The arts exist for our moral and intellectual benefit. They stand as testament to the human condition. We need the arts to understand the past, to live the present and prepare for the future. They are a platform for innovation. Yet many governments fail to ensure that children receive a basic arts education. Music is basic.
At a time when technology dazzles and cash is short, music seems to get the worst deal in the class room. Musicians themselves are often at fault. Few are good ambassadors for their art. Too few see their skills as a gift to be shared. Too few understand that we all have the right to make music. It is not a question of talent.
But, of course, it is wrong to blame the musicians only. Ministers and administrators who are responsible for policy need to be convinced. Many will have memories of music lessons involving grim struggles with out-of-tune recorders in uninspiring music rooms or of stories of the great composers` lives without understanding anything of their music. With this sort of experience, it must be very hard to appreciate that music education has any benefits for society in general.
But music is vital for so many areas of human development, not least for the imagination. Another benefit which is so often ignored, even by advocates of music education, is that it develops social skills. Every performance involves working with others, learning to compromise, to take reasonability, to share the success and share the failures. School should equip us with these survival tools for life. Yet what most school systems test is not fitness for society but the amount of information retained for exams and then quickly forgotten.
Cramming information is no longer good enough. It was good enough in the industrial revolution to get a boy out of the gutter and on to a clerk’s bench. But not today. Neither is the teacher any longer the only font of knowledge. Thanks to the internet, knowledge can be gained easily from any number of sources which are broader and probably more reliable than the teacher can offer. What can’t be understood without guidance is what to do with knowledge once it has been obtained. How to evaluate it. How to develop it. How to implement it. How to turn it to profit. This requires imagination, trust and the ability to work with others.
Yet, these aspects are almost entirely ignored in primary and secondary schooling in countries such as Poland. Where are the performing arts, the team sports, the shared objectives? True, historians rarely comment on the childhood sporting activities of the great composers. Probably there were none. The reinvention of team sports as part of school life and character building was a 19th century English obsession which served the Empire well. But we do know that most people took part in some sort of shared musical activity whether it was singing and dancing to the village band or playing chamber music at home.
The Arts in many countries have been segregated, ghettoised. Special schools exist for talented children, though what is meant by talent in this context remains undefined. Talent, per se, does not exist. Everyone can learn to dig potatoes; some enjoy it more and do it better than others. Everyone can learn to drive a car, but we are not all driven to be racing drivers. These are mechanical exercises which simply require good teaching and hard work in order to become proficient. The same true for the performing arts. However, as with all human activities, motivation is an important factor.
Since World War II our access to music has changed dramatically. Few of us have much contact with live music. Long gone are the street musicians, jazz bands and classical ensembles that used to flourish in every pre-War town. Nor do many people now have live music at home. Yet, it is usually through seeing other people doing something that motivates us to want to do it ourselves. If children rarely or never see a musical instrument being played, where can the motivation to want to learn come from?
Parental influence is enormously important. In China the ability to play the piano is seen as a sign of social achievement. The fact that 30 million or so Chinese children are currently learning to play Chopin on the piano must have a lot to do with parental aspirations.
A preferable influence is through peer group pressure in school. Hear your school friend play the trumpet and you might want to do it too. See your school mates perform a play or a musical and you might want to be up there with them on the stage receiving the applause for a shared effort. Why does this matter? It matters because children need to learn to work together for a shared objective. They need to be able to subjugate their egos for the common good. They need to learn to share and develop ideas. It matters because the arts change the way we think. The Arts, music especially, have been acknowledged as playing a vital role in the social and mental development of the young.
In Chopin`s home land the Polish government spends a lot of money on music education. It runs over 300 special music schools for primary and secondary education. Despite this, most Polish children will never have the opportunity to make music. Until now it has been the policy of the Polish government to segregate arts education, a segregation that guarantees that as many as 93% of children have no meaningful, practical contact with music throughout their primary and secondary school careers. Ironically, those children who attend the unproductive and reactionary music schools get the worst deal of all. They get too much music, though rarely through playing together. The system does not encourage ensemble playing. Ensemble and orchestral playing are for the failures. Everyone is going to be a great soloist. Yet how many soloists does the world need?
Children who attend the music primary schools often end up hating music because they have not experienced the joy of playing together, of making music. They have merely spent hours struggling alone in a room with their wretched instrument. Of course, Poland is not unique in this but the Polish government uses the Chopin brand as a way of promoting Poland to the world as a land of music. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If not in school, where then do children learn to use their imaginations and develop the self-confidence and social skills that are going to enable them to fulfil their potential? How else will nations beset with economic crises and social divisions face the future with confidence? Music education will not solve all the problems of society but music is a basic human need. If it is not available in schools then where are the foundations of society? Finland prides itself on its universal music education. Finland and the USA are the most innovative countries in the world. Poland ranks 53rd. Surely, here is a lesson for the future.