Instrumental music education is something that has undergone a large number of changes over the past few years. There has been, very generally speaking, a decline in the number of instrumental lessons being offered in schools. This is particularly true for the minority brass instruments such as the tuba or trombone.
There are obviously a number of reasons for this, including the current economic climate and the perceived value of the lessons provided. There is also the fact that learning to play a brass instrument (and when done properly, any other instrument) requires sustained effort and work on the part of the person who is learning.
The general state of play for instrumental lessons in the UK has changed significantly over the last 5 years or so for the majority of the country. Music Service budgets have been squeezed and people are being asked to do much more for a lot less. Because of budget changes and the need to keep things as cost effective as possible, lessons are often taught in pairs or larger groups and lesson costs are being worked out on the basis of 10 minutes per student.
By the very nature of school education, it is not always possible to pair or group students with like for like and this may often lead to lessons being delivered for a beginner tenor horn, intermediate trombone player and a cornet player. This, in my opinion, is completely unsatisfactory and can often be a contributing factor to many students giving up.
There have been some effective introductions of the Wider Opportunities schemes where a class of students learns to play a particular instrument all together for a term. However, this has sometimes fallen a little flat, as the training provided to the teachers to deliver this has been quite patchy. Moving from instrumental tuition in the traditional sense is quite far removed from that of a class of 30 students.
Private instrumental lessons are often viewed as being expensive and often seen as one of those bolt-on activities that are done after school or at the weekend. To be honest, private instrumental lessons generally average out at about £30 an hour which, when you consider the time, training and cost that has gone into becoming good enough to teach, begins to seem very reasonable. But without any form of funding or bursaries this tuition starts to become completely unobtainable for a large number of young people.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, instrumental tuition in school was free and delivered by an instrumental teacher who was considered to be a specialist for a particular group of instruments. Lessons were taught on a one-to-one basis and sometimes would include some ensemble playing with other students. Going to your instrumental lesson was never really a problem and your class teacher was happy for this to occur, and if they weren’t they would not try to stop you going. There was some flexibility with lesson times and there was space within lessons to learn about theory, cover listening skills and deal with specific technique.
Now the situation looks quite different – and it is not the fault of the instrumental music teacher and much more to do with the situation that they are constantly being placed in.
At primary school, there is a great deal of pressure on school teachers to deliver results and ensure that progress (and more importantly proving that progress) is made that teachers are often reluctant to release a child from lessons. With the introduction of numeracy and literacy hours, the mornings became an impossible time to try and teach within a primary school. Thankfully that situation has eased slightly, but is still in many cases a real problem.
At secondary school, GCSE and A Level subjects and the regular testing and assessment strategies make problems worse. Very often a student will not be allowed by a class teacher to leave and attend their music lesson because of the perception that one is more important than the other. Lesson times are constantly rotated so that the same school lessons are not missed each week, but as the instrumental teacher arrives for the teaching slot, they may well notice that this has been completely changed and the rotation needs to be applied again!
It is often very difficult to find adequate teaching spaces for instrumental staff and very often they will be asked to teach in rooms that contain little or no equipment, a storeroom or a cupboard and sometimes even a corridor!
Instrumental teachers are then required to teach lessons with a number of different instruments at a variety of levels in often very unsatisfactory conditions and show progress and value within 20 minutes a week. As these lessons are being paid for, it is important to get value for money and to expect progress for each child. This is often shown through the Grading system, such as those provided by the ABRSM or school concerts. Surely then the focus for the instrumental teacher has to be to get the students playing as much as possible. Here begins a slippery slope into problems fitting in the less popular elements (particularly in the eyes of the students) such as scales, aural training or specific techniques or exercises.
Obviously this is all less than ideal, and it is fairly obvious to see that the real problem is not the quality of teachers, or the fact that schools may or may not be cooperative but really down to the situation that many feel that they are being put in. I guess that these issues all come from the basic feeling that seems to be so very evident in Government at the moment that the focus should be placed on English, Maths and Science. These core subjects are important and I would never argue against that, but what I do have a real problem with is that due to that mindset, creativity and subjects like Music, Art and Drama appear to have less importance or time.
However, there is definitely hope! Work being carried out by the newly appointed Music Hubs is extremely positive and has allowed a greater collaboration of many different art forms. Well run services, such as Northamptonshire Music and Performing Arts Service is an outstanding example of this.
With growing awareness and a better understanding of the value of Music by society, teaching will be allowed to return to what it should be. Things can be turned around and it is likely that situations will get better after they have deteriorated. Education seems to be a circular affair with policies and ideas going in and out of fashion depending upon the particular foci of those with power.
Or maybe the power for changing perception and understanding the value of creativity should rest with a society that outwardly regularly ignores and abuses the creativity and talent it has in abundance…