Core values of a Music Service – are we living them?

Reproduced from the Teaching Music website by kind permission of Emma Coulthard.
The key idea behind this editorial is that Music Services can have a sound set of agreed values, but that if these are not reflected in the behaviour of the organisation as a whole, and embedded in practice, they will not reach the surface and become part of its culture. For values to have an impact, everyone in the organisation has to sign up to them, understand them, and act accordingly, otherwise there is a danger that they will be lost in translation.
Our core values. Ask any senior member of a Music Service for their mission statement and they are likely to offer something like: ‘The Music Service aims to provide high-quality music education for young people, to enrich their lives, to enable them to participate in performance groups, promoting excellence and achievement for all, in an environment of inclusion and diversity’. There is usually some reference to ‘Every Child’s Music Matters’, widening participation through ‘Wider Opportunities’ and keeping apace with the KS3 curriculum with ‘Musical Futures’. Added to the ever growing list will be massed performances, national initiatives, and more curriculum support. The common theme uniting all these initiatives is the fundamental idea that music education is really important, and that young people should all be given the opportunity to participate and experience the joys that it can bring, in a form that values the uniqueness of each individual and in a way that they find meaningful. Few would argue with this, and many would feel that we are doing this already – but does our behaviour as an organisation really reflect this? Do we do what we say we do?
The ‘Pyramid System’. A popular structure for many traditional Music Services is the Pyramid System. Pupils learn instruments in school, in time they audition for Junior Ensembles, then some of them progress up to the next level by audition, until a few (assumed to be the most worthy) get to be in the County Youth Orchestra at the top. It appears to operate as a meritocracy, with the most talented, most dedicated, making it to the pinnacle, but what is really being rewarded? And what does an over-emphasis on these groups say about a Music Service? In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell describes the selection process for the Canadian Hockey League. Again, from the outside, it looks fair – children as young as 5 or 6 are talent-spotted in school, and those who are deemed to be promising are given extra tuition. Within a short time, the gap in achievement between those chosen for extra provision and those not, grows enormously. The problem is, when you look at the statistics, almost all of these children were the oldest in their class on selection date – nearly all the top players are born in January-March. The likelihood of a child born in November making the team is very slim. When you select this young, the age advantage is exponentially huge. If we are selecting children for instrumental lessons and ensembles at such an early age, how do we distinguish the innately musical from those who are simply more developed, or those who have had more experience? Why is the demographic of these performance groups so rarely representative of the general school population? It is obvious that those with supportive parents and extra input will out-perform those who don’t, and natural that they will find it easier to access these ensembles, but if these groups are the main focus of the service, we are making value judgments which may not represent our true principles of equality.
Is the Orchestra the ultimate goal? It is still common in a Music Service, for much of the organisation to be geared towards creating the best Youth Orchestra possible, but this can set up problems as a model within the education system. It becomes apparent early on, that those on big, rare, or more expensive instruments have a better chance of being included - a brilliant flute player has less chance at audition than a mediocre bassoonist. Even if this is a reflection on life in the profession is this good or healthy example for an inclusive educational programme? In this context, is it possible to avoid valuing some players more than others? Do we place a similar value on the music of those with Special Needs? EAL? And if we do, are we making that explicit?
Widening participation. In recent years, Music Services have been making enormous efforts to widen participation, with initiatives in England such as ‘Wider Opportunities’ and the encouragement of a greater than ever range of musical styles. We have witnessed a huge increase in the number of children from all backgrounds enjoying music making with their peers, and a real injection of energy in to school singing with ‘Sing Up!’ Research has supported the idea that we are all musical, and that all children can achieve, and as providers we are pushing boundaries, with new ways of working and engaging like never before – yet many in the Music teaching profession still fail to see this work as having equal musical value. When presenting our Music Service news on a website, are we more likely to mention the latest prize by the wind band, or the child on the council estate who got a ‘Cello for her birthday’? We still have a long way to go to remove the ‘hierarchy of achievements’. Can tutors who, in the past, got their pupils through exams and auditions be persuaded of the value of reaching someone who might never have had the chance to play before? Are we, as a service, rewarding those who champion equality in their delivery, or are we still giving the prize-winners more of our attention?
The changing climate. With future funding uncertainty, Music Services will have to increasingly look to schools as their main source of income. Where, under the old system, keeping some parents happy was enough, now our focus needs to be drawn to Head teachers, and we need to convince them of the value of our work. In an education system that is trying to narrow the achievement gap, we need to be mindful of how we present our activities and make sure that we are in harmony with the values of schools. The more we demonstrate the positive impact that good music education can have on any child, the more likely it is that a Head teacher will lend support. We need to become good listeners, and be genuine in our commitment to meet a wider range of needs.
The greatest resource the Music Service has is its highly skilled workforce, and the main task now, is to enthuse these individuals to work together to create a dynamic organisation that is capable and willing to move forward in very uncertain times. Our musical conviction has to sit with a practical manifestation that is true to our real values.
The future. If a Music Service can redefine itself and keep listening to those it is serving, it has the potential to become the Curator of a Community of Musical Learners, being able to understand what needs it can meet, and direct learners to other providers when needs would be better met elsewhere. We need to broaden our definition of what we do, and ask not what a Music Service should do, but what a Music Service could do. If we can do this, there is no reason to fear for the future, as Head teachers who can now see that our values are in tune with their vision will want to engage with us. ‘The Diamond Cutter doesn’t imagine the diamond he wants. Instead, he sees the diamond that is possible’. Seth Godin.