Charlotte C. Gill’s article Music education is now only for the white and the wealthy, published in The Guardian on 27th March has caused quite the furore. A response by pianist Ian Pace has so far gathered over 500 high-profile supporters, including conductor Sir Simon Rattle.
Gill’s article begins uncontroversially. She is correct to observe that music is being squeezed in schools, the subject becoming ever harder to access. She also appears to grasp that one of the problems faced is that pupils can only access the subject if they have access to individual (or at least small group) tuition. The scandal here, as everyone knows, is that schools are no longer able to offer free instrumental lessons, which was always a key part of progressing in the subject. This has left ambitious parents and children little option but to seek private tuition.
It seems strange then that whilst, on the one hand, bemoaning the fact that this kind of high-quality teaching is not available for all, that Gill proposes to dumb down the whole subject so that, presumably, such academic rigour is not needed anyway. Her attack focuses specifically on music notation, which she calls:
‘a cryptic, tricky language–rather like Latin’
So tricky, in fact, that most children can pick up the fundamentals in a few years of regular tuition (arguably less time, but I choose a period that allows the child to attain some fluency).
And like Latin it ‘can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education’
Gill manages to make it sound as if learning notation were an esoteric and morally dubious activity only pursued in top public schools. As she has already implied and we have already said, however, the scandal is that one-to-one tuition (which includes the study of notation) is not available for all, not that it shouldn’t be available at all.
And she concludes by saying that ‘Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.’
I think most schools would take issue with this. They do their best under difficult circumstances to nurture the talents of their pupils, as Gill accidentally proves when recounting her own experiences. She mentions that she was one of those frustrated, abandoned pupils, then rather spoils it by saying that: ‘At secondary school, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who picked up on my passion. One day he pulled me aside, and said “you like music, don’t you?” before throwing me into two choirs, as well as singing and piano lessons. I learned Mozart, West Side Story and can now sing in Latin [that cryptic, tricky language!], German and Italian, eventually getting my grade 8.’ I would suggest that this experience is rather more common that she realises.
There are other problems with the article. Gill seems to imagine that there is an oppresive academic elite (what is it with elites at the moment?) that prevents anyone from making progress who cannot read music. This has never been the case—ask Paul McCartney, who seems to have done quite well as a non-reader. There are plenty of musicians operating in genres of music that have traditionally not required notation and, in fact, schools cater rather fully in classroom music lessons for non-readers, many of whom study the subject further. Where there is a disconnect, and a genuine problem, is that eventually, usually around the A Level stage, these classroom musicians fare less well because they need to engage with the subjection in a more academic way. This does require notation. At this point it would be possible to have a genuine conversation about the merits of a more practical line of study for those pupils, but we cannot pretend that a deep understanding of music can be achieved without recourse to notation, any more than one can study languages without reading.
Gill also says that she cannot join the many choirs that insist that members can read music. So why not join one that doesn’t? There are plenty of them, and standards of sight-singing vary so widely, even amongst trained musicians, that such a requirement is more honoured in the breach than the observance. We cannot, however, apply these amateur standards to our top music groups. Imagine the BBC Singers open to non-readers. Or, whilst we are at it, our top orchestras. That would make rehearsals pretty interesting. The fact of the matter is that music, particularly classical music, is a rigorous, difficult subject that requires years of study before any kind of mastery is attained. In this respect, like all serious subjects, it is elitist. The important thing is that the path to mastery is available to all though education, not that the subject is crippled by a creeping philistinism that insists that everyone’s contribution, regardless of their training, is equally valid.