Much has been written recently about how music education is declining in schools.  But there’s still a lot to remain positive about. Despite cuts to music education budgets, young people are finding ways to create more music than they were over a decade ago. A recent report by Youth Music found that 67% of young people are making music on a regular basis, as opposed to just 39% in a similar study in 2006. However, the nature of the music making is changing – instrument learning, more traditionally taught in schools, is declining.  Is this solely down to education cuts or is it also time to rethink how to support aspiring music makers?

DIY music education is thriving. Thanks to advances in technology over the past decade, it’s never been easier to create, produce and record your own music, and even release it independently. Many young people are taking advantage of this, but more traditional areas of music learning are not faring so well. GCSE and A Level Music exam entry rates are decreasing annually, and recent research points to a reduction in the music curriculum offer in state secondary schools as a result of the introduction of the EBacc. Instrument playing also takes a significant dip in secondary school. In the Youth Music report, a third of all 7-10-year-olds surveyed said they play an instrument, but only one in four is still playing at the ages of 16-17 and there’s a big gender gap too, with boys much more likely to stop playing by that age.

Is it time for a new approach to teaching music?

Lots of reasons have been cited for the decline of instrument learning, with one of the biggest barriers being financial. Many lower income families (over 40%, according to the MU) simply can’t afford the ongoing costs of instruments and lessons. However, according to the Youth Music report, young people from lower income families are just as likely (sometimes more likely) than others to play an instrument and/or sing, and make music on a computer. Looking at instrument learning more closely, the way music lessons are approached could play an important part in how likely young people are to persist with an instrument. Nathan Holder, professional musician and author of the intriguingly titled book ‘I Wish I Didn’t Quit Music Lessons’, believes that a different, more empathetic approach is needed.  “Music education can be quite one dimensional in its approach,” Nathan says. “Learn these notes. Then learn these notes. Then learn these notes. We should get children to actually talk about music, understand the story behind it. What was it like for this composer at the time?”

Nathan knows what it’s like to feel disengaged when learning an instrument. He started learning the piano from around the age of six years old but stopped at 13.  “I was bored,” he explains. But there were other factors too. His younger sister also began learning piano and was soon more advanced than he was. He was also learning the clarinet, and he felt that it was better suited to him than the piano. “Certain instruments can be lonely. With more portable ones, there’s more opportunities to play with other people, whether in bands, in orchestras or groups.” He agreed with his parents that he’d continue learning the clarinet until he reached Grade 8 standard. By then he’d developed the passion to continue, taking up the saxophone along the way, and began to forge a career as a professional musician and teacher.

How the pressure of learning can take its toll

He wrote the book as a culmination of a few things. When living and working in Germany he would often discuss music with people and eventually ask them if they played an instrument. He would frequently get the response, “I used to play, but I gave up” Pressure is one of the key reasons children give up learning an instrument, according to Nathan. “Pressure comes from parents to hit certain grades, there’s pressure to learn – which can lead to boredom of certain kinds of music, and of practising by themselves.”  He started to teach in a different way to help avoid this. “In Germany, I was teaching a young kid, my German wasn’t great, and I could see that after a certain point the message wasn’t getting through. So, I had to think of other ways to engage him – I’d sing songs with him, encourage him to dance to music and even help him to compose his own pieces. Children already know in their mind what they like.  It’s rarely shown is how they can explore what they like even further. It can leave kids with more questions than answers. Why can’t I explore Tupac, or AC/DC? Why does it have to be Tchaikovsky?”

A black, masculine adult holding a flyer promoting having music lessons as a child.

Nathan Holder, author of “I Wish I Didn’t Quit Music Lessons”

Involving music professionals more

Nathan believes there is a disconnect between music professionals and music education, creating a gap that needs to close. “Many musicians would love to go out and speak to children about what they do. Providing that bit of inspiration would make such a difference. There might be a kid in the room who doesn’t think the teacher understands where they’re coming from, and it could take one person talking about their experiences that resonates with that child. Why not explore music that children listen to outside school, such as grime, trap, death metal? If they can’t hear the music they’re listening to in school, they will think that the lessons in school aren’t for them.”

One organisation that has been helping children do exactly that is Future DJs. Founded by professional DJs Austen and Scott Smart, they visit schools and put on live performances, after which students can register for lessons.

A brown, masculine adult and a white, feminine adult, using a DJ turntable.

Future DJs

DJ decks have been recognised as musical instruments by the AQA exam board since 2018 and can be performed in the same way as a traditional instrument at GCSE level. Future DJs provide visiting tutors to help bring the necessary skills for DJing into the classroom.  “We’re teaching DJ-ing in 35 schools across the UK and have taught over 450 aspiring DJs,” Future DJs sales and marketing manager Claire Le Tissier explains. “This number is rapidly growing as schools are seeing the benefit of connecting young people with their music departments through the music they listen to and understand. Every student who learns with us is a student with a new fascination for music — and potentially a new enthusiasm for studying music further.”

What does the future hold?

Enthusiasm for music will never be dimmed no matter what set of circumstances a young person is in – as Lord Black puts it in a House of Lords debate on music education in October 2018, “Even in the world’s poorest slums , the refugee camps and the disaster areas, people make music and it is central to their lives. It is the most basic but important link to all our past and, if we so believe, paints the most powerful picture of the world beyond.” But no diamond starts off polished – it needs to be honed and refined. The opportunity to have a good and accessible music education at school is needed as much now as it has always been.

Youth Music’s CEO Matt Griffiths describes their report as a ‘call to action’. “It’s time to shake up the way music is perceived, funded and delivered, in order to make it more inclusive, equitable, and relevant to young people’s needs and interests.”


Useful links

Many articles have been written about music education recently.  Here’s some links for further reading:

Why the crisis in music education is a crisis for all (Big Issue)

Incorporated Society of Musicians State of the Nation report

Youth Music – The Sound of the Next Generation

Musicians’ Union – state of play report

House of Lords debate – music education (October 2018)

Natalie Bedeau