Over the past few days I've been doing reading for an essay on music education, and after going to a concert by Out of the Blue this evening I've been thinking about how teachers can make music more interesting.
Out of the Blue's performances and arrangements are wildly popular - this year they have expanded their New Theatre concert to two nights, and tonight's was absolutely packed, with a very diverse audience - and it seems to me that their style of music could work very well in classroom music lessons. In fact it presumably already does, given the number of school workshops they put on. They combine pop music with musicality, great vocal technique, interesting harmonies, and fun (!) - surely all things that should have a place in classroom music lessons. Admittedly their arrangements would have to be simplified, especially harmonically, but that is certainly possible - in a large choir you could have several students on each voice part, and even then there would be room for rhythmic, textural, and textural interest. You could also increase the difficulty gradually, and accommodate different skill levels.
Judging from the reaction of younger members in tonight's audience singing music in this style would be very popular, probably more so than a lot of the music children have to learn, which is either too traditional or dumbed-down to be interesting. I'm willing to bet that teenagers would find dancing around, showing off and singing pop music in Out of the Blue style a much better use of their time than singing more classical choral music or boring pop arrangements to a piano accompaniment. This would demonstrate creativity, composition, and performance skills in a very different light to classical music, and doesn't have to involve notation, sophisticated technology, instruments, or any in-depth musical knowledge on the part of students. It is also be far more likely to be fun and relevant for most students than Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, and could still lead on to complex discussion about what music means and how it works - are Out of the Blue's or the The Gargoyle's arrangements the same pieces or different in some way?
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to implementing this kind of music in lessons is individual teacher's skills and ambition, and this is something that a lot of my reading has kept leading me back to. It seems a shame that the teaching profession has become so devalued recently, when so much knowledge, talent, skill, research, and time is needed to put together great lessons, especially in music, which has many unique challenges as a subject. If we want music in the classroom to be more relevant to students then we need to find new ways of engaging them, and it seems that in Oxford, at least, the solution was right in front of several thousand people's eyes tonight.
Update: these quotes from a post in the Guardian by their 'secret teacher' seemed appropriate here: 'to plan an outstanding lesson can take hours. I can't do that for every lesson I teach. Sometimes I stand in class delivering a lesson I know isn't as good as it could be. I know how to make it better. I just didn't have the time to do it ... All work for students needs to be scaffolded. That means be done for them. The very notion of giving a student a task they might fail is considered child abuse. Every task must be completable within about ten minutes.'
It seems that ultimately, and unfortunately, a lot of the problems with standards in schools can only be solved with money: if we want better lessons we need to give teachers more time to plan lessons, which means we need more teachers. On the other hand, it seems like the current climate isn't helping either, as the need to continually meet better targets, and to not let any child fail anything actually hinder progress. If we consider these comments in light of what surveys show pupils think about music lessons - that they are often boring, with little creativity involved - then maybe we should try challenging students more, and giving teachers the time and resources to provide the stimulating lessons pupils need.