In Praise of Music Education in Primary Schools
Posted on 31st March 2023 at 14:53
This month, we hear from Nat Dye, music leader at Newham’s Nelson Primary School, which recently scooped a national award for its outstanding music provision. Nat, who alongside his role is also a youth ensemble leader, conductor and band leader, trombonist, composer and arranger, and performing jazz musician, argues the case for bringing music specialists into schools.
Do you remember making music when you were a child in primary school? I do. I made my Key Stage 1 nativity debut dressed as a star and twirled around as we sang We Three Kings. Despite the nominative determinism of that role, it wasn’t evident that I might be destined for any kind of stardom then or at any stage in my musical education. But nonetheless, I was encouraged to persist. I remember, in Key Stage 2, filing into a small classroom where Mrs Thomas, the school music teacher, presented me with a recorder that had been dipped into some strange blue liquid, with which I (presumably) massacred a few nursery rhymes. But I progressed from those initial godawful squeaks to a place in the school recorder club, where I got to play tenor – the biggest one available!
The author practising trombone as a child, and today
By Year 4, pester power and parental support landed me with a trombone and small group instrumental lessons at school, provided by the local music hub. Within a couple of terms, I was invited to play in the school orchestra, albeit with the most differentiated of parts! I was lucky enough to be in the school choir, which made a most memorable trip, courtesy of said music hub, to the Royal Albert Hall – my first of five such pilgrimages as a student. We waved pom-poms to Susa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, performed a new composition about Iron Man Wilkinson and finished - in true ‘Last Night of the Proms’ style - with Parry’s Jerusalem and the National Anthem.
Fast forward almost three decades and I can proudly call myself a professional conductor, composer/arranger, trombonist, youth band leader, music education writer/consultant and full time primary music teacher. The last of those is going particularly well as Nelson Primary, the state primary school in Newham, East London, where I now lead music, received the award for Outstanding Music Department at the Music and Drama Education Awards in February.
That we, a school serving such a diverse and disadvantaged community, were given such an accolade ahead of a number of elite and selective secondary schools is remarkable and (please allow me a moment to confront my deep seated imposter syndrome) richly deserved. After all, how many primary schools can boast four nativities, a bespoke curriculum including five varieties of whole class instrumental teaching, dedicated Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) music programmes, five choirs, free small group instrumental tuition, senior wind/string ensembles, two rock bands, a Carnatic music group, a digital music club, a full scale annual musical and a fifty piece symphony orchestra that has twice performed at the Royal Albert Hall? I certainly can’t claim all the credit here – the school’s musical journey started well before my time and this award goes out to the whole school community – but it sure helps a primary school to have a music specialist on board.
None of this success has happened by accident. If I hadn’t been provided with those formative musical experiences, I wouldn’t have had any idea how to go about providing them for today’s children who, let’s not forget, will be tomorrow’s musicians and teachers. Moreover, there is no way I would have gone on to become a half decent musician or educator without the spark of belief that Mrs Thomas planted in me all those years ago. Of course, she had a real passion for making and creating music with children, which I’m pretty sure I’ve inherited. Looking back, however, I don’t think she did anything particularly extraordinary and I’m not sure I do now either. But one thing she definitely did was provide opportunities – lots of them.
Pedagogical theory and practice can become really complicated if we’re not careful. But if, as music educators, we put the opportunity for children to creatively make music at the centre of what we do, surely we can’t go far wrong. And those opportunities can take so many forms. Tradition still plays a part in our curriculum and, for my sins, I still teach year 3 recorder and grit my teeth as 120 children attempt to cover the holes properly and belt out Hot Cross Buns. But I also consider it part of my duty as a music teacher to expose the children in my care to a variety of genuine musical experiences. From communal singing to the ‘world music’ staples of West African drumming and Brazilian samba to whole class ukulele and music production, there is a lot of music out there. And at this point, let me be clear – it is very difficult to do anything but scratch the surface of such rich musical experiences without the aid of real life musicians.
I don’t think we need to be specialists in particular musical styles in order to teach them effectively. And I know plenty of primary class teachers who are also experienced and active musicians in their own right – we are lucky to have at least five. But I am living proof that even, no – especially – at primary level, being taught by specialist music teachers makes a real, measurable and fundamental difference to children’s education. That is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Sure – non-music specialists can and do run school orchestras. But you won’t find many prepared to spend their holidays working on arrangements tailored to the specific needs of an ensemble or go all in to produce performance outcomes that are not just tolerable but musical and genuinely enjoyable for the audience. It’s also possible for a class teacher to lead, say, a successful improvisation lesson. But it is not easy to scaffold those first few steps that help all children gain the confidence to find their musical voice. However, if you’ve employed an experienced jazz musician fresh from a gig or jam the night before, you have a clear head start.
So, to the musicians and music teachers reading this, I urge you to consider working in primary schools – perhaps running workshops could be a good way in! I can guarantee that it’s just as gratifying to see the face of a child taking their first steps towards being a musician as it is to see that former student you once got through Grade 8 on a professional stage. It could be argued that you’re also doing more good for an endangered musical ecosystem. If you’re a school leader, I may be preaching to the converted here, but please, please, invest in the services of specialist music teachers. All our children deserve a high quality musical education and it is within your gift to provide it. You never know – one or two former pupils might reach their mid-thirties and fondly recall not just your name, but the musical opportunities and experiences that changed their lives.
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