Now more than ever with the difficult financial climate that many people find themselves in, families are restricting their expenditure to the absolute bare minimum. As part of a cost-cutting exercise, it will come as no surprise that music tuition is often viewed as a "luxury" that a family budget can do without. The question that needs to be asked, however, is why is instrumental tuition viewed so readily as an expendable extra?
The answer to this can surely be found within the educational establishment itself and rooted in a parents own experience. How many of us of a certain age can honestly say that the music department was anything other than the poor relation in tertiary education? Along with art, many schools, well into the eighties, would pay nothing more than lip service to music and the arts and inevitably these departments would be starved of both resources and school real estate. For too long the educational establishment has viewed mathematics and English as the ultimate expression of what true learning was all about. In my view this has neither been fair or accurate. I would like to share my thoughts on how the pursuit of artistic expression through music has enriched my own life far beyond the parameters of what is normally expected and how this has impacted on the people I have performed to and taught over the years.
Music is in many ways a solitary endeavour. You practice, by and large, on your own. You compose or arrange on your own and you may even perform on your own. With the advent of the world wide web and the digital revolution this solitude has been magnified even further, but there is another side to this coin. When I started playing guitar at school I quickly started making musical connections. I was introduced to a wide circle of people who I had little or no contact with before. This really helped me reach out to a different social strata, widening my circle of friends and broadened my understanding of how different people inhabit various interest groups and bring differing things to the party. More than that, through playing in bands and various ensembles I, along with my fellow musicians, had to work together, stressing the importance of team work; an invaluable lesson. This went further than just the ultimate aim of playing tight as a band or orchestra. Setting up practices, performances, making arrangements that needed to be kept were all part of the experience.
This is a huge area that had a big impact on people of my age, furthering their ability to work with others and learning organisational skills. In this age of gaming and the reclusive nature of the whole online experience, music making and learning should once more be brought to the fore as a way of helping children understand relationships. Building friendships based around something much more nourishing and enriching than killing zombies or faceless enemies with online "friends" you'll never meet seems a much better idea to me.
Again, with the onslaught of the Internet and in particular video, there has been some interesting research bleeding out about the effect that this stimuli is having on how people's (and in particular children's) brains are developing. It's probably too early to have a definitive take on these studies, but the initial research is not good. More and more people are adapting to having information on tap and some researchers are suggesting that people are no longer memorising information as they used to as they know all the answers are right there on the web... until the electricity is pulled that is.
In learning music, there is no doubt that memorisation is a very big part of the whole process. Not only in the learning of symbols and the written word, but also in engaging muscle memory and the memorisation of movements relating to the instrument being played. You just can't "buy this in the shops", and this I feel is one of the most crucial areas of playing an instrument that needs to be shouted out loud and clear to parents. The mainstream media may not view these things as any big deal, but from a learning perspective, I am convinced that the rigour needed to play music well has an impact on all areas of our learning.
My reference to video in this area relates primarily to the dwindling attention spans that Youtube culture promotes. Take a look at the statistics which Youtube creates for video retention spans and you'll see that in most cases fifty percent have moved on within twenty five seconds. People are skimming more than ever, cherry picking the bits they want and throwing out the rest. Is this a good or a bad thing? My gut feeling is that is a bad thing, however, perhaps further research will show it matters not a jot. I instinctively feel, however, that the brain when not used, or when only used in a particular way, sets a pattern or template for how we take other information in. The need to concentrate, to be still, to be in the moment and to focus on the music is something that is a gift and one that we need to make more, excuse the pun, noise about!
I am ending this article with a story from my own teenage years regarding music. At that time, I was big on Led Zeppelin. I remember that a friend came to the house and excitedly exclaimed that the film "The Song Remains The Same" was showing at his school. Later that week we all scuttled off and the school hall was packed for the showing of Led Zeppelin playing live on the big screen. This might sound like it was pre-war, but I'm only talking about the early eighties such has been the change in how media is approached and consumed. Anyway, about a week later I was in a local record shop and could not believe my luck. There lying at the back of one of the record racks was the double album "The Song Remains The Same". I hid it as best I could and saved for three days including not spending my dinner money. When I went back I thought the album had been sold, but at the last minute I found it in a different part of the shop and was elated! On the bus home I read the sleeve notes then played it over and over for months. My point to this story? Well, now if you want that album, you go on iTunes, download it and bang... next! Where is the expectation in that, if you want it then get it and there are no barriers except money or knowing a pal who will share it. The creation of music and the execution of musical ideas whether complex or simple, still needs work and through that work children learn expectation and hopefully appreciation when they finally achieve their musical goal.
In an age of media deluge and shortening attention spans, let's remember that learning to play a musical instrument, regardless of level, is a force multiplier across a myriad of skills. As musicians and teachers of music, we need to let society at large understand and appreciate the bigger picture about music and it's lifelong benefits.
Ged Brockie is a professional guitarist, composer and educator and his work including numerous recordings and DVD productions including his own band and many varied ensembles. Ged is one of the directors behind the Edinburgh Guitar & Music Festival taking place at the end of May 2013.