Music helps people of all ages showcase their identity – but this is especially true with young listeners in Generation Alpha.
Artists build style, meaning, identity and stories into their own music, which then resonates with young people and expresses a creative representation of their own identity and feelings.
However, music and the way it is presented and taught in education has, until recently, only looked at a narrow, traditional set of artists and musical styles.
As a teacher, this is a topic that I’m hugely passionate about. While there are some changes afoot – with schools and other institutions adopting new teaching methods and syllabi that showcase a broad range of talents, musicians, and sounds – in my opinion, there’s still a long way to go. This blog explores some ways in which some educational institutions are beginning to explore, challenge and adapt their musical output.
Generation Alpha: Performance Autonomy
For many years, students have been given little choice in studying particular musical styles and genres.
For a student taking a music exam, the schemes had for a long time been very structured in format and requirements, and very focussed on Eurocentric white male composers. However, this is now changing, enabling students to have more autonomy and flexibility in the music they prepare for exams.
Exam boards, like the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), and Trinity College London (TCL), have rightly updated their schemes to reflect a diverse range of musical styles and composers through musical skills, rather than boxing pieces up into time periods.
Students can now choose a programme of pieces that resonates with their experiences and interests. The ABRSM have also updated their education scheme ‘Classical 100’ to equip teachers with resources and teaching ideas through a range of varying musical styles.
It has been lovely for me to see the impact first-hand – a piano student of mine chose their set of exam pieces from the TCL syllabus, which has brought great joy to their piano practice and our lessons.
Representation in Music Teaching
Representation is integral in music so that children can see themselves.
Chi-Chi Nwanoku, who founded the Chineke! Foundation in 2015 highlights how BME children and musicians need role models in the industry. On establishing Chineke! Nwanoku says ‘If even one Black and ethnically diverse child feels their colour is getting in the way of their musical ambitions, then I hope to inspire them, give them a platform, and show them that music, of whatever kind, is for all people.’
But there is clear underrepresentation across the music sector – from artists and creators to administrative positions.
A 2014 report led by Dr Christina Scharff of King’s College London, found that out of 629 orchestral players, “only 11 (1.7%) could be identified to be from a Black and Minority Ethnic background.”
More recently, UK Music published their 2022 Workforce Diversity Survey examining the music industry workforce (not musicians or artists). It found that the number of people who identify as Black, Asian or an ethnically diverse background has decreased since 2020.
Teaching should help to bring this together. For instance, it is really important to share a variety of resource materials with children that are diverse and representative of the student community.
“It is really important to share a variety of resource materials with children that are diverse and representative of the student community”
I recently shared a video with some students of the incredibly talented Kanneh-Mason siblings (all alumni of Chineke! Junior Orchestra) playing ‘Aquarium’ from Carnival of the Animals with other musicians. The video is so inspiring because it allows BME children to see themselves in the classical music sphere which is so dominated by white (and male) musicians. The performance itself is also very relaxed with Sheku wearing a football top and all the musicians getting lost in the music and sharing smiles.
Increasing representation in music shouldn’t stop at the classical music genre either. It is also important to challenge representation in other music genres that have been largely perceived as white: for example, country or folk music and its origins which are such a core element of identity for so many cultures and traditions.
This focus better enables children to connect to their culture and identity. For example, I’ve had several of my students share their personal stories and connections when we explored a unit on Bossa nova music (originating from South America). We cannot underestimate the importance of belonging and visibility.
Exposure to Different Cultures: Connecting with Languages and Cultures
Singing is a wonderful way to connect people and bring communities together and, consequently, representation in the songs shared in schools is so important for children.
Sharing songs should be underpinned by context and cultural understanding.
Languages are a central part of our identity, and it means that children can be the teacher themselves by helping with correct pronunciation of words and sharing personal insights. There are several resources online and in books that share a range of songs and their context.
“We should equally be discussing the significance of instruments, where they originate from, how they are made and how to play them”
As well as singing a range of songs with different languages, school children are increasingly being exposed to learning about and playing lots of instruments.
We should equally be discussing the significance of instruments, where they originate from, how they are made and how to play them. In my classroom, I have labelled all the instruments with the name and where they originate from. This will help to build children’s awareness of instrumentation of different musical styles and cultures.
The music industry is changing slowly, and I’ve shared some of the changes already underway.
It’s clear that a child’s experiences and school years are integral in supporting their musical development and exposure to the musical genres and opportunities. We still have a long way to go, and all teachers and practitioners need to be a part of this process.
We need to be always thinking about how we can do better and challenge ourselves with how we present music to students. It is essential that music professionals and organisations evaluate and reflect on their practise and conduct their own research. We need to check that we are showing a wide range of music genres, musicians, and composers to the children that we teach, while giving opportunities to connect with live music and musicians. We must look for ways to always develop our understanding and keep up to date with news and research, and through collaboration and discussion with other practitioners and professionals.
By connecting with others, we can share best practice and challenge each other.
Hopefully, by all thinking about these points regularly, we will begin to shift the landscape more quickly.