Challenging Performance: The Book. 7.2 Childhood lessons

7 Teaching

7.2 Childhood lessons

Most teaching for WC musicians begins in childhood, among the children of middle- and upper-class parents, at parents’ initiative and with parental encouragement, their conformist values built-in to WCM’s ideology; and in this way pleasing the parent inevitably becomes associated with performing well.[1] (We’ll see later how this gets transferred to pleasing the composer.) The teacher/parents/child become a team, at their most effective when in agreement about goals.[2] Gradually emerging as central to those goals are the approved ways of being musical which are thus rooted in the most formative relationships of one’s life. Essential from the start is a willingness to subjugate oneself to a regime of regular practice, in which one teaches oneself to obey both the instructions in a score and one’s teacher’s advice on how to mould one’s body into a tool that can realise those instructions effectively. Obedience, hard work, love, praise and musicianship are all bound-up together at a formative stage, as self-esteem interlocks with self-discipline and self-policing: the teacher’s guidance, the composer’s intentions, the score’s instructions seem indistinguishable.

Nevertheless, from our perspective we can easily see how much is excluded, and how ill-equipped young performers are to do anything other than read and obey. A very obvious gap opens up between their musicianship and that of their contemporaries engaged in making popular music. For the latter, learning to make music is also about copying, but it is copying by ear, not from a text, often not through a teacher. It is a matter of becoming like one’s model rather than being obedient to instructions. So while the classical musician may have superior technical command of her instrument, the popular musician discovers how to improvise.

We can see this difference with particular clarity in a study by Lucy Green (2008),[3] the last chapter of which reports a study she undertook with schoolchildren who were asked to use informal learning (learning through copying by ear) to play classical pieces.

Michelle [one of the minority who’d also had classical lessons] got out her clarinet for this lesson (trying to learn ‘Für Elise’). She seemed nervous about trying to learn it by ear and wanted to go and find the notation… She seemed worried about playing the wrong notes. Interesting, as she hadn’t been inhibited before on other instruments… (163)

This little example emphasises how strongly the values of correct performance are instilled in WCM children. However free you can be with other instruments, on ‘yours’ you do what you’re told. ‘It took a while for these pupils to bridge the connection between formal and informal approaches, and realize that they could aurally copy music from a recording on their orchestral instruments by ear’ (163). Because most pupils had less inhibition about making mistakes they played with more flow than classically-trained pupils tend to do at this stage (163–4). The informal learning approach—working music out with fellow pupils as a group—led to non-classically trained children doing effective musical work with classical music and enjoying it, despite starting from a belief that it was ‘boring’, ‘pointless’ and ‘depressing’ (155–6). One of Green’s conclusions is that if kids are able to play classical pieces flowingly by ear first, accuracy will come later (171): exactly the opposite of a standard classical training where you achieve accuracy from notation first, and hope then to be able to introduce some flow. While some pupils remained hostile to classical music, for others the experience of playing it enabled them to find ways to listen (172–3).

What emerges from Green’s work is that the obstacles to enjoying classical music for that majority of kids who are not getting classical lessons overlap with the problems that I’m identifying here with the way that classical musicians are trained to behave and think. In particular the lack of opportunity to discover for themselves, with their contemporaries, and to be creative in their playing, are major factors that put them off. Allowing a greater variety of approaches to playing scores (and indeed playing without scores) may well allow many more young people to find participating in WCM rewarding and socially including (as opposed also to social death). Improvisation is important here, as Green’s work makes clear: working by ear, making a personal contribution, are key ingredients in enjoying taking part.

To this end, The Music Lab – A Toolkit for Exploring Youth Voice within Music-Making Practices in Classical Music offers teachers a fresh way (radically fresh for WCM) of enabling students to find new and personal ways of interacting with classical music as they learn.

In the same spirit, the kinds of classical improvisation that are now being fostered by the Trinity exam board in the UK, and that David Dolan and others are now teaching at advanced level in conservatoires, could be used even more productively as a normal part of classical music training for children, bringing benefits (clearly shown in recent studies of audience response)[4] in intensity and communication of musicianship for all kinds of classical repertoire. The lack of ability to improvise may be one of the reasons that musical training in childhood doesn’t lead to lifelong engagement for a great many.

Another may be the related intolerance—not just on the part of gatekeepers but induced in everyone who learns an instrument—of any stylistic or technical stumbling or shortcoming. That you need to do hard things not just ably but perfectly in order not to seem a bad musician is a real disincentive to anyone whose musical skills falter through interruption, through what might otherwise have been only a temporary reduction in interest or regular practice, which can happen all too easily during difficult teenage years.[5] It is difficult and dispiriting to recover from even a temporary hiatus when perfection is the only acceptable product. Simply picking up your instrument and playing for fun is never (allowed to be) that simple when performing classical music.

A model that has been much admired and imitated is that of Venezuela’s El Sistema. What could be more positive than to provide instruments and music education for deprived kids, and to offer them a route towards a middle-class profession in the arts? It ticks so many liberal boxes. As this chapter develops we’ll see just how easily WCM values, based on obedience to a higher authority (nominally the dead composer, for all practical purposes the teacher and the system), lead to bullying and abuse. Geoff Baker (2014) has shown just how far that has gone in El Sistema,[6] and how what was ostensibly a social programme came to function as a machine for teaching obedience to authority. It shouldn’t surprise us, if we really understand what worshiping the composer’s intentions means in practice in WCM: the way in which it gives individuals licence to impose their beliefs, their practices and their will on young children.[7] ‘[B]eing a music student’ writes Basilio Fernández-Morante (2018), ‘becomes a risk factor when it comes to being [psychologically] harassed’.[8]

Continue to 7.3 ‘Exam boards and the space for creativity’

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[1]For an essential analysis of the relationship between WCM training and class see Bull, Anna. 2019. Class, Control and Classical Music. New York: Oxford University Press. See also Bull, Anna. 2022. Getting it Right: Why Classical Music’s ‘Pedagogy of Correction’ is a Barrier to Equity. Music Educator’s Journal 108, 65–6.
[2]Creech, Andrea and Susan Hallam. 2011. Learning a Musical Instrument: The Influence of Interpersonal Interaction on Outcomes for School-Aged Pupils. Psychology of Music 39:1, 102–22.
[3] Green, Lucy. 2008. Music, Informal Learning and the School: a New Classroom Pedagogy. Farnham: Ashgate.
[4] Dolan D, Jensen HJ, Mediano PAM, et al. 2018. The Improvisational State of Mind: A Multidisciplinary Study of an Improvisatory Approach to Classical Music Repertoire Performance. Frontiers in Psychology 9:1341.
[5] Pitts, Stephanie E. 2017. What is Music Education For? Understanding and Fostering Routes into Lifelong Musical Engagement. Music Education Research 19:2, 160-168.
[6] Baker, Geoffrey. 2014. The System. Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[7] Fernández-Morante (2018, 18) arrives at the same conclusion. Fernández-Morante, Basilio. 2018. Psychological Violence in Current Musical Education at Conservatoire. Revista Internacional de Educación Musical 6:1, 13–24. Another important study, cited by Fernández-Morante, is Quigg, Anne-Marie. 2011. Bullying in the Arts. Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power. London: Routledge.
[8] ‘ser estudiante de música se convierte en un factor de riesgo a la hora de ser acosado’. Fernández-Morante (2018, 14–15), citing Elpus, Kenneth, and Bruce Allen Carter. 2016. Bullying Victimization among Music Ensemble and Theater Students in the United States. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 46:9, 1191–1225. Fernández-Morante discusses sexual harassment later, pp. 18–19, citing mainly the work of Ian Pace (see 7.9 below). My thanks to Marco Fatichenti for advice on the translation.


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