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The win–win of music education

New research shows how music education benefits not only the recipients but also the teachers. So why is this lesson so slow to sink in?

A new report by London Music Masters into ‘The impact of community engagement for professional musicians’ highlights the fact that musicians who do this work experience high levels of satisfaction. Obvious? Sure. But the research, by Royal College of Music academic Sara Ascenso, goes much further in detailing and categorising the many specific types of satisfaction, and raises important questions for the music world.

The benefits are personal, and run very deep. Maybe this is obvious, but community education has often been seen as something that orchestras ‘have’ to do to get funding, or some sort of moral obligation of ‘giving back’. What emerges here is how many of the musicians surveyed feel that they themselves are benefitting – literally being given to – through this work. As London Music Masters’ Executive Director Rob Adediran pointed out at the launch meeting at Wigmore Hall in October, it can’t be called ‘outreach’ any more because the term is one-sided and therefore inaccurate (as well as rather condescending) – hence ‘engagement’.

The research was done among 15 musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and London Contemporary Orchestra, from 26 to 57 years of age, with years of professional experience as classical musicians ranging from 4 to 35. They had taken part in London Music Masters’ innovative scheme to bring players into school situations, as well as other community music projects.

The musicians were interviewed at length about their community engagement. The information they shared and the benefits they detailed were broken down into three categories – skills, identity and well-being. Sub-categories were individual meaning, meaning for society, personal skills, interpersonal skills, musical skills, teaching skills, cognitive skills, feeling good and functioning well. Specific benefits they discussed included improved teamwork, communication, perspective, tolerance, flexibility, readiness, understanding of child psychology, improvisation, musical communication, class management, focus, joy, gratitude, engagement, social well-being, etc etc.

Beneath this good news, there was, though, a subtext about the life of the orchestral member. Players spoke of how education work allowed them to feel creative and heard in a way that they didn’t within the orchestra, and a rare sense of connection with their audience – highlighting how unexpressed and remote some orchestral players feel. One orchestral player told Ascenso: ‘Prior to me getting involved with these projects [...] I was always too conscious, I’m a perfectionist therefore in my work and my performance, I need everything to be spot on and then when I give a reason for anybody to – to say anything bad... So when you are with children and you understand that you just have to let go and stop being that... you can’t be too serious but you need to find the balance. And all of a sudden, you do need to find some room for mistakes, and just be yourself. So that’s very powerful.’ Another said, ‘A lot of the time orchestral players hide behind their part, you know. They hide behind their desk, they play the notes. But actually you don’t have to be an individual to be in an orchestra but to work with children, you have to be an individual... it’s a challenge, but it’s freeing!’

This subtext was picked up at the launch event, where after watching this video, and hearing some of the interviews, there was a heated discussion among the invited music education people about this sense of dissatisfaction. This led to another discussion about the hierarchy in the music world whereby educational work and teaching are far down the status ladder. This is undoubtedly and disgracefully true. Some of this comes from outside the profession: teaching is too-often still regarded as something that people do if they haven’t quite succeeded as players, however good the teacher and the massive their impact. There may also be political reasons for this status, and the lack of adequate renumeration, and these will get worse with the creative arts falling off the EBacc syllabus.

But some of it also comes from within our own musical ecosystem. It still seems that young musicians go to conservatoire to learn to be performers. They might take a module of pedagogy along the way, and even undertake some educational projects, but by and large, their time is spent practising and playing. Then they go out into the big wide world and realise one of the ways they can make money is to teach, so they do that. But it’s by default, and most likely, through instinct and without solid knowledge, especially for the very tricky process of starting up youngsters. If they had a good teacher they might draw on those techniques, if they can remember them, but the chances are they will, at least in the beginning, be a little haphazard. It’s not surprising that so many of the conservatoire professors I’ve interviewed talk about how much emergency repair work they have to do on new students (read Diana Cummings’ opinions on the matter here).

Some countries have this sewn up. One of the orchestral musicians interviewed in the paper put it: ‘We go on tour so much, and you just get the feeling that music education is so much more important, a journey, and just like that people are just much better educated with music and that sort of thing, I think it’s really lacking here.’ Certainly many Russian players have a solid background of pedagogic method behind them that they are able to pass on. Venezuelan El Sistema students learn to teach each other from an early age, and I understand that professors in Italy teach in front of the whole class so that the ones who are watching learn the pedagogic techniques without the pressure of being under scrutiny themselves. In an interview I did with Itzhak Rashkovsky, he explained that at the Rubin Academy, teaching was embedded in the programme for two years.

So why can’t these things happen in this country? Why is there a perception that you only learn by practising and having lessons, when players in this research, and so many musicians I’ve interviewed, say that they become better performers through teaching? Some of it might come through the institutions themselves, where there is so much for students to do and to take part in that they simply don’t have the time for extra pressures. Maybe it also comes from professors, who would rather students practised six hours a day. I've never understood this paradox – teachers don’t seem to want their students to train properly to do what they themselves do.

Whether it’s an orchestral player doing educational work, a new graduate teaching a classroom full of beginners, or the most celebrated professor in the world, teaching is surely one of the most important professions there is and we need to build proper pedagogy into the music system in a more comprehensive and progressive way. Not only would we guarantee future generations of players and audiences, and raise current performance standards, but as this research shows, everyone would benefit. Win–win.

Something needs to change. But what? And how?

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