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The three Es of great school music

The three Es of great school music

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way in which a musical culture is created in schools.  The values displayed by music teachers can have a huge impact on the way our pupils behave and I’ve come to the conclusion there are three values that have a particular impact: engagement, excellence and equality.

Some definitions

In the spirit of a clichéd presentation, I’ll take a moment to explain what I mean by each.  
Engagement is the value that teachers place on getting pupils to enjoy their music lessons and being around the music department in general.   Examples: Efforts to increase the number of pupils who take music for GCSE, rallying up extra choir members, encouraging pupils to use practice rooms at lunch.  
Excellence is placing value on the quality of the music that the pupils make.   Examples: Insisting that your orchestra members play the staccato phrase perfectly, refusing to accept a poor attitude to learning, not accepting unfinished compositions.  
Equality is assigning the same value to all pupils, all types of musician and all types of music.   Examples: Treating violinists and beatboxers with the same respect for their musicianship.  Taking an interest in the musical interests of all pupils.  Encouraging fledgling musicians who don’t take private lessons.

Where these values can go wrong

It’s possible to build a music department with an overemphasis on one of these values.  Where this happens, you may well find that you’ve developed one of the following cultures in your school:

Over-emphasis on engagement  

Focusing on engagement at the expense of excellence can lead to a school where pupils happily turn up to the music department but they achieve little.  They may enjoy making a few loud noises but their musical accomplishments are limited.  Perhaps they enjoy lessons but they don’t identify themselves as being musicians.  

Over-emphasis on excellence  

Pushing for excellence without building in engagement and equality can lead to a culture with a ‘snobbish’ feeling, with an impenetrable clique of core pupils who see themselves as ‘the musicians’.  You may have a very successful orchestra or an amazing rock band but there’s a sense that music is ‘for some’ rather than ‘for all’.  Worst of all, this core of pupils may actively try to exclude the ‘non-musicians’ from ensembles and even choosing the subject at KS4/5.  

Over-emphasis on equality  

Emphasising equality over excellence and engagement can be problematic too.  While you will certainly want to encourage different styles of music and musicianship, a turntablist probably has limited function in your orchestra’s rendition of a Mozart symphony.  Such endeavours can work really well and can help an ensemble to create a unique identity but this may prevent pupils from experiencing a broad range of music.  It’s even possible that an overemphasis on equality can lead to less actual equality (does including a piccolo player in a dubstep group grant equality to the piccolo player or take equality away from the rest of the ensemble?).  

Finding the balance

Each school will need to find its own balance when it comes to making use of the three Es but I’m confident that the best (and most successful) music departments have probably crafted a musical culture that combines a healthy dose of each one.