The state of contemporary music teaching in the UK is terrible. Actually, the state of music teaching across the board is pretty awful. But at least with the classical stuff, the method makes sense, even if so many of the teachers are failing to inspire the students (do a straw poll of the people you know, find out how many played an instrument as a kid, and how many quit in their late teens. The percentages should be 90% keeping it up. In reality, well under 5% of the people I know have stuck with it…)
The huge problem with the way that pop/rock/jazz/punk/funk etc. is taught in the UK is that most of the methods are still based around the classical idea that you’re learning repertoire. If you’re learning an orchestral instrument to play orchestral music, there is an expectation that you’ll play your instrument a certain way, learn how to take direction from a conductor and play the way other people want you to. That’s what orchestral musicians get hired to do. Because of this, a set of graded exams that measure how far along that widely recognised scale you are is a great way of providing benchmarks on your journey towards proficiency.
I think I’m on fairly safe ground stating that pretty much no-one takes up the electric bass (or guitar, or drums) in order to play in an orchestra. People play bass for a couple of different reasons – MOST (not all, but most) people take up bass to a) play the music they love listening to and b) form a band with some mates. (Despite bass being the greatest solo instrument on God’s green earth, those are the primary reasons people play it )
I think it’s fairly obvious to anyone who stops to think about it that there’s no set path to aims as nebulous as ‘playing the music you love’ – what is the music you love? any stylistic boundaries? Any desire to put your own spin on it? At what point does writing your own music become important in the journey?
There are a million questions that can be asked, and the answers are different for every single person. Sadly, this wasn’t taken into consideration when most of the bass teaching materials I’ve ever come across were prepared – the old model of taking the student through a set course, as though this was the repertoire they’d need, is still the way that instruments are taught in our ‘post-repertoire age’.
I’ve never liked the idea of graded exams, I don’t like the way it says that your ability to play a particular piece, or to sight read (whether or not your area of musical interest requires it), or in the case of the ‘rock school’ grades, to ‘improvise’ in a style are measured against any kind of fixed criteria. It seems to fly completely in the face of what makes music special.
Most of all it ignores the fact that pop music is essentially folk music – music BY the people and FOR the people. It’s not an academic exercise, measurable metrically and verifiable by an examination board, it’s about self-expression, shared language and history, identity, culture, branding, etc. etc.
So what am I saying? That all music teaching is futile? That music colleges are a waste of time? Clearly not. What is vital though is that the skills being taught and how they are measured have to be demonstrably related to the end result.
I have a few rules for myself when teaching, and number one is that Context Is Everything. A huge part of the value of having lessons is learning how to learn – how to extract valuable principles and concepts from whatever the actual material is that’s being looked at. Whether it’s a group of notes (key/chord/scale), a rhythmic subdivision, the bassline to a song or an approach to improvising, there are lessons within the material that are found by playing with it in context. Remove the context, and the material becomes sterile.
I refer to this distinction in lessons as ‘active learning‘ and ‘passive learning‘ – passive learning is about learning the material as is, ticking a box and moving on. ‘active learning’ looks at what’s there and says ‘what can I deduce from this? What does this tell me about the way music works? what does this tell me about the style I’m exploring? What does this give me in terms of skills needed to write and perform my own music?’
Those are things that are incredibly hard to map out as a mark-scheme for an exam. Incredibly hard, but not impossible. It just relies on the exam board recognising the value in the musical relationship between teacher and student, the shared journey towards the student playing the music they love, and being able to express the music they hear in their head.
How we start to break down those aims is part 2…
Feel free to post your own experiences – good and bad – with music education, in the comments!by