CMS discussion group 3: education

The third weekly meeting of the Chamber Music Scotland discussion group took place on 1 March 2021, concentrating on education in classical music:

Start as you mean to go on: looking at our education, from our own experiences and ideas on how things could be done differently. Is there too much focus on competition? Enough room for experimentation? Or are things fine as they are? How can educational institutions and individuals better prepare classical musicians for the future?

The session began by discussing differences amongst the group in our own educational backgrounds. Several members described their experiences of teachers at music colleges in the UK compared with those abroad. At UK conservatoires, it’s pretty standard that instrumental teachers also hold full-time orchestral jobs. Perhaps with the exception of heads of department, it’s rare to find the sorts of full-time pedagogues more usual across continental Europe and the US: individuals whose training and focus is as much on the art of teaching as the mastery of their instruments.

Both types of teacher have their advantages. The former are possibly more experienced in living the life of a working musician, preparing students for work in an orchestra, or even helping to land professional opportunities. On the other hand, the full-time pedagogue might offer a more detailed and structured regime, possibly also being more concerned with your career progression, given that their professional success is far more dependent on the success of their pupils.

Perhaps a more serious point is that the UK system can mean a slightly healthier power balance. One attendee described the freedom they felt studying in the UK versus the US, with the ability to choose what repertoire to play, to structure their own practice regime, and to approach a range of teachers. Nevertheless, we have to admit that there are still issues in the power imbalance in music education. There is an intimate relationship between instrumental teacher and student, with perhaps hours of one-to-one time spent per week over the course of several years. It hardly needs to be pointed out that this dynamic is sometimes dangerous and damaging. Yet beyond the headlines, the issues are far more insidious. Teachers hold power not only over prospective careers but on a student’s very sense of self-worth, and the need to keep in their good graces can allow problematic behaviour to go unchecked.

There was also a consensus in the group that there is not enough focus on mental health and wellbeing at music college, and that the idea of the “struggling artist” was somehow viewed as a measure of success. Should we really be instilling the idea from a young age that this is normal, that stress and anxiety has to be part of the musician’s life? That our sense of self-worth relies on how much work we’re getting, or how well our last performance went.

Another major difference in music education is the separation of universities and conservatoires. This split between academic and more practical institutions is far greater in the UK than perhaps any other country. There have been some attempts to integrate the two, such as the joint course between Manchester University and the RNCM, and many individuals study at uni and then attend a music college for post-grad (the other way round tends to be rarer). I have experience of both university and conservatoire, attending Edinburgh University for my undergraduate degree, followed by a post-grad in performance at the RCS, before undertaking a joint Masters between RCS and Glasgow University, and finally a PhD at Glasgow.

Put simply, conservatoire education has far more of a focus on your individual instrument, on your practice regime, and attaining the skills necessary for a career dedicated to performance. Performance at university is only one strand of many routes you can take. Even if you focus on performance, your regime is not as integrated into your studies. Your instrumental lessons will likely be funded by your institution, but your teacher won’t be a member of staff, and much of the music-making is somewhat extra-curricular, as part of the network of student-run clubs and societies. Of course, academic degrees have more of a focus on the “nitty gritty” of music: harmony, counterpoint, historical and cultural studies, but I think central to this type of education is the encouragement of critical thinking, not only in terms of musical styles and cultures, but on your practice as a musician.

More integration between these two systems could only be positive. I noted in my last blog that I have often felt that we lack something in classical music education in depending too much on the written page and not exploring improvisation. I was recently discussing with a colleague how many of the areas of my university education could have been vastly improved by a more integrated practical element. Imagine if harmony and counterpoint classes weren’t dry academic exercises, but were taught through using our instruments (and voices), feeling the musical and emotional pull of chords and musical line, rather than only a system of rules to be learned almost by rote.

Another focus of the session was on how we come up curricula and how we measure ability through exams and recitals. Many felt that our institutions are too “top-down”. Whilst students have some choice over modules, perhaps in the 3rd or 4th year of their degrees, they have little to no say in what the range of courses will be, in the curricula for these courses, how the teaching will be structured, and particularly in organising assessment. Many also felt that our current musical education allows for little social mobility, particularly through primary and secondary school. The gap between those at state schools and private schools is becoming more and more apparent. It is common for pupils at the former to be taught by a non-specialist, with for example a single teacher being charged with teaching all woodwind instruments. Several attendees noted the lack of diversity within youth orchestras, with members of entire sections coming from a handful of fee-paying schools. Likewise, the ABRSM system was criticised for favouring the toolkit of the more affluent pupil, of fostering a product, or goal-driven environment, rather than encouraging the power of music for enriching lives.

Much of the discussion today again could be summed up by values – fairness, accountability, representation, empowerment – and the idea that these should be at the centre of education, not simply an afterthought.

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