The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Classroom Music

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Intro

I have been sitting on my hands with my mouth taped shut while these high-level reviews of school music[1] have been going on but the temptation to speak up has finally gotten the better of me.

You see, I am one of the people actually who actually do the work, a group sadly under-represented in the public debate. For most of the last ten years or so I have taught music in state, Catholic and independent schools in Queensland, mostly at primary level. Before that, I taught for years in Melbourne.

It is difficult for ordinary teachers to speak up. If we want time off to attend national or even State-level conferences, the response is usually negative. This will have no direct benefit to The School and would cost us money so you can't go — or words to that effect. If we write anything for publication it is supposed to be vetted by the powers that be, such a painfully slow process in any government department that any relevance would usually evaporate anyway. It is a quicker process in the independent school but in both cases, I am sure, anything the least bit negative about The School or The Department would be denied permission. Once permission had been denied, publication would be a firing-squad offence.

I want to tell it like it is. Right now I am not working in any schools and I am writing, of course, entirely as a private individual but I do want to be able to work again so 'Tom Reimer' is not my real name. Everything else is true, though, to the best of my knowledge. There is a more basic reason why we don't speak up, too — most of us are so tired at the end of a week at school that all we want to do is zone out in front of the TV. I'll come back to that point later.

It is conventional to divide things into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I may need other categories as well but I will follow that scheme as I pick up on issues mentioned in the November 2006 issue of Music Forum. My starting point is agreement with the view implied in the closing comment of Dick Letts' editorial, that Queensland's present system is not perfect but is effectively the national benchmark.[2] I will mostly let people in other states draw out the implications for their own organisations.

The Good

The primary classroom music program in Queensland state schools stunned me when I arrived because it was so far ahead of anything I had seen in Victoria. In a school taken at random the great majority of Year 3 children could read and perform basic rhythmic patterns, Year 5 had a functional understanding of staff notation, and a bunch of good Year 7 children could sight-sing two-part harmony. (The instrumental program in Queensland state schools was, and is, even further ahead of the rest of the country but I haven't got time to discuss it here.)

That Great Leap Forward seems to have been the result of the Queensland Education Department's greater degree of centralisation (as compared to Victoria, anyway) and the right person in the right place about twenty years ago: one or two highly placed people were able to design a rigorous Kodaly-based curriculum and have it made mandatory throughout the state. (I would love to give them the credit they deserve but it happened before my time and I am not quite sure of the details.)

Merely having a state-wide syllabus has important advantages. Children changing schools within the state can integrate smoothly into the program at their new school and, perhaps more importantly, professional development of teachers can be delivered effectively because it builds on the same knowledge base and towards the same objectives. The fact that it was (and is) a good syllabus multiplies the benefits.

What is a good syllabus? I would have said, 'One that is performance based, built on sequential development of practical musicianship and theoretical knowledge.' I was quite chuffed to find that my definition agrees so well with the findings of the Review and National Music Workshop as reported by Tina Broad[3] and echoed by Senator Fifield [4] (p. 48).

The fact that Queensland's syllabus is Kodaly-based rather than Orff-based (or anything else) may not be especially important. I have seen excellent Orff-based programs run by individual teachers elsewhere.

The Alarming

Senator Fifield has said[5], 'Only 23 per cent of kids in government schools have access to any form of music education.' As a national figure it is bad. But what happens to it when you take out Queensland?

Queensland"s population is very close to 20% of Australia"s total. Somewhere above 80% of students in Queensland government schools receive music programs. Assuming the state/private split in Queensland is similar to that elsewhere, a simple calculation shows that the figure in the rest of the country is nowhere near 23% but somewhere around 8%, which is not just bad but downright shocking. And this is 'any form of music education', not necessarily the continuous, structured program delivered by specialist teachers in the majority of Queensland schools. Take a bow, Education Queensland.

(Incidentally, the strength of our State schools’ program wipes out the difference Senator Fifield sees between State and non-state schools’ music programs. In fact, they are so similar here that the remainder of what I have to say applies to all schools except where I comment on a difference.)

The Not-so-good

Good as it still is, the classroom music program in Queensland schools has gone backwards in some respects in the last ten years or so. One backward step was taken when primary classroom teachers won 'non-contact time' — preparation time during the school day — as part of their award. They do deserve every minute of it, but the practical effect on music specialists was unfortunate. Instead of attending music lessons, so that they could back up discipline during the music class and music lessons in their classroom during the week, classroom teachers now hand over their students to the music specialist and pick them up afterwards, and can do neither.

There was a more insidious side-effect, too, in that music specialists were gradually redefined by some admin teams as 'non-contact time providers' — support staff, not real teachers. Go into any primary staffroom and you will probably find a 'NCT Timetable' on the pin board (usually next to the 'Playground Duty Roster') not a 'Music Timetable' or even a 'Specialists' Timetable’ listing Music and PE times.

The Not-so-bad-after-all

Having music specialists for every class was called an impossibility by the (obviously non-Queensland) secondary principle quoted by Letts in his Editorial, but why? It doesn"t take any longer or cost any more to train a music specialist than to train a secondary Maths teacher or a primary general classroom teacher.

A specialist can be shared between schools, employed full time to work at one, two, three or even more schools depending on their size. If primary classroom teachers in other states get non-contact time (and I hope they do), the specialist can then 'provide NCT’ in a very cost-effective way. It would be better still if the regular teacher could be there, of course, but at least this way the kids would get a real music program.

The Quite Bizarre

The current alternative, giving student teachers a few hours of music and expecting them to deliver a real music program, just does not work.

As Tina Broad notes, there is no evidence that even the (up to) 60 hours allocated to music in primary teacher education a generation ago was adequate. My experience in two states backs that up — few of the primary classroom teachers trained in the sixties and seventies came out with the knowledge, skills and confidence to adequately lead sing-along sessions and talk about the history of music (and that, I think, is the lowest common denominator of anything you could call a primary music program).

And what was that current figure? An average of 23 hours? (Fifield, p. 48) A handful? (Deirdre Russell-Bowie as quoted by Broad)[6] Four hours? (Letts, Editorial)

Get real!

Four hours’ piano (or singing, recorder, flute, guitar, etc) tuition is the equivalent of one term’s lessons private lessons. And we are not even giving education students individualised attention — they get large-group tuition.

Anyone who reckons that a student with this much training behind them is fit to teach music has got kangaroos in the top paddock. (Was that what you were too diplomatic to say, Dick? — Don’t answer.)

The Blank Slate

Take one step back and look at teacher training. What the courses mostly do is teach young adults how to teach stuff they already know. How do they already know it? Mostly because they learned it at school.

But most of them did not learn music at school. This is why training music teachers emerged as an apparently insuperable problem in the Review and Workshop, as Broad said.

Alt=Canter quote
However, there are two groups of school leavers who have received a good musical education.

Firstly, the Queensland kids who have been getting it at school for twenty years. Almost all of our current Education students have a respectable background in music (a lot, maybe as many as a third of them, have extensive instrumental experience in the schools as well as the classroom music background).

Secondly, those in other states who went to the right schools and/or did a lot of extra-curricular music (instrumental lessons, ensemble participation, choirs) in their school years.

The first group is (depending on how you define acceptable levels of musical experience) about three times the size of the second and appears to have been rather overlooked by a Vic/NSW biased review structure.

Encouraging (scholarships!) these two groups to take up Music Education studies in southern institutions is easy and productive. It brings us back to the usual position where the bulk of what they have to learn is methodology. All right, you might have to prescribe Grade 5 AMEB and/or Year 12 Music as pre-requisites, but how hard is that? The Uni, and later the employer, get the benefit of perhaps 150 hours instrumental tuition (already paid for by someone else), uncounted hours of individual practice and perhaps 200 hours of ensemble participation spread over the previous eight years or more. Why ignore it? And how could you afford to replicate it within an Education degree?

These suggestions have a fair bit in common with Dick Letts' proposal (in his editorial) to recruit musicians into the ranks of teachers. His proposal has merit but there are difficulties too.

A lot of musicians do already teach in schools, mainly to supplement their income when they can"t make enough out of performing, and mainly in instrumental programs. That is reasonably satisfactory all round but the skills of most 'musicians" (a very diverse group, and not more narrowly specified by Letts) are mostly not the skills essential to a classroom music program: singing and accompanying, basic classroom skills, understanding of young children and a focus on process not product. I have seen non-classical musicians running enjoyable but poorly structured programs, and classical musicians frankly floundering, in the primary classroom. On the whole I would treat musicians as I would treat the second group of teacher-training recruits above, and then let them take permanent part-time positions if they wished to do so.

These three groups of music education students together could, I think, provide enough teachers in the medium term (three to five years?) to gradually replace untrained (and under-trained) staff and extend music programs to schools that now miss out.

The Successful

A complementary way of getting a body of competent primary classroom music teachers is to take a group of general classroom teachers with an interest in music and put them through an intensive short course.

The Queensland department ran a 'Ten Week Course' about fifteen years ago. Its participants found it very demanding but they emerged with the skills, knowledge and confidence to deliver the Kodaly-based syllabus and most of them are still teaching music.

Last year, I believe, a 'Four Week Course' was presented in Mackay on the same basis. One is allowed to wonder whether its graduates will be quite as successful, even while one is grateful to the department for supporting teachers who wish to become (better) music teachers. On the other hand, most present-day participants will have had the benefit of good music programmes as children, so that may outweigh the shortening of the course.

Such courses in other states could probably train specialists quicker than facilities could be provided for them in schools. They look to me like the most practical — maybe the only practical — solution to an immediate shortage of large numbers of primary classroom music specialists.

Of course, there is no shortage if there is no funding for the positions these newly-trained specialists might fill.

If there is a real will at government level to improve music education it must be shown by willingness to spend money. Very basically, funding for the specialists' positions in schools. Beyond that, money for scholarships and decent salaries that will attract bright, energetic people; money for training them; money for school facilities (dedicated rooms, instruments, sheet music, etc) which allow teachers to maximise their students' achievement; and (see 'The Ugly' below) enough money in the system that specialists are not burnt out by being asked to do more than is humanly possible.

The Bad

Any good music program is performance based, and therefore skills based, whether it is a compulsory classroom program or an optional instrumental program. What happens in the classroom when 10-year-olds arrive from interstate without the skills of their new classmates? What happens when local children have missed out on acquiring the skills on offer because they didn"t care enough?

By the time they reach Year 5 or so, it is impossible for either group to catch up with the rest of their class. They are forced into a position where they must fail — repeatedly, endlessly. They would get support for remedial work in Maths or English but in Music? In Music??

Another factor making the problem worse here is ironic and may be unique to Queensland. It is the success of the instrumental music program.

By the end of Year 6, up to one quarter of the students have had two or more years of small group instrumental tuition and ensemble experience, as well as the choral experience open to all students. They spread the class's range of achievement to the point that every Year 6 or 7 class is functionally a multi-age group, with newcomers and chronic non-participators down where our Year 2 or 3 ought to be, and high-flyers up where our Year 9 classes might be expected to be.

So what do the low achievers do? The best we can hope for is that they will sit quietly enough to cause no trouble, but we often don"t get that 'best'.

I mentioned exhaustion in my intro. This is the main cause — trying to teach 25-30 kids you don't know particularly well (half an hour per week per class works out at just over one minute per child per week), many of whom are not particularly interested and some of whom could not join in successfully even if they wanted to.

A full-time music specialist with one half-hour per class per week will teach between 600 and 750 children. Suppose we double the time allocation: two half-hour classes per week would mean half as many children altogether, so the teacher and children know each other twice as well — much easier, even if the teaching load is the same. And the children will achieve rather more than twice as much, because the reinforcement is quicker, so they will enjoy it more, so the work is easier again, so the teacher is more relaxed, so the children enjoy it even more ... hey, we're on a roll here!

It would be nice.

Actually, specialists in some Queensland schools do — rarely — manage this, as a positive spin-off from the NCT backstep: admin asks the music teacher to 'do NCT' for a class she already has for music, so she does extension music activities rather than supervise the children doing Maths worksheets or something.

The Ugly

Getting back to where we were before that ray of sunshine broke through: The upper levels of compulsory classroom music are notorious everywhere as being exceptionally tough to teach. In Queensland this means senior primary (Years 6-7) and junior secondary (Year 8). Once the subject becomes an elective (Years 9-12) we get the occasional lazy student but few that are totally unable to keep up and fewer still that are actively hostile. But those last few years! We call them 'challenging' when we're on top, 'soul-destroying' when we"re not. Dick Letts said in his editorial that he reckoned we deserve the VC for even being there. Thanks, Dick!

There is now a slow drift of competent, experienced, well qualified classroom music teachers from the State to the private sector. The reason most of them give their friends is not pay but conditions, and particularly behaviour management. (The independent schools can usually enforce higher standards of student behaviour.)

I know several primary classroom music teachers who find the job so tiring that they have chosen to work four days per week. They have effectively been induced to take a pay cut because the system demands more than five days' worth of effort for five days' pay. Is that fair to them? Is it good for their schools? No, and no again.

I have to say I can't see an easy solution but one partial solution may pop up if we looked at syllabus demands. Another, of course, is to improve pay and/or conditions for music specialists. If more pay is 'too hard', more preparation time would still ease the pressure.

There is a general feeling among my colleagues that the present syllabus asks us to cram more into upper-year lessons than many of our students can absorb. I also suspect that at least some of us focus so intently on 'delivering the syllabus', whether it is retained by the students or not, that we lose sight of the core value of the Kodaly process, making good music together.

If we can't have more teaching time, we may need to simplify the syllabus so that a bigger majority of children can succeed in, and therefore enjoy, the subject. It almost doesn't matter how much we teach the keen kids, because they will explore on their own anyway and make up for the shortfall. But if we turn the slow kids off music, we probably shut them out of music making for life, and that is a tragedy.

The Bottom Line

And let"s get this straight: the most important thing in teaching is ALWAYS the welfare of the student — personal wellbeing first, educational wellbeing second.

We, the teachers, must come second, because we work directly with the most important people in the school. As far as I am concerned, 'the program', 'the syllabus' and 'the school' come a long way after and 'The Department' and the politicians run last. Their role is to support us, nothing more, and the better support we teachers get, the better job we will be able to do.

Author

Thomas Canter. Originally published in Music Forum, Vol. 13, No. 2, February-April 2007, pp 36-38. Entered on Knowledge Base 14 October 2013.

References

  1. The National Review of School Music Education reported in 2005, making the case for the importance of music in Australian schools (Professor Margaret Seares of the University of Western Australia and Chair of the Review Steering Committee). There were three 'overarching recommendations' (p xv): 1 Assert the value of music for all Australian students; 2 Place immediate priority on improving and sustaining the quality and status of music education; 3 Provide sufficient funding to support effective quality music education that is accessible for all Australian children and addresses the specific areas detailed in this Review. — Subsequently, the then Minister for Education Julie Bishop called a national workshop that had the task of suggesting to the Minister how she should go about implementing the recommendations of the review. The workshop took place in Melbourne in August 2006.
  2. Dick Letts, ‘Those Who Can’t Teach are Just Playing Around’, Music Forum Vol. 13/1, December 2006, p 7.
  3. Tina Broad, ‘National Review of School Music Education’, Music Forum Vol. 13/1, December 2006, 28-31.
  4. Mitch Fifield, ‘Music Education Has the Floor’, Music Forum Vol. 13/1, December 2006, 47-48.
  5. Fifield, p 47.
  6. Deirdre Russell-Bowie from the University of Western Sydney 'starkly' (Broad's term) highlighted the teacher education issue in her opening presentation, focusing on the training of generalist primary teachers and asking how, in just a few hours of pre-service education, student teachers could get both a music education and learn the teaching approaches required to deliver effective music programs in primary classrooms. Tina Broad’s response (p 29) is, in short, that they can’t — 'with just a handful or hours of music education in 2006 the situation is dire.' ED.
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