Note – Mention of suicide. If you’re in the UK music community and struggling to cope you can talk to Music Minds Matter, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
I am a steelpan teacher and band leader
I teach music to children described as having challenging behaviour, from youth offenders to those who are just differently wired. I co-wrote a book on teaching children with additional needs in mainstream music lessons, and I devised and self-published the Foxwood Songsheets, a pared-back and deliberately imprecise system of notation, which supports an aural tradition. I also give workshops and presentations on these. My timeline includes 16 years at Foxwood High School, and 27 years mostly part-time at the music service.
I am a teacher first, musician second. When people ask what I teach I say – children! I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but it’s why I teach: to make a difference to the lives of the children (and adults) in my care, and I play music to make a difference to my own life.
I have something of a checkered history in my own studies. A teacher in my primary school put me off singing for 21 years, which was nice of her (not!). I was also put off playing piano for a decade due to other bad experiences with different teachers. Thus, I teacher-trained in English, not music. When I moved across to becoming a music specialist, and then to head of Music and the Faculty of Expressive Arts, I saw the Arts in a different way.
Two years ago, I did a mini survey of about 30 music teachers. All of the participants had enjoyed charmed school experiences as children, meaning that their talents had been recognised, encouraged, and supported. This doesn’t make them bad teachers, but it means they don’t share that lived experience, the trauma, of being rejected that I had experienced, of not being allowed to sing when it had meant so much to me. However, I did have the charmed life with my English teachers, so it was not all bad.
I was politically apathetic until the Miners’ Strikes
I joined the National Union of Teachers, now the NEU, as a trainee teacher. Several of the staff at Foxwood School were NUT and Labour party members, and one of them went on to be an MP. He was very persuasive, and so we all gave the miners £2 a week, and we met at 5:00 am every Monday for months at the Lion and Lamb, where we found out which mine we were going to picket and then we went off for our weekly tussle with the police.
After that I attended all the NUT meetings. But Foxwood was an inner city school. League tables eventually saw us off and the school closed. Four recent ex-pupils killed themselves the following year. You don’t get over any of that. Even after they left school we always had time for our ex-students, and sometimes when life got really tough they would just appear at the back of your classroom. I had told them I would always be available for weddings and 21sts, but I didn’t expect to be going to a funeral..
The MU opens lots of doors
I became a peripatetic music teacher after the closure of Foxwood School, and I also took the role of music service rep for the NEU and the MU, now known as an MU Education Rep.
I applied for the MU Education Section Committee hoping that I might have something to offer, and curious about other people’s views on teaching music. They came from all different types of education: community, private school, early years, university, music services, occasionally school teachers. I gradually found my feet.
One experience that the MU Education Section Committee gave me was attending a music education committee, chaired by Tracey Brabin, in the House of Commons. Accompanied by the MU’s National Organiser for Education, Chris Walters, we listened as several people talked about their music education charities, but I noticed that they were all extra-curricular.
Music and the arts are subjects that should be on the curriculum, so they don’t become a choice that you don’t make. I picked my grandson up from primary school this week. He had a letter about dance classes, but he said he wasn’t going to no dance class! I was sad to hear that dance would be a choice that he didn’t make.
In a committee room one contributor, a brass player of international renown, opined that it was fair enough that musicians starting off needed to do a “bit of teaching on the side” as they grew their reputations. When I spoke from the floor, I opined in return that I thought that viewing music teaching that way was detrimental to children and music education (I can’t remember my actual words). I like to think I made him think. He certainly made me think. That old phrase “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach” sprung to mind.
I believe that teaching is an artform, a talent and a skill
At that point I could see how a campaign for music education, and the arts, might work. First we needed the support of other subject teachers; secondly, we needed to lose the expression “the creative industries”. To me it sounds elitist and has an unhelpful air of superiority about it. Creativity is everywhere, from baking to medicine, from car design to football. We don’t want to alienate the cooking or the science teachers. We want the Arts to take their equal place in a school curriculum, and we need music to be for everyone, and music to not just be playing an instrument.
And finally, this year, the MU had its stall and a Fringe meeting at the NEU conference in Harrogate. I brought my own motion, demanding a campaign to restore Music and the Arts to their rightful place in a broad and balanced curriculum.
Art for art’s sake, music for all
When I was an English teacher, I wasn’t looking for the next Benjamin Zephaniah, and as a music teacher I am not looking for the next Adele, or even the next act at the Pack Horse Open Mic night. I want to watch Swan Lake at the Alhambra, and find Adil and Zainab on the next row. I want to call at the tyre place, and have Christian ask me if I had been watching BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, and him to tell me that the wrong woman won.
Of course, we should encourage talent and direct it accordingly, but just because you’re academic doesn’t mean you need to go to university, and just because you are musical doesn’t mean you have to be a musician. Arts for Art’s Sake; Music for All.
Find out how you can get more involved
Find out more about MU Education Reps and how they help connect the MU with music education workplaces
Want to shape the MU’s aims and objectives in music education? Find out more about the MU Education Section Committee
Are you a member of the NEU, UCU or EIS? MU members who are also members of our partner unions are eligible for our Joint membership rate.