The violinist Nicola Benedetti wrote an interesting piece for the ATL magazine (‘Final Word’, March 2018) on the educational-developmental value of learning a musical instrument. She is entirely correct, that pursuing such a discipline (and never was a word more appropriate) from an early age is an excellent catalyst to wider learning. It is also a lot harder than many classroom subjects.
For me, learning to play an instrument embodies all the essential qualities of good education:
- The challenge to learn a complex practical/technical skill.
- The need to acquire (and often commit to memory) a large body of detailed knowledge.
- The need to understand (and apply) complex theoretic underpinnings.
- Small scale technical and intellectual challenges to master in the service of…
- …a much larger ‘whole’ whose effect depends on those niceties , but also the ability to appreciate a higher level over-view.
- A combination of hands-on practical learning and received wisdom from an accomplished exponent.
- The complete fusing of those technical elements with the objective of an expressive, aesthetically-rich end-product.
- The possibility of experiencing ‘flow‘ in the process.
- The ability to deploy the skills acquired in original, creative ways.
- An immediate and very informative (audible) feedback by which to judge one’s efforts and make considered improvements.
- An objective that is (almost) entirely intrinsic – making music is principally its own, deeply satisfying reward.
- In addition, one might add significant personal development in the challenge of performing to (and thereby communicating with) other people.
After a long break, I have resumed playing my own instruments (at last, the inner ‘spark’ has recovered enough to make this needed…) and all over again I am being reminded of the inherent truths in the above. I have ‘gone back to school’ in another way too: I am now about a third of the way through an online diploma in interior design, which has always been an interest and ambition of mine. Again, the experience of being a learner (complete with tutor, student number and deadlines to meet) is proving informative.
In a rather different way, this subject is also a combination of the technical and the creative, and it is also very satisfying. But while the usual scaffolding of learning objectives, assessment criteria and more are present, it is the sheer affective reward that is making it worth doing. Personally, I need nothing more to re-convince me of the value of the kind of intrinsic-worth education I have always advocated – and on which I thought I would be drawing when I entered the teaching profession.
I would go further: in order to appreciate this, one needs to be back in the position of learner oneself. I am toying (purely theoretically) with the idea that all trainee teachers – if not others too – should be encouraged, or even required, to learn something new for themselves as part of their professional development. (Shock-horror! We might need to grant teachers sabbaticals to allow them to do this….)
There really is no better way of appreciating what education is ‘for’. Doing this reveals the innate truths of the matter, and in so-doing also exposes the endless techno-babble that now surrounds formal education for the needless froth that it is.
One can only appreciate these things by doing them – but once done, no further justification is often needed for either the process or the purpose.
Trying to describe this to those who have never felt it for themselves is like trying to describe colour to the blind – which is probably why it is precisely the subjects that offer the most intense experiences of this kind that are under constant threat from the philistines who now largely seem to run state education in Britain. (The independent sector has always known rather differently of course, and the arts seem to remain valued in those schools and with those parents). I’m inclined to suspect that those who regularly reduce education to bean-counting and conveyor-belt monotony either have never felt these things, or did so such a long time ago that they have forgotten: the richness before their very eyes suffocated beneath the weight of targets and techno-rubbish that they typically seem to live and breathe.
It would be satisfying to end by saying that is only their loss – but unfortunately, it is not true.