Instrumental Music Teaching Needs a Radical Re-think

By Dr Spencer Pitfield


As the Government grapples with the desperate state of our public finances, readers will not be surprised to hear that instrumental music teaching is often at times like this first in line to suffer funding reductions. This article offers an alternative approach to instrumental teaching in schools, which will not only deliver a better level of teaching but as importantly reduce costs to the taxpayer.

Given the terrible state of the public finances music services up and down the country will no doubt see big reductions in budget allocations in the months ahead. Such reductions, especially for the larger music services in our metropolitan cities, could mean at best a considerable reduction in hourly paid music teachers, but at worst the complete closure of some services.

Many would argue that such a reduction of music provision should not be allowed, and that everything should be done to protect the current format for the delivery of instrumental music teaching. I do not.

There are clearly huge opportunities at this time to completely re-think the way instrumental music is offered in our schools.

Firstly some thoughts about many of our current music services.

• They are often overly bureaucratic paying large salaries to directors and big management teams.

• They attempt to facilitate instrumental teaching - one-to-one lessons but more commonly group lessons - in schools where there are seldom suitable spaces for such lessons. (In this regard it is not unusual to hear of music teachers taking instrumental lessons in cupboards, or trying to teach the piano when no instrument is available).

• They attempt to offer instruments and a period of lessons to every pupil in certain year groups – but given the high costs of instrumental teaching – are quickly forced after a relatively short period of lessons to take these instruments back and stop the lessons. By way of example, under the well-known Wider Opportunities scheme I have known colleagues who have struggled to teach a Year 4 class of 30 cellists – these lessons often necessitated half the allocated time to just get the instruments in tune and set-up – clearly crowd-control was the order of the day and little instrumental education was able to take place in such circumstances.

• They commonly charge schools a flat rate per hour of instrumental music teaching, which almost always equates to more than the music teacher is paid – therefore overseeing a financial levy on each and every lesson.

• They oversee a culture of bureaucratic interference with the teacher, emphasising a tick-box approach which for the most part has little to do with the relevant quality of instrumental teaching. Services it seems to me have lost sight of what qualities a suitable instrumental teacher would have or need in return for wanting to produce mechanisms and rules which work to the lowest common denominator and thus deter excellence.

So, how can we achieve hugely better results in the delivery of inspirational instrumental music provision, but do so when paying less.

Importantly, when making these suggestions I am talking about purely instrumental teaching provision, not the encouragement of a high level of class academic music making in schools.

Well, I would suggest the following:

• Use external inspirational educational projects – brass quintets/drumming workshops/vocal visits etc. – to highlight the pupils who really want to learn an instrument – why give clarinet lessons to everyone in the class, when only one or two would really want to learn the instrument.

• Only teach instrumental lessons one-to-one – it remains impossible to provide high quality instrumental teaching to groups of players of differing abilities.

• Once a pupil has shown the desire to learn an instrument, put all effort into securing an instrument and teacher for them – this could be done by:

Constituting a central national instrument hire service – where parents and schools could access instruments via a telephone number of e-mail address at nominal monthly hire fees (an instrument hire service does not need to be located in a schools local area - it is very common for instruments to be posted or couriered nowadays).

Get rid of music service bureaucracy by creating a central listing of correctly accredited music teachers across the country – by allowing music teachers to deal directly with schools/parents/pupils you would be able to cut-out the music service ‘middle man’ – most importantly, this would stop any bureaucratic levy being placed on lessons and save tens of thousands pounds.

I have no doubt that the above common sense approach would facilitate hugely improved instrumental music teaching provision across the country, whilst simultaneously delivering this service for much less than the current costs.

Under the last Government instrumental teaching provision has become overly bureaucratic and has lost its way. The suggestions above can put our wonderful aspiring young players in this country back on the right course.

Dr Spencer Pitfield