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Research Shorts: Music Masters Changeathon

31st October 2023

A slightly different format this week, as last week I attended the Music Masters Changeathon at Mansion House in London on Tuesday 24 October, hosted and supported by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of London. While I’m slightly stretching the concept of a research short here, there’s so much to cover with important ideas and plans emerging from the event that I wanted to share with the Music Mark community.

This exciting departure for music education research and practice borrowed from tech approaches like the hackathon, or wikithons (where a group of people might come together to create quality pages on poorly remembered women composers). The event supported the charity’s goals to be ‘focused on finding solutions to the systemic issues that currently affect equitable access to music education, and the availability of opportunities for young people to develop through music.’ So there was lots of discussion and working towards meaningful next steps.

The day was facilitated by Serge Rashidi-Zakuani, who used a variety of approaches to move through the phases of Discover, ‘Sharing from and discussion with our Change Champions, and working together to identify barriers in music education’, Design, ‘Developing creative solutions to address our identified barriers’, and finally Decide, ‘Prioritising solutions and committing to change’.

Kicking things off was an introduction by Rachel Cooper, who reminded us that ‘listening is the ability to be changed by another person’. We also heard from Music Masters organiser Katrina Damigos and the 16 Changemakers told their stories, all young people who were there to talk about their experiences with music education.

I don’t think you could be a music educator and not be at turns haunted, furious and broken hearted by some of the barriers young people had faced and the many hurdles they had navigated to pursue their love of music. We heard about a student called out and embarrassed by a conductor for not having the funds to buy strings for their instrument, about the removal of free lessons in the middle of a young person’s journey, and having to busk and pay for them. We heard about a student who had needed to take a year out to try and save for their instrument, or those who felt that they ‘slipped through the gaps’ of music education.

There were rural students who were acutely aware that their geographical location put them ‘at a disadvantage’. Some of the young people felt acutely aware that they had started ‘too late’. Many of the young people talked about their experience with not being allowed to progress onto A Level music, some because they didn’t have music theory qualifications they couldn’t pay for. Others spoke about the incredible lengths they had gone to try to continue learning music at school, including one student being told on the day they were meant to start that her qualification had been pulled from the school’s offer. Students had been told various reasons for why the course they’d wanted had gone, that ‘music wasn’t a stem course’, or that ‘it wasn’t important’ or ‘viable as a subject’.

Others talked about being pushed to do graded exams when that was not a path they wanted to take, and the significant mental distress and ill health this had caused them: ‘I wasted years of my musical journey being forced to do those things’. We also heard stories of exclusion from disabled students, in particular students dealing with epilepsy treatments that changed the way they were able to engage in lessons and being penalised rather than included.

The influence of Music Masters and supportive teachers in schools and music hubs and services was also absolutely clear; one young person powerfully said Music Masters ‘don’t let the children get lost’, another described being ‘taken in’ by the charity. Despite these considerable hurdles, the line that will stick with me most is ‘It didn’t mean I loved music any less’. Another young person said that they would ‘keep on coming back to music’.

All the attendees, around 60 music educators, then spent time working on identifying what these barriers actually are, with many coming back to the broad umbrella issue of ‘the perceived value of music’, and a wider lack of understanding of what music can do for children and young people. Music ‘A’ Levels were cancelled because music was perceived not to be valuable, for example. There was another complex barrier around accessibility and inclusion, and what story in music is the desired outcome. For example, not all young people can or want to pursue graded exams, many face financial barriers to doing so, and yet if they don’t do this, they can be excluded from participating in formal learning later on. The thread of who is allowed to want to do music runs through all of this.

The rest of the afternoon was spent working on plans around strategies to campaign for the value of music education to be understood at every level, and to join the dots between enjoying music and understanding of the complex web of music education that facilitates learning in order to support and nurture young people on their musical journey.

For all of the heartbreak, and it was heartbreaking, there was also an immense sense of the joy of music, of the desire for change, to bring together organisations that can influence and tell better stories. During a break, some of the Changemakers gathered together around a grand piano (it was Mansion House after all), and jammed, they ended up singing ‘She Used to Be Mine‘ by Sara Bareilles.

Here were music educators across all stages of their careers, representatives from music charities like Music Masters, Music Mark and London Music Fund, and these incredible young musicians. We were on a tea break, but many of us were watching them sing and thinking about how high the stakes are. If music is part of the invisible fabric that holds together human experience, it starts here with them. With hopeful determination, can we be ready to ‘fight just a little’, or to continue to fight for the value of music education, and to work together to support this and the next generation of children and young people? And the next. And the next.

Written by Dr Sarah K. Whitfield – Research Lead for Music Mark