February 09, 2011

A Musical Education, Part II

Of all the badly taught subjects the boy experienced at school, music was the worst. He despised music lessons, for they seemed to have nothing to do with musical experience. In the latter days of Thatcher, music education was on the verge of being abolished (along with drama and art), and what was left – two hours a week were shared by the EPA (expressive and performing arts: a way of making one subject out of three) – was not even close to resembling education. 

On each desk was a small Yamaha keyboard, complete with headphones. In his way, the teacher must have been a genius: twenty-five teenagers were left unguided with noise making machines, but with their headphones on they neither talked nor made any other audible sound. Most of the lesson was spent fiddling with the stored playback of these machines. Then we would gather round to sing collectively. Everyone knew the possibilities, and competed with each other for quietness:
‘Stop!’ bellows the music teacher. ‘Somebody here sounds good’. The class begins an awkwardness of foot shuffling and an intent staring at the ground. The music teacher’s finger is outstretched and scanning the ensemble.

‘You! You boy! I think it is you!’ The boy visibly winces and shrinks into his clothes. Everyone is looking, happy it is him and not them. They are not sympathetic. The culture of this room has led them to see the pain of others as the nearest thing to pleasure.

‘Sing! On your own! Let’s hear it!’ The piano starts up. It is Kumbaya, or On the roof, or Raining in my heart. It doesn’t matter. The teacher only knows how to play fortissimo. The boy’s voice has died to a whisper. Any unintended essence of the carefree that had before led him to sing out has now shrivelled. There are giggles from the ensemble. The teacher makes it last the eternity of a whole verse.

‘Pathetic!’ he shouts. ‘Everyone, start again’. And so it went on, interminably.
Never has music been so without joy, or teaching so lacking in substance, so damaging to the confidence. Happily, the boy never connected these dreadful hours with the real, lived experience of music. At home he sang from the moment he woke. He rifled his parents records, and listened intently to John Peel at nights, his head under the covers. Peel was his real music master. There was a Yamaha keyboard in the house, similar to those in the school, but at home the boy taught himself to play, learning how to read music by himself. Utterly unguided, the emerging man had music in his heart and could do nothing but follow the beat.

A man must have a musical education. He may have to fall back on his own resources to get it.


  1. That is a losing proposition, doctor; kids are unable to fight what gives them pleasure - and are not good judges of it either.

  2. Incipient men, with guidance, are better judges. It is of this age that I talk. Part II should really have been part I, but I cannot quite control the order in which things come to me.


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