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Why it’s time to fine-tune music education in all our schools

21st May 2015

Dr Gwen Moore, lecturer in music education at the University of Limerick, says overall the subject has improved over the past two decades.

However, she says in many Irish primary schools, the subject is a “hit and miss affair”. At second level, she warns its future is uncertain with the changes now being proposed for the Junior Cert.

“At primary level, as part of the literacy and numeracy strategy, teachers are being told to spend more time on maths, English and Irish.

“The things that tend to fall by the wayside are the arts. If teachers have to spend more time on certain subjects, they will have to dispense with others. The Arts tend to be treated as the poor cousins.”

Any downgrading of music in primary schools may prove counterproductive. Numerous studies have shown that children who play musical instruments at a young age improve maths skills.

Many schools are marking the end of the academic year with musical concerts and celebrations. There was particular cause for celebration at Castleknock College in Dublin and St Peter’s and Paul’s CBS in Clonmel in recent days as the two schools won the 2015 Walton Music in Schools competition.

They were among 12 finalists who performed in the final in the National Concert Hall.

Dr Gwen Moore praised the competition, where schools are challenged to create an original piece of work, with students from different years often working together.

“I was mesmerised by the commitment and passion displayed by performers of diverse styles and the social cohesion generated.”

While competitions such as this offer signs of a thriving musical culture in the schools concerned, Dr Moore says the provision of music at primary level depends on leadership and the inclination of teachers.

“If a principal wants a choir or an orchestra, they will put a teacher in charge of music, or they will buy in a specialist music teacher.

“In my experience, student teachers and experienced teachers will do music if they feel confident and they will avoid it like the plague if they can’t sing, or feel they are not musical.”

At Leaving Cert, the number of students sitting the music exam has grown to 6,500 since the introduction of a new syllabus in 1997. “Music became more popular at Leaving Cert, because it is now more accessible,” says Dr Moore. “In the old syllabus, you used to have study six classical pieces. Now, there are three classical pieces, and a fourth popular-music piece.”

Among the works studied at Leaving Cert are ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ by the The Beatles. Up to 50pc of the marks for Leaving Cert music are for performance.

In the new Junior Cycle curriculum, music will be included as a subject, and there will also be a short course available in artistic performance. This could be a musical performance, a stage production, or the production of a film.

With the provision of a new short course in artistic performance in the junior cycle, Dr Moore warns that there is a danger that in some schools music will be replaced as a full subject. “Many second-level schools do not even have a music teacher. This is particularly true in boys’ schools and vocational schools.”

Until recently, direct music tuition was often only available to students, whose parents could afford lessons and in fee-paying schools. However, the Music Generation programme, co-funded by U2, gives students lessons in their locality.

The programme is now backed by the Department of Education.

Concert pianist John O’Conor is highly critical of music education in Irish schools. The musician is chairman of the Dublin International Piano Competition, which is currently running in Dublin.   He says: “Music education has got worse. In fee-paying schools, you are more likely to get it, but other schools don’t have the money for it.

“If you have a passionate teacher or principal in a school, you will have music education, but a lot of the time they are just not interested.

“It is a given fact that if someone is learning the piano from the ages of three to seven, they will be ahead of the rest of the class in maths. The hand, eye and foot coordination helps to expand the brain.

“I tell parents that it is not about turning their child into a virtuoso.  First, it should be about developing a love of music.”

Read more on the Irish Independent website