An article in The Guardian yesterday appears to have declared that music education is elitist because the notation is unintelligible unless you're privately educated, and therefore notation ought to be dropped. Oh dear.
At least, that's how it has been interpreted. Actually, there's a bit more to it than that.
Let's start at the very beginning. There's nothing elitist about reading music and if you learn it early on, it's easy as pie. A number of friends have responded that they managed to learn music notation in a day or two at their state primary schools. I vaguely remember learning it aged about 5, when my mum gave me some piano basics from this book (yes, I am that old...):
You know, of course, that kids learn anything and everything much faster than adults, especially if they are brought up with it from the start. My littler nephews, half Italian, were bilingual from the beginning, because if you're taught two languages as something normal, it just is normal to you. (That's also why kids can fix your computer problems...) Music is a language of sorts, and suggesting that notation shouldn't be taught is like saying that learning a language can be accomplished without knowing any vocabulary. If all children were to be taught to read music as young as possible, preferably before they are 7, they would have it as a skill and an asset for the rest of their lives.
What's so difficult about reading music anyway? It's incredibly straightforward and logical. The pitches go up and down, so you show them going up or down on the stave. There are only 12 notes, so when you finish the 12th you just start over again. The different clefs indicate which note is where, and they're designed to make it easier for you according to the pitch of your voice or the instrument you play. You can modify the notes with sharps or flats (OK, sometimes double sharps or double flats if you're Fauré trying to do something very clever, but never mind that for the moment).
You show the duration of the notes with clear, basic symbols. They're not so hard to remember, according to our teacher at school, when we were 11. She'd draw one bar of music on the blackboard with white chalk. One big round plain note was a semibreve and it went TAAAA. Two smaller ones taking up the same amount of time were minims and went TAA TAA. Four crotchets to the semibreve, going TA TA TA TA. Then you could fit two quavers with their funny black tails into each crotchet, going TA-TE-TA-TE-TA-TE-TA-TE. And then semiquavers, worth half a quaver each, going TAFFA-TEFFY-TAFFA-TEFFY.... (I'm not sure what we'd do with demisemiquavers, but maybe TAFFA-TEFFY-TIFFY-TOFFY?) OK, now you have the basics.
There are other teaching systems aplenty. My cello-playing nephew used to go to a very good Saturday morning music school and learned another way altogether. Creative teachers who really connect with youngsters can and do come up with all manner of interesting methods.
Still, one vital point in the original article is really worth a second look. It's the art of playing by ear. It would be enormously, immeasurably, phenomenally valuable if more of us learned to play by ear as early as possible. The solfège system is a great mystery to UK kids being put through the grade-exam mill and has never been part of our music education system (such as it is). In France and various other places it is absolutely standard. It is, in basic concept, as simple as The Sound of Music tells us, and once learned it helps you to know, as second nature, the relation of one note to another. That doesn't mean you won't find it a headache en route from time to time, but, like learning notation, it's an investment for your future. Over to Maria and the Von Trapp children:
While there is nothing inherently academic about notation, any more than there is something inherently academic about learning to read and write, we often remain too tied to the page. Playing by ear can free you up in all manner of ways. This is because it's not essentially the notes that hamstring us: it's authority.
It's your dad saying: "Stop mucking about and practise properly". It's your teacher saying: "No, you can't just make it up as you go along". It's the examiner at the desk following the score to make sure you're observing the right kind of crescendo in the right place, and you won't get a distinction if you don't (and then your grandmother will be terribly upset, because she's convinced you're the next Martha Argerich even though you're 10 years old and doing Grade 3, so you have to feel guilty too).
I would love to be able to play by ear, but was actively discouraged from trying. As a kid I used to seek hours of harmless fun by working out how to play tunes from my favourite records, then sticking basic accompaniments onto them. This probably caused cacophony at home; I was ordered to stop mucking about and practise properly. That was the end of it. Incidentally, I'm a useless sight-reader to this day.
Sight-reading ability, contrary to the Guardian piece, doesn't go only with being able to read. It goes with having the courage to try. To trust yourself to attempt something you haven't first taken to bits and worked out very, very slowly.
The few times I've found myself able to sight-read have been the occasions on which I've known by ear how the piece goes (this is assuming we're talking about something technically straightforward, not the Franck Violin Sonata). You look at the page, you hear it in your head and you know what to do with it. If you can't hear it in your inner ear first, it will be much harder to play. That's one reason the sight-reading tests in grade exams used to be so difficult, because they were designed, I used to feel, to catch you out, almost as if to make sure you probably couldn't hear it in your head first. They weren't actual pieces of music. Talk about putting kids off. I think, though, that this has now been tackled and reformed.
The signal that somewhere along the line British musical education really is too academic comes into focus with the divide between music college and university. I sincerely hope it's changed since my day. I graduated 30 years ago this summer, after three years of beating my head against every brick wall in town looking for somewhere to practise. The performance element in that course counted for an optional one-seventh of the third year, so during the first two years you weren't really allowed to practise because it wasn't part of your course until the third year, and then you didn't have to do it and if you didn't feel confident after having not been allowed to practise for two years you could choose a different option instead and stop worrying. The fact that most music students do play music and need to practise consistently tended to pass the colleges by - the college academics, most of them not musical at all, had no clue that becoming a musician requires regular, daily training as much as becoming an Olympic rower does. In the official view, music was an admirable pastime for an amateur but a dreadful profession, one to be looked down upon, condemning you to use the tradesmen's entrance forever. Institutional arrogance can close minds, ears and eyes. I lost count of the number of times I heard the words: "We are not a conservatoire".
After that, I tried to go to a music college, only to be faced with aural tests of sub-O-level standard, and then the words "Well, we're not a bloody university, you know, you can't just pick and choose". Caught between snobbery and inverted snobbery, I left. This divide seemed bad at the time, but the extraordinary thing is that I still feel angry about it now and it happened three decades ago.
In better news, a lot of fine musicians came out of both institutions. At that university the early music specialists had masses of support; the singers found ample opportunity to test their wings in chapels and university opera; and good student orchestras were two a penny and would-be conductors could form them and learn their craft on the job. As for pianists, a few things to kick against can work wonders for your motivation. Learning resilience has a value all its own and is not included in any curriculum, anywhere, ever.
Since then, I think the situation has changed incrementally: for instance, there are now plenty of joint courses between universities and music colleges, and more practical aspects of music-making are wound into school options if and where they exist. These old divides, though, would not suddenly have kicked in at tertiary level, from nowhere. Such matters tend to be rooted deeply in societal attitudes that have persisted for decades, sometimes centuries, and can prove hard to eradicate. I believe that our finest universities and colleges have been working hard to make those changes and if they have succeeded, then that is wonderful. But it has to work from the bottom up. Therefore starter music education must not be "elitist" and divided into artificially incompatible academic and practical strands - and I hope that in most places it already is not.
And the only egalitarian way to ensure that music education is not "elitist" is to provide it free, with a grounding in an instrument, in singing and in notation, in every school, for every child, from the very beginning. So there you go.