Category Archives: Music Education

Nick Gibb on the [non] impact of the EBacc on the arts in school

Nick Gibb’s speech at the Guildhall this week contained an interesting insight into his thinking about the EBacc and the lack of impact that this has made on the provision of arts education in our schools. Without any personal comment from me, at this point, have a read of the following excerpts:

The concern that the EBacc will drive pupils away from creative subjects at GCSE has been made vocally in the media, but proven to be unfounded. The EBacc covers a core set of 5 subject blocks – English, maths, science, humanities and languages – but this allows most pupils to choose a number of additional GCSE options. …

I do understand why some in the arts communities are concerned about accountability measures, such as the EBacc, but in my view they needn’t be. There is no reason why an academic core curriculum should in any way imperil a cultural education, or vice versa.

In fact, an academic curriculum and a cultural education can only complement each other, whether it is reading a wide range of literature; broadening your understanding of Shakespeare’s plays; giving you the historical knowledge to contextualise Picasso’s paintings; or allowing you to read Racine in the original language.

Both aspects of a child’s education can and should co-exist within every school in England. This point was explicitly made by Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education in a speech to the Creative Industries Federation in July. We want to challenge every school to make this their aim.

It is my strong personal and professional contention that the exact opposite is the case. This is why both I, and my company UCan Play, support the ISM’s Protect Music Education campaign. Perhaps more importantly, Gibb should stop and think why these 137 organisations working within the education sector also think that his policies are harming the arts, irrevocably, in our schools.

I am genuinely interested to know what is going on in your school? Are the arts flourishing as Nick Gibb suggests? Has the EBacc impacted on your work in any way at all? Please do add your comments below and let’s hear your stories of arts education under Gibb’s and Morgan’s reign.


Life on Shuffle

This film shows some great work going on in Crewe through a collaboration between the fabulous Love Music Trust, Brighter Sound and Cheshire East. Life on Shuffle saw staff working with young people to help them produce a range of original music. Great stuff! Funding for the project came from Youth Music.


Welcome to another super group of MMU students!


Welcome to all the new MMU students beginning courses with us this year! I hope you have a brilliant time with us and that you find the PGCE course you have chosen a stimulating and rewarding experience.

For those of you beginning the PGCE in Music and PGCE in Music with Specialist Instrumental Teaching courses, an especially warm welcome. Teaching music to young people is one of the most amazing of jobs. There is a huge amount of enjoyment that you will gain from learning how to do this well, and the young people that you teach will benefit hugely too.

In a nutshell, the course will help you to ‘teach music musically‘. This isn’t our phrase, but it does sum up the aspiration of the course as a whole. Will Evans, and I, together with all our other Associate Lecturers and colleagues, will do our upmost to help you through what will be one of the most challenging years of your lives so far!

Welcome again, and have a great year!

Making music is good for you – forever!

It was great to see CNN produce this film on the significant benefits that music education can bring to young and old alike. Our fellow music education researcher from Northwestern University, Nina Kraus, is featured in the first part of the film. Her work on ‘neural timing’ is fascinating. The benefits of learning music in childhood extend throughout one’s entire life. Practical music making from the youngest age really is good for you – forever!

Images of music education in the 1960s

Whilst I was searching for images for my previous post on the BBC Radio 4 programme The School is Full of Noises, I came across a selection of lovely images of music education in the 1960s from John Paynter’s Hear and Now book (published in 1972). I though they might be of interest to readers of this blog, although they were originally shared here.


This photo reminded me of music and movement classes which were definitely still part of primary education in the 1970s (I remember doing them!).


However, I don’t remember my primary school teachers being as imaginative in their cross-curricular thinking as Paynter was. In hearing about his work again in the radio programme, and reviewing some of the photographs online, I was struck at how frequently music was linked to other subjects within the curriculum. This also included locations and sites outside of the classroom, such as the Pateley Bridge cavern described at the end of the programme. It made me chuckle. The book Will Evans and I wrote and had published this year by Routledge is really only rediscovering a well travelled path.


This picture includes R. Murray Schafer, Paynter’s friend, working with a group of pupils.


I love the concentration on this child’s face as he ‘prepares’ this grand piano for their improvisation. How many music teachers today would let their pupils do this to their acoustic piano? And if not, why not? Funnily enough, I remember doing exactly this kind of thing with some of my friends to the grand piano in the music department at Woking Sixth Form College in the mid 1980s. I’m not sure how our music teacher, Miss Parry, responded but I’m sure there would have been a wry smile on her face.


I also love this photo of these children working together in a group improvisation/composition. Group work has been a feature of music education here in the UK for many years. It has its problems, but there are so many advantages too.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection of images from John Paynter’s work and publication. If you have any more, do feel free to share them in the comments or drop them over on an email to me. Thanks.

The School is Full of Noises


Recently, BBC’s Radio 4 broadcast this excellent programme on how  tape loops, recycled everyday sounds and countless other weapons of the avant-garde found their way into school music lessons during the 1960s Presented by Ian McMillan, it is a fascinating exploration of musical improvisation and composition in the school built around the ideas of John Paynter and others.

It begins in an attic. Jonny Trunk is a collector of music’s less travelled pathways, amongst them LPs of school children from the 1960s performing the most ambitious musical works imaginable. They have titles like ‘Music for Cymbals’, ‘An Aleatory Game’ and ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’.

Ian’s journey sets out to rediscover the creators of these musical curiosities, both the educators who conceived them and also the pupils themselves. Eventually, Ian’s travels take him to a dark place, a cavern complex near Pateley Bridge where he retreads footsteps taken by children for a recording project. He even manages to find one of the children who participated in the classes and interviews her about the experience.

The programme is accessible here; however, I suspect it might not be there for too much longer so you can download an MP3 of the programme here too.


‘A specter is haunting music education: it is the specter of El Sistema’

dudamel_2242987bSo starts Robert Fink’s brilliant exposition on the theme of El Sistema (published for free here at I would urge you to read his paper in full. It is a beautiful and challenging critique of El Sistema that utilises powerful metaphors to bring about a new understanding of this influential music education movement.

At the heart of El Sistema, Fink argues, is a fantasy. It is a fantasy of music appreciation (and music education) as social justice. This fantasy has been achieved and, for many, become reality through Abreu’s skilful political manoeuvring. Fink explores this through six ‘passes’ that demonstrate Abreu’s considerable sleight of hand:

  •  A Youth Orchestra can be a Social Welfare Project;
  • Material Poverty can be relieved by Spiritual Affluence;
  • Talented Young Performers are signs of a (state-Sponsored) Miracle;
  • (Their) Being in Harmony can revive the Meaning of Harmony (for Us);
  • Art as Social Justice enables Social Justice as Marketing;
  • Marketing ‘Change’ while programming The Same Old Stuff.

FInk’s arguments are rich and stimulating. They centre around a challenge to the ideology of harmony (socially, politically and musically) within the project itself and more generally in how it is received around the world. In the middle part of his paper, Fink reminds us the ideology of harmony is dialetical:

Harmony subsumes both consonance and dissonance, and thus the message of Western music for modernity is that struggle and discord can, up to a point, be exciting; that the authentic development of the individual is often at odds with the need for order in society; and that teleological development might lead to com-plexity and disorder, but is preferable to simple stasis. (p.8)

In contrast, he argues, El Sistema takes a very different starting point:

In Abreu’s System, on the other hand, harmony is an absolute, non-dialectical value, functionally equivalent in discourse to something like ‘the beauty of total agreement’. In harmo-ny with Leibniz, who argued that when each of us ‘plays his part,’ we fulfill our deepest purpose, Abreu portrays the classical symphony orchestra as a mechanism for aestheticizing social unity; in fact, the most perfect such cultural machine ever created. (p.9)

The metaphor of ‘harmony’ is used throughout the paper in a powerful way to critique El Sistema. Unlike Geoffrey Baker’s book, Fink doesn’t bring this powerful metaphor to bear on the pedagogical approach inherent within El Sistema. It would be very interesting to discover what he thinks about this.

However, he makes the more obvious point that Venezuela is, perhaps, ‘one of the most in-harmonious places on Earth, with decaying industrial infrastructure, skyrocketing rates of street crime and inflation, an openly paranoid style of official diplomacy, and regular shortages of basic consumer goods that socialist and capitalist factions can only explain by accusing each other of sabotage? (p.20). Perhaps, he concludes, it is time to ‘stop playing around in the fantasy utopia of classical music, and start fighting in the real world’ (p.20).

For us working within music education in the UK, the article is a useful reminder that all that glitters in the world of music education is definitely not gold. Given that our ‘version’ of El Sistema is titled In Harmony, I must admit that I enjoyed Fink’s playful and powerful use of harmony as an ideological and metaphorical construct throughout the paper. For me, like him, I’d prefer to be In Dissonance rather than In Harmony. 

You’ll need to read to the end of his article to find out why. I highly recommend it to you all.

Steve Reich’s Clapping Music: A new app!

UCan Play has recently been involved in a project with NYMAZ researching the delivery of instrumental music lessons online using Roland’s VR-3EX audio and video mixer and streamer. This work has been funded through NESTA’s Digital R&D Fund for the Arts.

One of the other projects also funded by this fund is Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, a game-based app for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad inspired by – you guessed it – Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. His piece has inspired all sorts of people from the famous percussionist Evelyn Glennie to David Bowie. The app also includes lots of additional content about Steve Reich and minimalist music, and unique recordings from the London Sinfonietta, including another piece by Reich, Electric Counterpoint.

The game has been developed by a team from three organisations – The London Sinfonietta, Touchpress, and Queen Mary University of London. It will be free for anyone to download from iTunes from late June 2015. You don’t need to be a musician to play, in fact the developers would love as many people as possible to download it and get tapping and clapping! You can find out more about the app here and the associated research project here.

The developers has asked us to help raise awareness of this new app. They would like you to play the game and complete three online surveys during the period from app launch to August 7th 2015; one before you download the app, another after playing for a little while, then another two weeks later. The surveys include questions about your musical experience, age and music listening habits and preferences. They will download your playing data from the game and look at this as well. As a thank you, they will draw 10 people at random from the participants who have completed and submitted all three surveys and enter them into a draw to enter one of 10 Amazon £50 gift cards.

Ready to sign up now? Send an email with the subject line ‘Sign me up to the research focus group’ to

Ten Pieces is not enough! Coming to a primary school near you – 100 pieces!

Coming soon to a primary school near you – a prescribed list of 100 pieces of classical music that every child should be familiar with. No, this isn’t a joke. This is the cornerstone of future Tory music education policy according to the speech given by Nick Gibb at the Music Education Expo this week.

For clarity, here’s is the complete extract from the speech together with the suggestions that the preeminent expert on music education thinks should be included (that’s sarcasm BTW ;) ):

While there is already a great deal of good practice, we also want to make sure there is support available for teachers who may need it – in particular, practical help for non-specialist primary school teachers. I am delighted that Classic FM and the ISM are going to compile, and give schools access to, a new list of 100 pieces of classical music that every child should be familiar with by the time they leave primary school.

Being familiar with the best known classical works is as important as reading the canon. Music has been important to me personally and my suggestions for pieces to include would range from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to Parry’s setting of ‘I was glad’ and Allegri’s ‘Miserere’, which I still remember singing as a choirboy. I very much hope there will be strong engagement from those within music teaching with ISM and Classic FM as they develop the list.

The full speech can be read here. I challenge you to find another single idea about the future of music education within it. Music Education Expo is the premiere music education event in the UK each year. As a platform, Gibb had the chance to set a future vision for music education under a Tory government. This was the best he could come up with. I’ll leave you to make your own judgement.