single school, either joining part way through or leaving and moving on elsewhere before the end). Further illustrations of the socio-economic background are that 98% of students at Catalina are on the federal free and reduced lunch program and 22 different languages are spoken, reflecting the high percentage of Hispanic and Afro-American students. 

I was able to observe a music teacher and his students in guitar class alongside Brad Richter, the co-founder of the 'Lead Guitar' program which is run in partnership with the University of Arizona. Brad and his team regularly visit the programs they have created within the school curriculum to support and advise teachers and their students, and every time they do so they take the opportunity to perform a piece for the students in class. The choice of repertoire on this occasion surprised me; a contemporary piece that Brad had written himself entitled "Starry Night on the Beach (with Federales)" using extended guitar techniques and elements of a less familiar musical language. The students duly listened, applauded, and class finished. Then two things happened which were totally unexpected for me and also showed me the impact this program is having on the students. Two boys hung back after class wanting to speak to Brad. The first talked about how he had really been inspired by the "spanish piece, Leyenda" that Brad played the last time he visited and how he had found it online and tried to learn it. Brad asked if he wanted to play it for us, and he jumped at the opportunity, eager to soak up every bit of information and technical advice he could in the ensuing mini 'lesson'. The second boy said he really wanted to learn the piece Brad had just performed and asked whether he could find the score online and learn it; he had no fear of being unable to decipher the "cryptic" musical code and instead was relishing the opportunity to go on that journey himself, discovering a piece of music that had captured his imagination.

Both these boys were regular school kids - they weren't elite, privileged, precociously talented young classical guitarists; what they were, however, was engaged, inspired, and most importantly, musically literate.

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