Young people don’t have to be the next Mozart to gain benefits from music education. They don’t have to spend all day working on their musical theory or their scales; and they don’t even have to be in a traditional education-focussed environment.
This is according to new research by Music Generation, Ireland's national music education programme, which aims to change the way Ireland looks at music education for children and young people.
The programme was founded to try to complete the jigsaw of music education in Ireland because while music has always been on the curriculum, there was no real access to “performance” music education.
Rosaleen Molloy, national director of Music Generation, says the "lightbulb moment" came when they began to examine in detail how music is impacting on young people in very different ways. "There is more than one way that we can engage children and young people in music education. It's not just about taking piano lessons and doing graded exams.
“It can be a live musician engaging in improvisation with three-year-olds in a childcare facility. It can be a group of teenagers in a rural part of the country who might have access to traditional music but who want to be in a rock band, having access to a professional musician and the instruments needed to create rock music.”
The research, Possible Selves in Music, was commissioned in partnership with Dublin City University and undertaken by postdoctoral researcher Thomas Johnston, who travelled around the country to look at how musical experiences impacted the lives of young people at Music Generation centres.
Johnston found there is no single right way to approach music education. Instead, diverse approaches to music education across all genres is necessary to provide positive experiences for young people.
Principal investigator Dr Patricia Flynn says Ireland has been aiming to achieve this for more than 80 years through its education strategy, but that it is only now with Music Generation it is coming close to success.
"It's something we've been trying to achieve since the 1930s when the Vocational Education Act was revised by minister Richard Mulcahy to include the formation of choirs and orchestras within the VEC," she says.
“We just never managed to create a country-wide provision for performance and music education, where children are engaging with instruments. This was because people had other priorities in education, or sometimes it got off the ground in some parts of the country and you ended up with some really good practice happening patchily.”
However, she says that Ireland’s delay in getting to grips with music education has turned out to be beneficial in the long-term.
“When we looked at the research we realised there was a benefit to Music Generation in setting up this infrastructure in performance music education now, because we could take advantage of 21st-century understandings of what music is in people’s lives, as being part of communities, and building communities,” she says. “If we’d developed this at an earlier time we wouldn’t have had the same diversity and inclusivity as we do today.”
Flynn says that countries across Europe are now looking at Music Generation-style teaching as an option, but struggling to implement it because classical methods of teaching music have become deeply entrenched.
"Greece is looking at Music Generation and wondering whether it's a possibility to roll out there. When your music school has been based on classical ideas for so long, it's very hard to change that," she says.
Music Generation was initiated by Music Network, and is cofunded by U2, The Ireland Funds, the Department of Education and Skills and local music education partnerships.
It aims to ensure that children and young people, regardless of their background, have access to music education. Those who support the organisation are hopeful that the future of music in Ireland will be brighter as a result of this increased access.
"It's really interesting that some of the funding has come from U2, because U2 couldn't have done it without being let into Mount Temple [school] to practice at odd hours," says Dr Flynn.
“You’d hope that Music Generation would create that same space for any child or young person who wanted to engage with it, as a classical musician or in trad, or jazz, or a singer in a choir, across all those genres.”
Molloy adds that the research will influence how Music Generation operates in the coming years.
“As a very rigorous academic document this goes very deeply into the ‘how’ of Music Generation. This is not an evaluation report. This is a very new way for music education in Ireland,” says Molloy.
“It has identified different ways in which children can engage across different types of music education activities. It is revealing an entire new model for how a range of partners can come together to make something valuable happen. It’s very much a guidance document that we will refer to over the next five years.”
“Diversity permeates how we’re doing this. That’s what’s so revolutionary about it,” she adds. “This has never really been done before, not just in Ireland but internationally.”
Case study: Steve Ryan
‘We don’t give lessons ... It’s down to creative self-expression’
Steve Ryan has been working as a tutor with Music Generation in Limerick for several years. Having been interested in music since his childhood – "One of my uncles gave me an electric guitar and once that happened there was no going back for me," he says – Ryan believes that the organisation offers huge benefits for the young people he works with.
“It’s down to creative self-expression. We don’t give lessons. There are people who do that, but we’re not about that,” he says. “These kids have something musical within them that they mightn’t have realised yet and we help them with the realisation of that musical ability. We show them how to use that in a creative way that might help them to express whatever they want to express.”
As a local musician and member of critically acclaimed band Windings, Ryan brings his experience of writing, recording and releasing albums to his students.
“There’s an aspect of forming a musical community with Music Generation and obviously being from Limerick that’s something I would push for, keeping the musical community going to the next generation.”
He says that he feels lucky to be able to work with young people whose lives can be changed by what Music Generation offers.
“We have young people who came into us and it looked like they weren’t going to interact for up to six weeks, they didn’t want to talk, and then maybe they would come to us on the seventh week and say ‘I have these two chords’. That is such a major breakthrough for that to happen. And then you realise okay, what we’re doing, this works,” he says.
“This kind of work can bring people out of themselves in a positive way. That’s how I see our role, basically. Giving them the platform to find that within themselves and to know it’s a safe space and a positive environment to work in,” he adds.