Sunday, 2 April 2017

Music notation - a world of possibilities

Thanks to the marvels of social media, I have just been directed towards an article by Charlotte C. Gill, published earlier this week in The Guardian where Gill describes learning the skill to read music notation as being the the preserve of "the white and the wealthy elite". 

Whilst Gill makes valid points about the huge contribution the creative arts industry makes to the UK economy, and also the worrying state of music education in our schools (especially in light of the proposed EBacc which excludes creative subjects altogether), she really completely misses the point regarding learning to read music notation.

From my perspective on a 5-state tour of the USA researching for my Winston Churchill Fellowship in guitar education, every single guitar program I have visited has all the students reading notation fluently, confidently and with pleasure. These are children who are often as far from the "white and the wealthy elite" that C.C Gill writes of as you can possibly imagine; children from schools with less than 10% white students, students at schools in which over 85% receive free school meals, children at risk, children in school on Apache Indian reservations, and children in juvenile detention centres; whatever their backgrounds, they are all fully immersed and engaged in making music together as a class, playing in ensemble using standard notated music, and what is more, in many cases it is exactly these lessons that inspire them to remain 'in school' long enough to learn anything else. 

The beauty of all these programs is that everyone learns guitar together in their classroom music lesson and this is the medium through which all the other aspects of general music education are taught. There is no compromise with repertoire; there is no 'dumbing down'; there is genuine interest, vocally expressed in class, in the theory behind the music, and what is more, this all works; this vital and easily absorbed skill of reading notation gives these children a whole world of music to discover, whether it is alongside their peers in class, or on their own at home. Gill's claim that music is "a cryptic, tricky language that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education" simply does not bear scrutiny. 

Just yesterday, I visited Catalina High School in Tucson, Arizona which perfectly represents the demographic I have just described. Students there have a 65% mobility rate which is considered to be an indicator of children at extreme risk (meaning they do not complete their full 4-year high school education at one single school, either joining part way through or leaving and moving on elsewhere before the end). Further illustrations of the socio-economic background are that 98% of students at Catalina are on the federal free and reduced lunch program and 22 different languages are spoken, reflecting the high percentage of Hispanic and Afro-American students. 

I was able to observe a music teacher and his students in guitar class alongside Brad Richter, the co-founder of the 'Lead Guitar' program which is run in partnership with the University of Arizona. Brad and his team regularly visit the programs they have created within the school curriculum to support and advise teachers and their students, and every time they do so they take the opportunity to perform a piece for the students in class. The choice of repertoire on this occasion surprised me; a contemporary piece that Brad had written himself entitled "Starry Night on the Beach (with Federales)" using extended guitar techniques and elements of a less familiar musical language. The students duly listened, applauded, and class finished. Then two things happened which were totally unexpected for me and also showed me the impact this program is having on the students. Two boys hung back after class wanting to speak to Brad. The first talked about how he had really been inspired by the "spanish piece, Leyenda" that Brad played the last time he visited and how he had found it online and tried to learn it. Brad asked if he wanted to play it for us, and he jumped at the opportunity, eager to soak up every bit of information and technical advice he could in the ensuing mini 'lesson'. The second boy said he really wanted to learn the piece Brad had just performed and asked whether he could find the score online and learn it; he had no fear of being unable to decipher the "cryptic" musical code and instead was relishing the opportunity to go on that journey himself, discovering a piece of music that had captured his imagination.

Both these boys were regular school kids - they weren't elite, privileged, precociously talented young classical guitarists; what they were, however, was engaged, inspired, and most importantly, musically literate.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Loudoun County Guitar Program

Walking in to Dr Kevin Virgil's classroom at Heritage High School, Leesburg, gives an immediate impression of whole-class teaching; guitars hang on the walls, numbered and ready for action; the class is set in ensemble format, with music stands, chairs and footstools in position; everything is waiting so when the "Artist Class" arrive at 10:35 they are ready to play almost instantly.

What strikes me immediately is the camaraderie these students have with one another; they can be of different year groups within the same ensemble, as ability is the determining factor rather than age, but they are so used to being together and creating music with one another, that it really does appear to give them a special connection.

The American whole-class teaching model, whereby students learn instruments together from the beginning is firmly established; choir, band and orchestra are permanent fixtures as arts subjects and students can opt to take either one of those streams to satisfy their arts credits requirements in the curriculum. What is perhaps less common in the USA as a whole, are guitar programs which offer the same education through the medium of guitar ensemble.

Loudoun County Public Schools, where Heritage High is situated, were among the pioneers of this type of program and I was able to fully immerse myself in 4 days of observations in classes taught by guitarist and non-guitarist teachers, and have in-depth conversations with how the program has developed and been structured.

Guitar classes meet 2 or 3 times a week, depending on the timetable rotation and these classes are usually 90 minutes each time. I can't help but wonder what could be achieved back home in the UK if general music lessons were put in the context of whole-class instrumental teaching; to put the elements of the key stage requirements into this setting would give a practical relevance to everything students need to cover. It's certainly food for thought ...

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Guitar Foundation of America Regional Symposium

The Guitar Foundation of America excites me with its innovation and constant quest to reach out to inspire and support the guitar community across the length and breadth of America. In recent years, as I have watched their growth as an organisation, I have been delighted to see them stepping out more into the community and bringing their expertise to younger players and teachers who have not experienced what the GFA can offer at its annual conference. These more locally-focused events take the form of one-day GFA Regional Symposia, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to one held, for the first time, at Louisville University, Kentucky.

The pervading spirit here is undoubtedly on social music making; opportunities for smaller ensembles to perform, practical 'hands-on' workshops, and the GFA guitar orchestra experience. In addition, participants have the opportunity to play solo pieces and have feedback from the GFA's invited pedagogues. The age range of participants is impressive - from the under 10s to those already studying at University and Conservatoire level - really illustrating the route of progression through the education system.

Particularly interesting for me was to meet members of the St Louis Classical Guitar Society who were there supporting one of their public school guitar programs. In July 2010 they launched their "Guitar Horizons" program into schools in the St Louis area, and since then they have raised funds to supply over 450 classical guitars, with similar numbers of supporting items and equipment such as footstools and music stands, into local schools. The evidence of the impact they are having was plain to see and hear in the St Louis Schools Guitar Ensemble who performed in a showcase concert. These children aged 10 and under, really had achieved something. They were focused, engaged, technically well set-up and most importantly, having fun celebrating their skills. Speaking to the guitar society representatives, I understood that many of these children came from socially deprived areas, and many children are at-risk. This seems to be reinforced as I look further into the demographics; approximately 21% of St Louis children do not complete high school, and the average test scores for schools there are 49% lower than the national average.

What was unexpected for me however, was that these schools are already using the Austin Guitar Society's whole-class curriculum which I will be researching in more depth when I visit them later on in my Fellowship. It's so encouraging to see these networks expanding and the impact of what Austin is doing being actively felt over 800 miles away; putting that into context in the UK, it's an equivalent distance from Lands End to John O'Groats .... and we all know how long that is!

In the spirit of my premise of creating a network of guitarists who exchange ideas and support one-another, it was my absolute pleasure to give a workshop for participants and conduct the GFA guitar orchestra at the symposium. Being actively involved and working with the students really gave me further insight into guitar education in the USA.

(My "Finger-aerobics" session with some of the Symposium participants)

(Children from the St Louis Schools Guitar Ensemble)


Saturday, 18 March 2017

Winston Churchill Fellowship research in USA

I've just arrived in Kentucky for the beginning of my Winston Churchill Fellowship researching guitar education in the USA. My travels will be taking me across America, beginning in Louisville KY and then visiting Loudoun County VA, Los Angeles CA, Austin TX, and Phoenix & Tucson AZ

My focus will be on how the American 'band' model of whole-class tuition is used in the USA to teach guitar and I'll be looking at the development of their programmes of study from the perspectives of curriculum, student engagement and progression, repertoire, training and support (for guitarist and non-guitarist teachers), access to shared resources and on-line networks, programme funding and impacts on social outcomes for students.

Interestingly, back home in the UK, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music's 2014 "Making Music" study reports that more children now learn the classical guitar than any orchestral instrument, and when viewed collectively as a cross-genre instrument, the guitar is the most popular instrument learnt in UK schools today for children aged 5-17, with 38% of the market share. Despite its undeniable popularity, there are still very few opportunities for guitarists to engage in social music making, as the guitar has no role in traditional or orchestral settings. Considering the potential for engagement I find it disturbing that the according to the ABRSM's survey, guitar does not even feature in the 'whole-class ensemble lessons' published figures for schools nationwide.

Conversely, the USA has numerous well-established guitar programmes that would seem to be filling this void and an incredibly active and enlightened national body in the form of the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA); could this provide inspiration and a template to introduce in the UK?

First stop tomorrow is the GFA's regional symposium at the University of Louisville.