A response to Charlotte Gill’s article on music education in The Guardian, 27/3/17

It’s time for another blog post, and as a career musician (albeit one still taking baby steps into the professional world), I figured it was probably about time I wrote something about music. I was given the perfect excuse last Monday: a disgustingly anti-intellectual article entitled ‘Music edication is now only for the white and the wealthy’ was published in The Guardian newspaper. A link to it can be found here.

Like a good number of others online have done (more on that later), I would like to give my own two cents on it. There are already a wealth of responses online to the content of the article, so while I take great issues with the article’s message and a lot of individual statements, I want to spend time homing in on the problems with it as journalism. What’s this that I hear you say? “George, you’re not a journalist! What do you know about how to write an opinion article?” Well, I’m definitely not a journalist and maybe I know nothing about writing, but if a self-professed non-expert in my field can deplore and write off the way generations of children and adults have taught and learned to engage with music, then I, the self-professed non-expert on journalism, can at least respond to the way in which Charlotte Gill expressed her opinions, if not take the time to offer my opinion on her approach to journalism to state why I think it is harmful and misleading to its’ readership.

The biggest problem with this piece as journalism is its poor handling of evidence (or lack thereof). It falls into the awful trap of skimping on evidence due to being an opinion piece. It gives some limited and irrelevant facts and figures and then interprets those figures with subjectivism, citing no sources. Exhibit A: the number of students taking music at GCSE and A-level has dropped by about 9% as teachers homed in on “academic” subjects.” Here, Gill gives a numerical fact that may or may not be correct and accurately quoted, but is irrelevant to her message; she then blames it on something directly counter to her article’s message. Her intended message is that music is being taught in a non-inclusive way, and she in advance of reaching that point, cites the slightly lower uptake on A level and GCSE Music as evidence for this. She then here unwittingly admits that the explanation for her so-called evidence is that teachers and government education policy are focusing on more ‘academic’ subjects and the English Baccalaureate.

 

My question here to Gill is this: is she saying that the lack of focus on music in schools in favour of academic subjects is the cause of this allegedly non-inclusive music curriculum? Or are the two things unrelated contributors to the same problem? In the case of the former, she has either made a rather illogical link between fewer hours and finances put into music and a more advanced curriculum, or she has just unfoundedly accused the nation’s teachers collectively of lazy planning and non-inclusive teaching. In the case of the latter, she is padding out the article by picking out a figure loosely related to her point, and paints her point as the sole culprit of a problem that she herself admits as actually being caused by other things. Regardless of how this was intended, or how anyone chooses to interpret it, this unusual misuse of evidence serves only to make her journalism less compelling, and more harmful to readers who deserve to be better informed.

 

The next problem with Gill’s article is her tendency to make logical leaps from personal experience to conclusions about policy. These leaps are intertwined with a failure to acknowledge or properly explain what music notation is, instead resorting to deliberately bamboozling comparisons of complexity. For example:

“[Music notation] is a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education. Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.

I know this because I struggled enormously to read notation as a child, meaning that my enthusiasm for music was not registered at primary level. At secondary school, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who picked up on my passion. One day he pulled me aside, and said “you like music, don’t you?” before throwing me into two choirs, as well as singing and piano lessons. I learned Mozart, West Side Story and can now sing in Latin, German and Italian, eventually getting my grade 8.”

Comparing music notation to Latin is like comparing computer coding to hieroglyphs. All of these things feature an infinite sliding scale of complexity in educational applications, which can be learned at surface level by anyone in the time available in school lessons or can be explored for years with commitment. This choice of comparison does two things: firstly, it further stigmatises music notation as a skill by drastically overstating its intellectual requirement to people who have not learned the basics, and secondly it reveals the writer’s own ignorance on the subject by clumsily setting those academic standards out of her own reach. She also sets up further self-contradiction: in this article she talks about musical notation as a secret, spooky language that only the gifted can understand, but at other points she states and criticises the fact that a large number of people who have achieved success in music receive(d) additional lessons (her twisted statement of the blatantly obvious fact that most members of the National Children’s Orchestra receive private lessons on their instruments serves as a further egregious example of misleading with bad evidence). In other words, she contradicts herself by stating that musical notation is simultaneously accessible to only those who magically understand it, and accessible to those with access to education on it. Either way, she sets this up in order to stigmatise both the gifted and the fortunate, while going well out of her way to act like music-reading isn’t a gift worth having (spoiler: it’s no magic unimpartable gift, and it very much is worth having). Either way, this failure of coherence serves only to artificially push the writer’s blindly principled agenda; another example of bad and harmful journalism aimed at people who deserve to be better informed.

I won’t do my own readers the disrespect of explaining the problems with the cliché she invokes by saying ‘I know this because it happened to me this way.’

On the topic of stigma, I also take huge issue with her careful choice of reference to “private education.” In all instances, she is referring to those who have private lessons on their instruments. She carefully refers to this as “private education” in order to lump the recipients of instrumental lessons with the stereotypical disconnected elite attendees of expensive private and boarding schools. Opinions on that culture can be set aside here as they are irrelevant, but in this instance to lump all recipients of singing/instrumental lessons with those stereotypes is unfairly misleading and to some people could border on offensive. Consider also that the difference between the recipients of music lessons and the vast majority of other people isn’t the lack of access to these lessons or the lack of funds for them, it is the choice to do other things; those who do not receive private music lessons may pay membership for a sports team or other coaching (such as swimming lessons or martial arts), or may invest in other hobbies such as visual arts or gaming. I respect that there are many people who can’t afford any of these luxuries, and a few who can afford multiples at once, but the majority of families who invest their time and money into one of these kinds of pastimes for their children could afford to exchange them for music lessons – yet she would never label recipients of swimming lessons or football coaching as bourgeoisie elite. It is deplorable that she stigmatises young trained musicians like this when their financial and educational situations are probably no more or less advantaged overall than anyone else. This lumped labelling intends to create a weighted impression in its’ readership of the groups it gives opinions on; the opinions it seeks to sew are nothing short of unjust prejudice. This is a further example of how harmful this journalism is.

It by now probably goes without saying that I also disagree with this writer’s message as strongly as I disagree with her despicable writing tactics and failure as a journalist. I can’t personally find better words to argue against it than the letter in this blog post, which as been compiled for publication in the Guardian in response to Gill’s article, and has since gained over 300 signatories. Many of the signatories are impressive with their accolades and positions, and that is excellent and welcome support for the worthy cause of making clear how ill-informed and harmful this article is. When people read this letter in the newspaper or read about it online, they will eventually come to that list of 300 decorated names, which is wonderful, but what if it was 3,000 or 300,000? Intellectual responses to anti-intellectualism sadly (and wrongly) don’t always do the job of convincing those who need convincing. Suppose that we could fill that list of names with thousands more musicians – including, crucially, those who are, like me, still making their baby steps into the professional musical world. After seeing the names of industry celebrities next to students, small time pros and freelancers alike, would the message then not speak even louder to those who arbitrarily shun the high achievers instead of following their footsteps and guidance into achievement? Add your name to the signatories, and don’t be afraid to put your support next to the deservingly decorated names also on the list; Charlotte Gill’s ill-informed, anti-intellectualist agenda deserves the response of all musicians.

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