A Plea for Equality of Opportunity and a Better Musical Education for All Children.
This is the last (for now) of a set of extracts we’re blogging from Prof. Lucy Green‘s book, ‘How Popular Musicians Learn‘.
Very little research has looked into popular musicians’ perspectives as students within formal music education . . . We have only slight knowledge and understanding of the reasons why so many popular musicians, despite being highly motivated towards music-making, often turned away from both instrumental tuition and schooling.
A serious examination of popular music learning practices could surely provide formal music educators with some new insights and fresh perspectives, not only for teaching popular music itself, but for teaching music in general. If we continue to largely ignore popular musicians’ experiences of both informal and formal music learning, educators could be depriving our students of precisely some of that spark which attracts and holds so many musicians and listeners to popular music every day.
The aims of this book are to examine the the nature of popular musicians’ informal learning practices, attitudes and values . . . and to explore some of the possibilities which informal popular music learning practices might offer to formal music education . . .
Education can occur without any teaching having been involved, as is implied by Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let my school-work interfere with my education”.
It is the acquisition of musicianship, rather than fame, that I am interested in. Surely musical success ought to be measured by factors other than being a professional, let alone fame and commercial gain? They involve valuing not fame so much as enjoyment, a sense of community, a sub-cultural or ethinic identity, a lifestyle, expressing sexuality, voicing political or moral views, and appreciating a musical tradition.
Such factors can be achieved through part-time, sporadic or semi-professional involvement in bars, at local functions, and on street corners, and moreover, through amateur music-making not only in public places but in the home.
My own belief is . . . that [such] practice is not as widespread as it could be, or once was.
[We should consider] whether the learning practices, attitudes and values of popular musicians . . . may or may not reasonably be adapted and included within formal music education, in a move to help re-invigorate the musical involvement of the poplace at large.
Our next set of quotations from ‘Zen Guitar‘ returns us to the subject of physical intelligence and instinctual intelligence.
With practice our muscles develop their own intelligence, to the point where thought and action occur simultaneously. Our skill becomes natural – part of what zen masters call our ordinary mind.
The progression towards this naturalness is no different than when we first learn skills like driving or typing. As beginning drivers we feel terribly self-conscious, awkwardly checking the mirrors, turning too wide, braking too suddenly. Similarly, when we first learn to type, our fingers move very deliberately on the keyboard, each move requiring careful thought.
With practice, though, our muscles no longer rely on the mind. Behind the wheel, the foot starts to move naturally between brake and gas. At the keyboard fingers fly to the correct letters without conscious direction. In time, these actions become as ordinary as walking.
I can confirm from personal experience that just as we learn to ride a bicycle by getting on and riding it, just as we learn to read by sitting with a book and trying to read it, we learn to play an instrument by actually trying to play it. Theory alone is of very little use. You have to put in the physical effort and allow your body and your hands to use whatever intelligence they possess (hand-eye-ear coordination) to lead on to higher levels of skill, in a virtuous upward spiral.
Having achieved a basic level of bicycle riding, we can then benefit from some instruction on how to ride safely on busy roads.
Having reached a basic level of reading competence, we can benefit from being tutored on reading between the lines and moving beyond literal comprehension.
Having taught our fingers to move on fretboards and keyboards, etc, – changing quickly and confidently between the basic major and minor chords, etc, – we can then benefit from some further theory and advice on technique. We can also progress to reading sheet music, if we have the inclination and the motivation.
The thing is to have an instrument and to learn to play it by playing with it. This must be the best practice for children and adult beginners alike.
We refer again to the success of Venezuela in handing out instruments to all children to handle and explore, to find out which of them appeals, and in organising both formal and informal learning to enable all children to become proficient musicians.
El Sistema is a publicly financed voluntary sector music education program in Venezuela, founded in 1975 by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu under the name of Social Action for Music.
El Sistema is a state foundation which watches over Venezuela’s 125 youth orchestras and the instrumental training programmes which make them possible. While the organziation has 31 symphony orchestras, its greatest achievement is the 310,000 to 370,000 children who attend its music schools around the country where “it is estimated that 70 to 90 percent” of them come from poor socio-economic backgrounds.
The vision of José Antonio Abreu :
“Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings.”