Let’s unite and focus on young people’s lives in music
There’s no doubt that inclusive approaches to music-making are on the increase, says Youth Music CEO Matt Griffiths. But the music education sector is still sometimes prone to disagreements about the ‘right way’ to do things. It’s time for us to work together.
As the end of 2018 fast approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the progress that’s been made in achieving our goal of ‘a musically inclusive England’, as set out in Youth Music’s 2016-20 business plan. There’s no doubt that we’ve seen a significant increase in innovative, diverse and inclusive music-making taking place across the country. Equality, diversity and inclusion are now higher up the agenda for music education policymakers - as they should be.
But as society changes, expectations rise, and the demands on all of us to take concerted action rightly increases. I think the discussion now is not what inclusive practice is but rather how to do it most effectively.
I had the pleasure of attending the recent Music Education Council (MEC) Seminar ‘Making Music Education Inclusive: being inclusive rather than doing inclusion,’ hosted by the fantastic team at Bristol Colston Hall. The seminar included presentations from Bristol Plays Music, Drake Music, Sound Connections, Awards for Young Musicians, Audio Active, and Youth Music Programme Director Carol Reid. Topics included the workforce, resources, youth voice, progression, and genre diversity; stimulating lively discussions across the table groups.
The main tenet of the day was that it's time to progress together as a sector, moving away from doing ‘inclusion projects’, and instead becoming inclusive organisations. As Carol highlighted in her presentation, this means moving from targeted interventions (responding to an immediate and important need) to full integration.
There’s a big difference here. Embedding inclusion within an organisation is of course about the music-making practice, but it’s also about all sorts of other factors to do with our organisations’ culture, leadership and partnerships: how we recruit teams and boards; how and what we pay people; how we involve young people in meaningful planning and decision-making; what our internships policies are; how, when and in what way we communicate what we do; how transparent, reflective and open we are. Those are big, challenging topics.
Significant change is happening. I’ve seen many examples of organisations and partnerships responding to social, political and environmental change in a variety of innovative ways. However, alongside the progress that’s been made, there are also disagreements about where music education takes place, and who’s best placed to deliver it.
The way young people engage with music is changing. In many ways, thanks largely to technological advances, music-making has become democratised. With a few clicks, you can listen to, compose and record music for free. Not just on your own, but across the world with people you’ve never met. The possibilities are all very exciting.
But there’s a downside (which I raised in my closing provocation at the MEC Seminar). Many young people can’t afford to go to that gig, buy that instrument, get driven to a rehearsal, book a rehearsal space, learn music in school. Many feel isolated, lonely, fearful of missing out. Even those guiding their own music-making get to a point where they need support to take their next steps. Young people face many barriers due to who they are, where they live, or the issues they face: isolation, disability, gender, ethnicity, and the lesser-discussed factors of class and poverty.
The decreasing role and position of music in the school curriculum is another barrier for young people - the very place where no-one should miss out. But many young people aren’t getting a music education in school, due to the current climate of constant testing, assessment, target-setting and focus on the so-called academic subjects. And sometimes the music education that is on offer is disconnected from young people’s interests. Teaching hours are being reduced, teaching posts cut. So what to do?
What we mustn’t do is argue as a sector about which bit of music education is most important. That can all too often feel like self-preservation and self-promotion. Fighting for territory, jostling for position and, at worst, sometimes being pretty sneery about areas of music education we don’t understand and are not in our world. This doesn’t help anyone, least of all young people.
I’ve been thinking about how best to move this forward. My suggestion is that we all focus on each young person’s life in music, wherever, whenever and however that takes place. This includes their time in school, at home, with their friends. Where nursery-age children can make music together with their parents and teachers, and bring in songs they sing at home to share with others. Where, in school, young people regularly get to make music on the instrument they love, which becomes a central part of the qualifications they achieve. They can also produce their tracks with the teacher working alongside an industry organisation.
Where, out of school, they can use those tracks to rehearse with a band, leading up to some gigs. Where the workforce are working together in the best interests of young people and themselves learning from each other. Where partnerships between schools and music organisations result in new innovative curricula, designed and co-curated together. Where resources and funds for different aspects of music education are joined together to achieve more than each could operating independently. Where the workforce brings each person’s different expertise to the table - a powerful force for learning and innovation - with a shared and common understanding focused on solutions.
A music education system that brings together all its component parts: this is where we could be. A big goal - and even more so in the current climate. But I believe it’s achievable and potentially transformational in terms of what music education could, and should, look like now. (We’ll be saying more about this when we launch our research report, ‘The Sound of the Next Generation’, with Ipsos MORI in January.)
We’re certainly not there yet. There’s no doubt that high quality inclusive practice is on the increase. Yet, perhaps inevitably, differing approaches are creating debate and indeed there are still some doubters and naysayers. This raises questions for all of us in the music education sector. But let’s not just stand up for our own bit of it, let’s start by listening to young people and take it from there.
A very happy Christmas to you all and see you in 2019 - Youth Music’s 20th Anniversary!