A leading classical musician is introducing an eye-catching initiative to widen access to music for children. The Chinese pianist, educator and philanthropist Lang Lang has announced plans to set up several ‘piano labs’ in schools, each with 20 to 30 keyboards. The first piano lab will be based in a primary school in a deprived borough of London. Talking about the project Lang Lang expressed surprise and shock that access to music and the arts is so limited for many children. Life-Based Learning (LBL) values music as both an intrinsically important subject and as a vehicle for developing a range of key skills that support children’s learning and development more generally. In particular, music has formidable power and reach as a means of communication, with or without the use of words. We need to properly invest in music education.
The piano labs project reflects the sort of education and philanthropic work that the virtuoso pianist has undertaken in the USA and China through the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. The Keys of Inspiration curriculum programme, for example, aims to deliver “a rigorous music education programme that supports student achievement in music, as well as overall academic and social performance.” It focuses particularly on children in the most deprived communities.
We were able to identify many similarities between state schools in the UK and public schools in the US in terms of the way access to music and arts can be extremely limited when budgets are cut … I was so surprised by how music classes are never a guarantee. The schools and teachers are incredible, and are so dedicated to providing their students with everything they can. But it shocked me how access to music education can be so limited.Lang Lang, quoted in the Guardian
When I visit our partner schools and see the joy on the students’ faces or hear from our teachers about the progress students are making, I’m reminded of why we created this programme – to give children an opportunity to discover what they’re capable of achieving and to lift up their voices through music.
Look up any survey or report on the current state of music education and the chances are that you will find words like ‘constraints’, ‘cutbacks’ and ‘squeezed’. Ofsted reported in 2020 that the typical time allocation for music in a primary school might be just 15 to 20 hours a year – or potentially less than 30 minutes a week.
An unsatisfactory situation was made worse by the Covid pandemic. Much of basic music education in schools is organised around singing and the sharing of instruments, so the teaching of music was affected more than some other subjects. A survey of teachers by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), published in December 2020, found that almost a tenth of UK schools were not teaching class music at all, despite it being obligatory on the curriculum, and that 68% of primary schools and 39% of secondary schools had reduced music teaching.
A 2019 review of music education by the Musicians’ Union neatly set out what every child should be entitled to and therefore why we need to properly invest in music education:
Every child in our country deserves the opportunity to receive a well-designed, comprehensive and systematic music education from the early years through to secondary schooling. Schools offer the ideal location for this. As we have seen over the last eight years, any other approach is prone to significant local variation – a postcode lottery of musical opportunity.Quoted from the document The State of Play: A review of music education in England 2019
Music education is far more than the opportunity to learn a musical instrument although this should be part of all children’s experience of creative music making. The implementation of the national curriculum for music in every school, delivered by an appropriately qualified workforce, must form the central plank of music education provision moving forwards. It is the only way of ensuring that every child receives a comprehensive, systematic and developmental music education.
The life-based approach to learning gives increased status to music in the curriculum. Music – and therefore music education – is important in and of itself. We have argued elsewhere that music “stimulates our spiritual and cultural faculties, transporting us to other times and places, and perhaps even to other dimensions. And the study of music helps to nurture key life skills and personal qualities such as creativity, teamwork and resilience.”
We have also argued here many times that effective communication is much more than being able to read and write well. We need an approach to learning in our schools that recognises the role that all curriculum subjects can play in developing children’s communication skills. The expressive arts, in particular — art, dance, drama and music — increase the breadth of children’s communication skills and strengthen their connection to the cultural and creative spheres. Michael Mac, creator of Life-Based Learning, has written that music is “an educationally overlooked, but highly social, vehicle of communication between people.”
Image at the head of this article by nightowl from Pixabay.