Arts Manifesto: Imagine – Music Education in a Post-Everything Scotland

Bella Caledonia is crowdsourcing an Arts Manifesto for post-covid, post-brexit, post-independence Scotland.

Over the next month Bella Caledonia will publish commissioned articles on policy ideas for this ‘post-everything’ Scotland. Leading figures in various sectors and backgrounds will outline their policy ideas. But we want you to get involved too, the artists, the audience and the army of people behind the scenes who make the magic happen.  In the comments section below and after each published piece, tell us one policy that you think would make a difference. The third piece in this series, by Singer-Songwriter and Educator Becci Wallace looks at music at the centre of education.

At 15 years old, I made the decision to leave school. My history teacher stopped me in the corridor, took me to one side, waved his finger at me and tutted – ‘What are you doing? You’ve got a brain in there’- I did! I had been a studious child and had come from a background of studious people. I had been expected to do very well, especially in music. As a young child, my compulsion to spontaneously sing was, I am sure, of great annoyance to those around me. Music was everything to me and I was bursting with imagination and creativity. Sadly, like many young people faced with the brutal reality of Glasgow’s school system, I morphed into an anxious, apathetic, and largely unwilling participant. Somewhere between the primary school nativity play and my last year in secondary school, I was stripped of all confidence, enthusiasm, and drive for music in the classroom.

In mainstream education, creative arts are somewhat annexed. Young people who are lucky enough to have a musical or artistic teacher on the faculty, or a visiting practitioner on-site, may receive a focused arts project which explores alternative methods of creativity. These experiences are uplifting for young creatives and provide some relief for teaching staff otherwise tasked with delivering across all areas of the SCfE. However, those schools which don’t have the funding or the on-site staff and are dealing with myriad additional issues such as social and economic deprivation, bulging class sizes, young people with complex support needs and staffing shortages, understandably can’t approach creative arts with the same vigour as they might more traditional learning requirements such as maths or literacy. Some of this is due to how we have chosen to quantify creative learning in education and how we value creative learning as a society.

The following are some suggestions as to ways we could reform our education system to incorporate music practice as a way of learning for students from all backgrounds. Firstly, I feel it is important express my admiration for teachers, teaching staff and those working to create learning materials, especially during this bloody pandemic. My ideas around structural education reform are in no way a slight against teachers. They are based on my understanding of how young people learn and how increasingly stretched and under supported our teachers are.

In school, most music activities fall into two categories. The first- additional music projects such as shows, choirs, and concerts. These are often extra-curricular, and participation is based on perceived talent or enthusiasm. The second centres around a graded system, in which students are taught to read musical scales, learn instruments, and practice vocal techniques. Whether intentional or not, this is not an inclusive model. Studies show that the more affluent a household is, the more likely it is that families will have access to musical instruments. School should be a place where that imbalance can be redressed. However, the What’s Going On Now report (2019) shows us that in Scotland, this is not the case: ‘70% of students learning an instrument at school in Scotland contribute towards the costs of their lessons, adding to inequality of opportunity’. The disadvantages here are clear. If music education centres around instrument tuition, then some children are simply missing out on the chance to experience music creation. Getting it Right for Each Child, therefore, must involve a reassessment of how arts practices are implemented in the classroom.

It is almost an accident that I am even writing this now, having left school and home, worked around Glasgow in cafes and bars and in events management, completed Highers at college at 21, and made a failed attempt at being an English Literature student; at 24, I found myself with little motivation for anything academic- I just couldn’t speak the language.

I sought validation for writing songs- was there a songwriting school? Eh, yes. Finally, the whole thing clicked.

What baffles me is that it took almost 20 years in the education system (on and off) before I was trusted with a crucial piece of knowledge: there is an academic field completely concentrated on Popular Music studies; where musicology, cultural philosophies and songwriting analysis inform and enhance the learning pathways for artists and entrepreneurs. Within this field, applied composition and traditional music theory has a place, but is only part of a wider consideration of popular music in our culture, its structures, impact, and relationship to broader society. Would it have been so radical to imbue little 15-year-old me with some of this knowledge when I was searching for meaning through my creativity?

Graduates from these studies often go on to work within the music industries, many of whom will begin roles as freelance creative practitioners. These are the artists who collaborate with community practitioners, interfacing with young people through various outreach programs such as ‘ready for work’ groups. These are the educators who are using music as a way of learning; not compositional- often not even about the songs- but about creating a safe space for ideas to be shared. A main theme in my ongoing research, when talking to community music facilitators, has been the necessity of autonomy and identification for young people within community music settings. This means freedom to express using their own voice, no matter what that voice sounds like. This also means not only engaging with ways of learning, but actively participating in the decisions which determine their routes to further development. This autonomy leads to a certain amount of personal responsibility that may not be catered for within the standardised classroom experience. Is it so radical to imagine a system where young people are tasked with imagining their own route through education?

Of course, there is an irony to these practices being developed with young people at a point where they have already left education. If, through collaboration, the scope of music education in schools could be broadened to include music making as a way of learning instinctively, perhaps the outlook would be very different for young people who find it difficult to connect with more traditional elements of the music curriculum. Charities like Reeltime Music in North Lanarkshire and facilities like the Tollbooth in Stirling could play a vital role in providing a broader integrated curriculum for all primary and secondary aged children. Appointing freelance practitioners to use arts practice in the classroom could fulfil the learning criteria for SCfE through alternative, specialised teaching methods. This process could be made more plausible by changing employment requirements in schools for non-teacher educational professionals such as University and College lecturers and Community Artists. This process could be actualised by treating Community music practice as a measurable learning activity, out with the hours of the school day or confines of the classroom.

Imagine the primary role of the teacher was as nurturer, providing young people with core-curriculum while facilitating a broader learning experience through community collaboration. What I propose is rooted in the need for person-centred approaches to education from an early age. To do this, creative learning partnerships which are usually developed during crisis points (such as at exam age or after leaving school) would have to be in place at an earlier intersection of a young person’s education. Integrated links with local community organisations, concentrated courses and specialist freelancers would mean an opportunity to realise the full potential of the SCfE and Get it Right for Each Child policy by finding catered learning experiences.

My research into how we can use music as a mode of early intervention for disadvantaged young people is informing my understanding of a broader consensus from arts practitioners across the country. It may seem radical; but we need to reimagine what the arts are for, how they have influenced our culture and society, and address how seldom arts-based learning is integrated into the school day.

What if we could facilitate that bespoke learning experience for each child without radically overspending? The funding is there. The resources are there. The educators are there. The work is already being done. Through properly integrated and committed collaborations between education and the wider network of creative practitioners in Scotland, now could the time for the kind of reform that truly gets it right for each child.




Comments (4)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Lindsey Spowage says:

    Would be good if schools would encourage young people to join community musical theatre and drama clubs

  2. Moira Jakobsson says:

    Hi Becci
    Good to read of your experiences as a child in schools.
    We hear often about the withdrawal of instrumental instruction but not about how music specialists for all the children have disappeared in recent years.
    There is a great need for a music specialist for every school allowing every child from nursery upwards, a regular all round musical experience, listening, moving to music, singing, playing on instruments and working creatively together with others to compose. This needs qualified music teachers and there are many who could do the job.
    As you point out Becci it is too much to expect general teachers in nursery and primary to deliver such a programme and the benefits, to the children, the teachers and indeed the wellbeing of the whole school are enormous.
    One off projects by musicians from for example RSNO and Scottish Opera are very valuable but don’t make up for the lack of regular good quality class music.
    The spin offs for the rest of the curriculum have proved in multiple research projects, to be many.
    The need, at this time of recovering from Covid restrictions, is urgent.

    Moira Jakobsson,
    founder member of Orff Scotland.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    Music and sound design forms a very large component of the enormous video games industry. I took a short online course from Abertay on the history of video game music which ended with modern interactive music (music that changes dynamicly and responsively as play changes). As well as teaching theory and practice, this is an area of active research:
    I am pretty sure this kind of thing would be of interest to many youngsters, who could contribute in various ways to a project. And I see BAFTA has both Music and Audio Achievement categories in this year’s game awards. You even stumble across the odd game with traditional Scottish/Gaelic songs in it (like The Bard’s Tale IV Barrows Deep; not played it though).

  4. Cathy Gunn says:

    Music as a subject is something I’d like to see more of in schools. Music integrated with other subjects more so. An example that stays with me is a Maori language class where the alphabet was learned as a song. Most teachers could play a few chords on a guitar and singing was a daily activity. Carry this through to high school and popular music can be a great way to engage students.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.