Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Music Education

I was just reading this heartening article in the Scotsman about music lessons for Scottish schoolchildren. Some schools offer free private music lessons, others charge various amounts. In the part of Canada I come from, no public schools offer private music lessons, but most schools have band and choir programs. Instead, parents who can afford it send their children to private music lessons at a conservatory. The cost varies according to the teacher--more senior teachers cost more--but it probably runs between $1000 and $1500 for a year's lessons (for younger students who take shorter lessons, the amounts would be about half that). Is it worth it?

A while ago I put up a post about how musical skills seem to inhabit a different part of the brain from other skills. So, if music really is in another world, why bother trying to expose schoolchildren to it? Will it be beneficial in a general way? Will anyone except those students who are musically gifted and likely to go on to careers in music actually benefit? I've wondered about this a lot, but have come to the conclusion that yes, exposure to musical training is likely to be of fundamental benefit to most people. Not all, of course. Despite a number of scientific studies, there really is such a thing as natural talent (and the corollary, of course, anti-talent).

Why is it necessary to give students private lessons? This is what is really costly. A private music teacher, if they are capable and competent, will cost thirty or forty dollars an hour to employ. If you are paying much less, you are likely getting an inexperienced, less-educated teacher who may not be worth it. Guidance in music development must be done one-on-one because every student presents unique gifts and weaknesses.

Once and only once did I have the experience of working with a group prove successful. I took on the job, temporarily, of teaching a small group of students, originally five, then four. They were all ten or eleven years old and starting from zero. With a small group like this, it was just possible to work individually enough without hampering the whole group. The interesting thing was that the group stayed together for a number of years, enough that they were able to work up to performing some guitar quartets. I even took them to a teacher's conference once. I was giving a talk to a group of music teachers about how to run a guitar class--I think they were used to just having everyone strum "Blowin' In The Wind". So I had my quartet come in and while I talked to the teachers they set up and tuned. Then I just said "go ahead" and they, entirely without any coaching from me, played a couple of movements from a guitar quartet by John Duarte. Oh, I think they were thirteen or fourteen at the time. I even got them on local television once. I don't think the music teachers liked me very much! Incidentally, while two of the members did drop out, of the other two, one graduated from the University of Victoria with a performance degree in music and the other went on to McGill University.

This is not the quartet that my group played, but it is by John Duarte and shows off what you can go with a guitar quartet--and Duarte's inimitable sense of humor!

I think this also shows some of the benefits of musical training. There is the discipline, of course. It is extraordinarily difficult to get four guitars to really play together. There is also the musical expressiveness, both amongst the players and toward the audience. There is the patience required to do the necessary long hours of practice both alone and together. There is the study of music theory and ear-training. Indeed, a host of skills are needed. All these things develop what I think used to be called a virtuous character: someone who can work hard, can work closely with others to a common benefit, who can express themselves and music convincingly and so on. In other words, the study of music is one of those things that can really combat the corrosive narcissism of our time in which everything is subsumed to the passing whim of the individual.

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