When resources are tight why not turn to the voice?

Rather than buying musical instruments, investment in teachers and singing should be the focus, says Helen Wallace


There’s been a great deal of instrument talk of late. There was James Rhodes’s Don’t Stop the Music on Channel 4 (below), which launched his ‘Donate an Instrument’ campaign. There was the ABRSM’s research that revealed the guitar has overtaken the violin as the instrument of choice for British youth. And only three years ago Michael Gove was promising to ensure every child in the country had the opportunity to learn an instrument.

Lots of instruments, then. And not much music. Don’t get me wrong, I love instruments: I play instruments. It would be hypocritical of me to suggest anyone be denied that pleasure and challenge. But music is more important to me. And you don’t need instruments to make music.

The fact is that every child already has an instrument, cost-free: their own voice. If half the meagre resources currently available were spent on expertly-led choral singing in primary schools, every single child could experience music of a quality, variety and sophistication impossible to achieve with a motley collection of instruments played by children in the early stages of mastering them.



If resources are tight (which they are) and you want to deliver a high quality music education, the priority shouldn’t be instruments, but a specialist music teacher. The charismatic pianist Rhodes is right to highlight the issue, and does so effectively, but betrays too narrow a view of the subject. Gareth Malone was not the first to prove that musicianship, harmony, ensemble and music history could be taught through singing. Parents are often the problem, equating a school that is ‘good’ at music with a school that offers lots of instruments. I wonder what Stephen Cleobury at King’s College, Cambridge would have to say about that? Or the incredible National Youth Choir of Scotland? Or even, let’s face it, the jury of The Voice?

It shouldn’t, of course, have to be an either/or situation. What bothers me is the way that singing is either ignored or viewed as a begrudging second best. Rhodes declares he is ‘fighting to save music education’, but he actually seems to be collecting a heap of instruments. The million dollar question is, what next? Anyone heard of the 10,000 hours of practice needed to master one of these?  Who’s going to inspire kids to do that, consistently, over several years, if there’s only £2.20 available for each child per year for music? As we heard on the programme, a music hub can offer 10 weeks of whole class tuition: then what?

The success of El Sistema’s method relies on practice sessions and ensembles at least four times a week, long term. It’s brilliant, it works – and it costs. The hard truth is that not every school is going to get such a programme. So we have to ask the question: do we want instrumentalists or do we want musicians? They may not be as shiny as a heap of trumpets and violins, but the future of music lies with the specialist music teachers who can unlock the instrument all children are born with.




What does the ABRSM’s latest report say about music education?

What the government’s reforms to GCSE Music actually mean


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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