A couple of weeks ago, an article written for The Guardian by Charlotte C Gill sparked a considerable backlash from the music community. The premise of the piece entitled "Music education is now only for the white and wealthy" suggested that music has become an elitist subject, and that this is largely due to the "academic" way in which it is taught. Gill argues that musical literacy is unnecessary. She believes that western musical notation is "a cryptic, tricky language -- rather like Latin -- that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education".
Now, not only is this hilariously ignorant, but it is profoundly insulting to suggest that those of us who do read and write music (and have and continue to spend our lives studying it), are somehow elitist, wealthy or pompous. This is simply not true. I began my musical journey primarily playing blues and fingerstyle guitar, learning music by ear and tab. I always had a strong emotional connection to music and this pushed me to want to know everything I could about it. I wanted to be fluent in it, to be able to do as much as I could in as many different genres as possible.
I began studying classical guitar in my teens, often pushing myself to learn pieces that were far too complicated for me at the time. It was a struggle, but I did it with practice. Hours and hours of practice which led to me gaining a masters in classical guitar performance. What Gill doesn't seem to understand in her article is that if you love something, and want to be as good as you can, you are willing to give your life to it. Yes, learning to sight-read is tricky. But like anything it gets easier the more you do. You don't just give up and do something easier instead!
Following in Gill's thinking here perhaps we could apply this to other aspects of life? Let's replace all gym equipment with bean bags as my enthusiasm for not being obese is stunted by the difficult exercises I have to do. Let's not teach Shakespeare in English classes, it's far too difficult, lets study reruns of Coronation Street instead. Let's do away with sums in maths classes and have students count magic beans instead... Well, you get the point.
It is true that many successful pop musicians do not read music. But that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be taught. It is incredibly important for students to understand the language of music regardless of their taste or background. You don't have to be the next Daniel Barenboim to benefit from musical literacy education. Aside from this, it's a bloody amazing thing to be able to write music down on a page! Yes, aural skills are incredibly important too, but this should be taught in conjunction with literacy and notation. Just as you would when learning a language.
Furthermore I think it's completely false to suggest that you can only study music if you are from a wealthy background. I'm not. My friends and colleagues are not. The vast majority of musicians I know did not go to private school.
Gill's article created somewhat of a shit storm amongst the musical community. A list of over 700 professional musicians opposing the article has been published, with names including Sir Simon Rattle, Stephen Hough and Sir James McMillan.
I stand with my colleagues and mentors here in opposing this point of view. I believe that it is harmful to dumb down music education in an already dumbed-down society. Music is for everyone, as is music notation. We need to support the numerous schemes for free music lessons in schools. We need to encourage our local governments to support music education and the arts. As music educators, we need to teach music with passion, joy and enthusiasm and show just what an awesome thing it is to be able to read music!
But anyway, that's my two cents. I'll be getting back to practice now. I'd like to finish with a wonderful quote that I heard physicist Lawrence Krauss say on a podcast recently (which he attributes to the actor Alan Alda): "Science requires creativity and art requires rigour."
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