21st Century Music Education
By Nik Preston, sponsored by RSL (Rockschool Limited)
I often come across classically trained educators who are seeing diminishing returns in student enrollment, engagement, and retention from classical music provision and are looking at diversifying into the growth areas: contemporary music and music production.
Marking a clear delineation between where one genre starts and another begins can be an almost impossible and often fruitless task in the main, and as you have heard in various political rhetoric in recent times, “There is more that unites us than that which divides us.” The same is true for musicians.
The vast majority of music’s fundamentals transcend genre, but at certain areas there is a natural divergence necessary, based on idiomatic requirements.
When I ask students and even teachers to articulate the differences in role between a “classical” and a “contemporary” musician, you’ll often hear responses which include:
- “Contemporary musicians improvise; classical musicians don’t.”
- “Classical musicians sight read; not all contemporary musicians do.”
- “Contemporary musicians have better ears.”
And so on…
In individual instances, there may be truth to these assertions, but the roles fundamentally distinguish themselves inasmuch as a contemporary musician is predominantly responsible for creating her own instrument or vocal parts, whereas her classical counterpart is responsible for performing parts composed by others. In order for the contemporary musician to accomplish this feat, it is necessary to imitate, assimilate, and analyse the performances of their chosen exemplars.
If we use the role of a professional musician to inform the pedagogy that precedes the attainment of such advanced levels, it becomes clear that the contemporary musician must have a stylistic awareness which transcends that of her own discipline in order to create and perform idiomatically appropriate parts. Stylistic awareness is the sum total of our harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic understanding, in addition to our understanding of appropriate production values. (A modern bass player needs to have an innate awareness of the role of the drummer in order to augment the ensemble suitably, in addition to understanding the role of the harmony instruments and the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic nuance inherent in the composition. All of this whilst also having a fundamental understanding of suitable equipment choices and production values).
The role of music education is ultimately to endow students with the skills, knowledge and understanding necessary to create and perform at the highest level possible – based on the student’s ambition.
The classical musician, however, may well need an in-depth knowledge of the physical performance aspects of particular repertoire and the notational understanding which allows for the accurate recreation of the parts without the need for transcription.
The role of music education is ultimately to endow students with the skills, knowledge and understanding necessary to create and perform at the highest level possible – based on the student’s ambition. In the contemporary world this requires a more comprehensive and relevant understanding of contemporary theory and harmony than that currently purveying the classrooms of many school music teachers.
With that said, we learn to speak our native language first and then learn to comprehend the written aspects of said language afterwards. There is a great deal to be said for employing similar approaches to contemporary music pedagogy, i.e., learn to perform first and then subsequently become acquainted with the stave. This is a tradition that you often see employed in many of the vast genres which form the “world music” idiom and can lead musicians to be able to express themselves musically earlier than those who were introduced to the stave as the primary stimulus for playing one’s instrument. But, to adopt only one approach, at the exclusion of others, is folly and potentially places the student’s development at a disadvantage. To my mind, this is a huge factor in why so many children choose to cease learning instruments and indeed sometimes don’t achieve their potential in academic subjects: not having been introduced to enough approaches to learning and development.
We at RSL believe strongly that all skills necessary to perform music, of any genre, are crucial to ensure engagement and retention of 21st century musicians; this includes: technique, analysis & stylistic awareness, aural development, sight reading, composition, arrangement, theory, harmony, improvisation, and music production.
The ability to hear, play, and articulate intervals relative to chords is vital if a contemporary musician is to amass a working vocabulary, and in a relatively small time, any musician can gain a comprehensive knowledge of all intervals and chord types, in all keys.
Whilst it is beyond the scope of this article to investigate teaching methods for each of these, I can highlight a fundamental often found missing (understandably) from classical music pedagogy in the UK for school-age children and is vital for the attainment of the aspiring contemporary musician—the knowledge of intervals relative to chord types. This is a fundamental that will inform and support the development of each of the other areas listed above, but is sadly lacking in the UK.
The ability to hear, play, and articulate intervals relative to chords is vital if a contemporary musician is to amass a working vocabulary, and in a relatively small time, any musician can gain a comprehensive knowledge of all intervals and chord types, in all keys. I truly believe, were more musicians subjected to this concept at an earlier age, retention and attainment would improve at an astonishing rate, and the student’s ultimate ability to create music (one of the strongest selling propositions of their contemporary music exemplars) could continue uninhibited.
About the author:
Nik Preston is a renowned educator having tutored members of Lawson, Ed Sheeran, Jeff Beck’s band, Jess Glynn’s band, The Pet Shop Boys, The National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and Camilla Kerslake. Currently Director of Academic Affairs and Publishing at RSL, Nik is a professional musician with performance credits including Anastacia, Billy Cobham, Imelda May, Julian Lloyd Webber. Nik has authored multiple degree programmes for HEIs, Level 3 programmes for FE, graded syllabi and vocational qualifications for awarding organisations. Nik has also authored more than 40 published music education texts, is a regular columnist for Bass Guitar Magazine (Future plc) and is a trustee for the Corps of Army Music—Europe’s largest single employer of full-time musicians.
RSL was a Gold Sponsor of the 2017 National In-Service Conference, which took place November 2017 in Dallas, TX. The 2018 conference will take place November 11-14, 2018, in Dallas, TX; sponsor and exhibitor opportunities are available. If interested, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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