When your child comes home begging to have their first violin or wanting to show you how to dance to Gangnam Style (as my four-year-old does), it will emphasise just how important music is in their lives, says Piers Townley. But with the government’s planned overhaul of the education exam system in England, is music taking a back seat?
From 2015, children will start curriculums for the new English Baccalaureate certificate, set to replace the GCSE exams in 2017. The drive is for more academic subjects to prevent the ‘years of drift, decline and dumbing down’, according to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education. The concern here is that music and music lessons will be relegated to the back of the class.
‘The worry is very real,’ says Trevor McEwan, a primary school music teacher from Manchester. ‘You can see how wonderful music is to young children. They’re surrounded by it at home, from radio, TV, their music players and their parents. Music encourages their creativity and enhances their development alongside all the other subjects and activities they’re introduced to at an early age. Music lessons are key to a child’s growth. To taper them off would be a failing in their education.’
Hollie Wilkins, a piano and flute tutor based in Milton Keynes, agrees. ‘Music can be incorporated into children’s lives even at a very young age,’ she says. ‘By allowing them to listen to different types of music and instruments, clapping back rhythms through imitation, or just singing nursery rhymes, you’ll instantly see how they react and love music. I use a wide variety of materials to engage children, such as musical card games, sticker books and theory books designed for young children.’
As they grow up, school does and should continue to provide a solid grounding in music education. The benefits can go beyond creative expression, according to Wilkins. ‘When learning music, a student uses a variety of skills, such as maths when calculating the number of beats per bar and in theory, foreign words such as Italian classical music terms,’ she says. ‘It also improves motor skills and memory. And it helps to build confidence and is a fantastic form of expression and creativity that needs to be nurtured.’
It could go much further. It could lead to a career. The likes of Plan B and Dizzee Rascal credit their musical careers to school – it’s where they found an outlet for their frustrations and where they relished the encouragement from their peers and teachers.
‘I’m at an age now, I’ve experienced enough, that I can go into school and plant some positive seeds inside some of these kids’ heads,’ said Plan B last year when he mentored a youth music project, alongside Leona Lewis and Labrinth, for the Hackney Weekend festival. ‘Hopefully it will make them dream bigger, ’cos the problem is they don’t dream big enough.’
‘School would have been pretty dead really for me without music,’ says Dizzee Rascal. ‘I liked IT, and English was all right, but that was it. Everything started there when I mastered my style in that little back music room.’
On his albums Rascal credits his old music teacher Tim Smith for taking him from those early days of Cubase music programming, aged 14, to the global heights of his success. ‘He was my teacher,’ says Rascal. ‘Age didn’t matter – I respected him. He understood my music and understood what I was trying to do, so nothing else mattered.’
This sentiment crops up time and time again with musicians. They point to key figures in their lives who have encouraged and nurtured their love of music.
Encouragement is key for Wilkins. ‘You have to strive for a good balance between having fun and introducing theory concepts,’ she says. ‘This is so important to engage the students, to keep them motivated to continue learning.’
‘From reception to year 10 and beyond, music, in whatever form, will always be key in a child’s life,’ says McEwan. ‘It should continue to be supported at home and in the school curriculum, especially with all the changes facing education in the next few years. It enriches children’s lives.’
Three ways to get your kids into music
• ‘You could always start with a ukele,’ offers John Power, singer and guitarist from the 1990s indie bands Cast and The La’s. ‘If they’re very young, it’s sometimes easier for kids to get used to the four strings rather than the six on an acoustic guitar. You don’t want them to get disheartened trying to figure it out.’
• ‘Instruments such as piano can be taught at five years old,’ says Wilkins. ‘I’d recommend seven or eight years old for instruments that you need to hold, such as the flute or guitar.’
• ‘There are music games on the internet for younger children who like to use the computer,’ says Wilkins. ‘And children’s musical instruments can be good to introduce them in to music, making up their own tunes and learning about the different sounds different instruments produce.’