Occasionally, job ads for school music teachers pop up on my social media feeds. I am casually interested in who is hiring, what they are looking for, and usually repost for the sake of job seekers in my network. Yesterday I noticed a job that seemed to be advertised for Jesus on a good day. That is, so long as he’s a pianist. It’s interesting that the piano still looms so large in our schools, despite the fact that there has been significant change in school music departments, and my suspicion is that there are fewer and fewer people with the suite of competencies suggested in the adverts.
The advert in question was seeking a pianist who could teach up to Grade 8 level (Trinity, ABRSM and UNISA), could accompany instrumentalists and the choir (on [sic] a high level), and who could also play other instruments (yes, plural). They were expected to teach subject music up to Grade 12. They needed a BMus, and, in keeping with South Africa’s education requirements, a professional teaching qualification. It is no surprise that this applicant would also need to prepare students for exams and competitions, meet the general requirements expected of teachers and all the stuff they normally do, and… (I love this one), get involved with sport duties too.
Of course, there are pianists who can do all of this, play ‘other instruments’ organise concerts, teach class music, and maybe even know the difference between a rugby ball and a water polo ball, but there are two problems with this picture. First, there are fewer and fewer BMus and PGCE graduates out there with this skill set (more to be said on this in a forth coming post). Second, while I am sure the school in question has other musical stuff going on that is not so piano-oriented, – where is the transformation? As multi skilled as applicants need to be to get this job, the set of skills required is firmly stuck in a Western paradigm of music education. A paradigm in which the piano has a kind of hallowed status, and teaching is oriented around the external music examination bodies, and competitions and eisteddfods. The job advert in question suggests a view of music education that is not open to other forms of musical expression. And this view certainly needs questioning in South Africa.
If we do just one thing in the cause of decolonisation, it could be demote the piano as the quintessential icon (relic?) of music education. Yes, I agree, learning to play the piano can teach you some super useful stuff. But the number of students who actually end up acquiring that ‘stuff’ is pretty small, whether they are excluded by lack of money for lessons, access to an instrument, alienating repertoire, or just the long, lonely, slog of learning. Also, when people wax lyrical about how good the piano is as a foundation, they tend to forget the things that learning the piano does not teach you. It doesn’t teach beginners to listen well, or to play together with others. It doesn’t give you a rock-solid sense of rhythm. For South Africans, learning the piano does not teach you about South African musical styles, because from the very first lesson, musical experience is tuned toward the music of Europe. Pianos can create a physical barrier between the teacher (playing it) and the students on the other side of it. The teacher’s focus can be on the piano and not the students. Most problematically, the piano doesn’t teach you that music is for everyone, which, in my opinion, should be the loudest message kids receive.
Once again, this is about musical values. And different musical traditions have different values – so music is not ever going to be a universal language (unfortunately). The Western tradition really elevates soloists, not only in the classical music scene (where soloists and conductors get all the attention), but sadly, pop culture is fuelled by the ‘star’ culture. The superstars we all love to love, send out the message that you must be special to play music, and you are either born with the gift or not. Kids in our classrooms believe this, parents believe this, some of our fellow teachers believe this, and it’s our job as music teachers to show them that it is not true.
Great music programmes are those that empower every student to stretch their inner musician, and convince them that they CAN. They start in pre-schools with playful movement, chants, songs, dance, – which all come for free … and don’t require a piano. They give students access to music making that is relevant, fun, and shared. They may use instruments like guitars, ukeleles, and marimbas that have far more potential for communal musicking. I am not saying that we should create a world where no one will learn the piano (or other solo instruments). Given the right musical foundation, kids will develop individual instrumental skills much faster when they have a musically rich foundation. In short, the piano just needs to be shoved aside to make space for everyone.
I’ve known a lot of pianists in my life, and some of them are fine musicians, as well as being fine human beings (they don’t always go together). But with apologies to them all: What’s the difference between God and a pianist? God doesn’t think he’s a pianist.