Music education in schools

two students at a sounddesk with lots of buttons and sliding controls

Liverpool students using a sound desk © Deana Clarke

Most musicians will, at some time in their careers, take formal instruction on how to become better players. They may begin with music education in primary school and continue advanced courses in higher education institutions such as conservatoires and universities.

Much of the basics of musicianship - how to keep time, key signatures, notation and transcription - can be taught within primary and secondary education. Group music lessons and peripatetic teachers hired in by the school are often the first step in a musician's education. Schools can also provide an introduction to performance for musicians through organised school bands, talent contests and end of year shows. Many prominent musicians have been introduced to performance in this way. For example the jazz icons Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis all started playing in their respective high school bands before developing their skills through more informal channels such as peer group learning and listening.

Although music teaching in schools has been dominated by the classical tradition, the last two decades have seen the widespread introduction of popular music education. However this tends to be uneven across differing countries, educational authorities and even schools within a given area. Nevertheless this period has seen music education in many schools expand to include new technologies and techniques such as sampling, sequencing and digital recording. Again, uneven funding and differing priorities between schools mean that the level of and provision for this aspect of learning to be a musician can be patchy.

The social setting of formal education can also help musicians to learn how to perform with other artists including musicians, lyricists, conductors, arrangers, and producers. Music education in schools and colleges provides musicians with the opportunity to improve their own skills but also, critically, to gauge their skills against others. These kinds of educational environments will spur friendly competition and collaborations which can lead to new avenues for creative expression.

Certain schools have become famous for producing a string of successful musicians. For instance the Brit School in Croydon is a London state school for 14-19 year olds affiliated to the UK music recording industry body the British Record Industry Trust (BRIT). The school concentrates on vocational training in the performing arts and its strong links to the industry have resulted in a stream of successful artists including Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis, Kate Nash, Katie Melua, Imogen Heap, Adele and the Feeling. Other non-specialist schools also have a strong track record of musical alumni. For example the leading British electronic music acts Four Tet, Burial and Hot Chip all attended the Eliot School, a south London comprehensive, at the same time in the 1990s as million selling guitarist Herman Li (of Dragonforce), indie band the Maccabees and members of UK garage act So Solid Crew. Despite being an under funded school, the success of many of its alumni has been attributed to a combination of staff who allowed students to develop creatively, and a social environment which encouraged musicians to learn and support each other. The school's music teacher Frank Marshall comments:

"When you get enough people making music, they start feeding off each other. It just snowballs. We put on a lot of concerts both in and out of school, with other schools. We played festivals bringing together other musicians from other schools with different characters. Here you could get a lot of ideas swapped between musicians." (Brown and Kinear, 2008)