As a young person, I didn’t excel academically. However, music was an area that I did feel comfortable with – a subject that came naturally to me and a learning environment that I could relate to. I was one of the privileged few who had the gift of a private music education. I will be forever grateful to my parents for the sacrifices they made to make that happen for me, but instrumental tuition should not be something families need to make sacrifices for.
I arrived in New York as a visiting research scholar. With my violin on my back, and no community to slip into, I went in search of one. I joined the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra for amateur and professional musicians. My private music education was my prepaid price of admission to this wonderful music community.
I have watched musician friends do the same all over the world – in some cases, they didn’t speak the language, but they could read music and speak that language together with the local orchestra or ensemble.
It’s fascinating how much more inclined one is to celebrate all things Irish when you are away from home. I adore chatting to New Yorkers about our rich Irish culture and heritage, and successive Irish governments have done a wonderful job of championing Irish talent on the international stage and should be applauded.
We have a lot in common with the US regarding our provision for music education. There are pockets of wonderful projects and initiatives throughout the country where all children in the school receive instrumental tuition, and areas where there is little to nothing. Until we properly resource music education it will continue to be the luck of the draw depending on whether or not you live near these schools.
Baltimore Symphony has just appointed a new music director. Jonathan Heyward comes from a lower socioeconomic background and was first exposed to music during a free state school programme in his native South Carolina where he was taught the cello.
Heyward, the son of an African-American father and a white mother, will be the first person of colour to lead the orchestra in its 106-year history. As of the 2020 census, Black or African-American people make up 62.3 per cent of the population in Baltimore.
Every child should be equipped with the necessary skills and literacy required to express themselves in whatever genre they chose.
Music is the one subject aligned to literacy that can bring value to the whole of our lives. Increased music practice and an early start to music training (at about five years of age) are associated with better speech-sound analysis in the brain. ).
Self-belief, confidence and creativity are all areas we see young people struggling with. Music is unique in the benefits it can bring to the whole person. I began learning music through the Suzuki approach and, as Dr Shinichi Suzuki says, “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.”
We have a country full of accomplished musicians and music educators. Why are these people not delivering our national music curriculum? Primary schoolteachers in Ireland continue to be left in the uncomfortable position whereby they are required to teach a subject they have little expertise in.
Primary schoolteachers feel inadequately prepared to deliver music lessons, and the subject causes them a sense of anxiety due to their lack of expertise.
Children could be receiving a much more holistic experience if the subject were to be taught by music educators. This is the biggest difference I have found when we compare the US music education model to our own. Here in the US, it is the norm that where music is taught in a school it is done by a qualified music teacher.
I have discussed and debated the idea of formal music education and how it should be delivered with a wide range of artists, teachers, administrators, activists and stakeholders. While there are differing views regarding how music should be taught, there is no doubt it should be accessible to everyone.
Changes in access to music education come about because of people like Weston Sprott, dean of the Juilliard School’s preparatory division. Sprott oversees the music advancement programme that was recently gifted $50 million to target racial disparities in music. Sprott, who is African-American, said, “Classical music can’t be the best it can be without these young people that we’re bringing into our programmes.”
Now let’s look a little closer to home. Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Switzerland all provide music education most Irish students can only dream of. In Switzerland, a law was passed in 2014 in favour of providing music education including instrumental tuition to all children, as the result of a referendum. This right is enshrined in article 67a of the Swiss Constitution.
The difficulty we face today is that those with access to music education, and more specifically instrumental music education, are generally middle to upper-middle class and experience no difficulty with the status quo. No pressure has been put on successive governments to make any changes.
How often do we hear people say “I wish I learned to play an instrument”? We need a strong, co-ordinated public campaign to ensure every child in Ireland can access the life-changing benefits of music education. Few politicians will argue with this but public apathy equals political apathy.
Grace Tallon is executive director of Newpark Academy of Music