I am the very model of Model Music C’riculum

Early reaction

The government last week finally published its much-delayed Model Music Curriculum for Key Stages one to three. The document, designed to support the teaching of the National Curriculum for Music, was due to be published in 2019 but delayed because the DfE said it did not yet ‘meet the high standards teachers, pupils, and parents expect’.

There was concern amongst many that the government-awarded contract for developing this new curriculum went to the ABRSM. Why give a body that specialises in examining individual instrumental performers the job of designing a method for teaching music in its entirety to children from ages 5 to 14?

There were also concerns that the panel assembled by the government to support the ABRSM featured too few with direct experience of teaching classroom (as opposed to instrumental) music and too many with little, if any, direct experience of working with that age range. The inclusion of a number of representatives from music hubs as well as the engagement of the ABRSM itself suggested that at least part of intention for the model curriculum was to increase uptake in those playing instruments as much as provide a course of study for better understanding music.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the document’s release was undertaken with little fanfare, despite Nick Gibb’s introductory extolling of music being ‘a vital part of a broad and ambitious curriculum’.

These may feel like minor concerns in the light of Covid and the destruction both it, and our response to it, have caused. However, now may well be a particularly opportune moment to consider carefully how we move forward. The performing arts have taken multiple, devastating blows over the past year and music specifically was – in the view of many – already in a parlous state. Perhaps this new model curriculum is a signal to think about how we rebuild.

A deeper dive

Fanfare or no, what is the content of this model curriculum? Does it adequately flesh out the existing (and rather paultry) National Curriculum for Music?

Singing is a heavy focus with ideas on warm-ups and repertoire. There are also suggestions for listening work and for composition tasks at each key stage. This leads to a an explicit suggestion for levels of understanding musical language such that by the end of KS3, students should have a facility for notation (reading at least a single line of music), understand concepts of melody, texture, instrumentation, and harmony, as well as be involved with ensembles on a regular basis.

Certainly, students following this guidance should be able to do reasonably well at GCSE as long as they have a decent teacher to deliver the content.

There is a discussion of the problems encountered at KS3 with singing particularly as students become more self-conscious and less confident with some suggested solutions.

At each key stage there are suggestions for listening. No doubt many will find a reason to pick holes with these choices but there is at least an attempt to cover a wide range of styles and cultures. There are some lovely left-field suggestions such as the Walter Murphy ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’, a decent set of non-Western pieces, and a whole raft of 20th– and 21st-Century repertoire including plenty of non-white-male composers.

So far, so good. The tenor of the document is that music is valuable to all, a source of joy, a means to develop creativity and discipline, and ‘a vital part of a broad and ambitious curriculum’. There are useful appendices including a glossary and brief notes on a variety of suggested listening. There are suggested tasks (in brief) at each Key Stage.

What there is not is any meaningful discussion of actual pedagogy.

Perhaps a curriculum is not the place for examining method but given the damage to co-curricular activities done by Covid, given Nick Gibb’s assertion that the document is ‘designed to assist’, given the assertions of luminaries such as Sir Nicholas Kenyon that ‘music is … a craft to be learned’ and that ‘we need a more collective and a more connected approach’ to good practice (Retuning our Ambition for Music Learning), given the proven ability music has to improve performance across the board, given all of these things, surely this is a perfect moment to offer something more inspiring, something that might give us all a fighting chance of effecting real change?

How do we make musicians?

There is a brief mention in the new model curriculum at Key Stage 1 of moving around to a beat. There are also scattered uses of solfège throughout the main body and a reference in the appendices to a book on the Kodály method.

There is, however, no discussion anywhere on how we can best train musicians.

This was replicated in the report I referenced above published in 2019 entitled Retuning our Ambition for Music Learning. Given this was published at the same time as the intended date of the model music curriculum, one might imagine there was a link between the two.

The report is full of ambition and suggestions for systemic changes, including a significant increase in funding and some lovely turns including the aim that ‘leaders in schools and education are convinced to put music at the heart of their students’ learning’. A noble aim, for sure, and one I am wholly on board with. Effecting wholesale cultural change, though, needs more than convincing leaders of the value of music.

My personal experience is that most school leaders already think music has inherent value. Of course, there are bound to be many that do not think that, but the perceived decline in those studying music is – I would suggest – more to do with methodology than anything else. There are too many students who get to 11 or 12 years old and have no sense of how to connect with music or use a musical language.

What we need – and what the model music curriculum is missing – is a pedagogy for enabling children to become musicians.

There have been three fantastic examples in the recent past from Hungary, Venezuela, and Switzerland.

Hungary, led by Zoltan Kodály, showed how to effectively teach children to speak the language of music. Kodály’s method enables children to not just learn about music but to understand instinctively the grammar and syntax of music through the use of solfège.

Venezuela, by contrast, showed how to engage children from a young age in learning a musical instrument. Their approach, called El Sistema, proved that it is possible to train children to high level of skill without great expense. There are, it should be noted, plenty of critics of El Sistema – including those who question its probity.

Nevertheless, its success both musically and socially is not only well documented, it is easily observed; performances given by the Simón Bolívar orchestra (made up mostly of students who learned in El Sistema) captivated audiences worldwide.

The approach of El Sistema has been replicated in Scotland with strong evidence of positive impact both musically, socially and psychologically.

The third system of music education is the eurythmics method developed by Emile Jacques-Dalcroze. This is designed to develop rhythmical understanding as well as concepts of phrasing and structure through physical movement.

The approaches of both Kodály and Dalcroze are used by teachers in the UK, but not widely. The huge advantage of both is that they enable children to develop musical understanding instinctively and become proficient at the language of music. They don’t teach students about music, they teach students to be musicians.

Am I the very model of a modern music curriculum?

The whimsy of my title is borne solely out of the metre matching the famous song from Pirates of Penzance. Perhaps unintentionally, it also offers a reflection of our out-dated approach to music. This model curriculum remains as focused as we have always been on teaching students about music and about how to write it down.

It does not help us enable children to become more musical or to really speak the language of music.

I welcome any attention given to music and I am thrilled to read that Nick Gibb believes ‘music is not a privilege … it is a vital part of a broad and ambitious curriculum’. I’m not sure, however, that this document takes us any closer to that aim.

Clearly, what we have been doing in the recent past has not encouraged more students to embrace music. What I want is for music to be an intrinsic part of every student’s life – not because they want to pursue it as a career, but because of its inherent benefits.

The value of music psychologically, academically, socially, and developmentally is immense. As the 2019 report Retuning our Ambition for Music Learning says, we should put ‘music at the heart of their students’ learning’. But we need to fundamentally re-think the way we approach our musical curriculum to achieve this.

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