The world we live in today is very different to the world I grew up in when I was first inspired to play the flute. In a world without Internet, with fewer distractions, it was perhaps easier to persuade young people to put in the time and effort required to discover and work on their talents.
This issue is at the heart of the music education debate today in this country. It is relatively easy, with the right sort of charismatic music leader, to persuade young people to try the violin, flute, trumpet, guitar or keyboard. Indeed, hundreds of millions of pounds have been provided by the government over the past twelve years or so to support open access to such opportunities, particularly in Primary schools. And of course this support is to be welcomed: I have seen at first hand the impact of such sessions on children from all backgrounds, both in large cities and relatively isolated rural communities. Music is a universal language that transcends linguistic and cultural differences. It is a powerful way to bring people together, a way perhaps to help social cohesion, to reduce offending amongst young people, and build self-respect, particularly amongst the most vulnerable.
However, cracks in the music education system are present and have been widening for some time. In a contemporary climate of diminishing attention spans and a desire for instant gratification (that has been stimulated by the rise of high-speed broadband and powerful and versatile mobile phones and tablets) the idea that to be good at music you have to work hard over many years is harder to sell. Why work at getting better on an instrument if you can just tick that box and move onto the next thing? This attitude is prevalent not just amongst young people but also amongst parents who have to pay for their children’s tuition once money for free sessions runs out.
What we do have in great abundance in the UK are dedicated and talented teachers who deserve to be supported in their work through professional development opportunities and inspirational teaching materials. Teachers have to adapt their approaches to communicate effectively with young people today without dropping their standards or expectations, and this is often challenging, not least because the basic techniques and skills required to play the instrument remain exactly the same! It is critical that they not only understand the prior learning of students coming to them from whole class ensemble sessions, but also help to provide a bridge between this and more formal learning.
So how do we do this effectively? After thirty weeks or less of whole class work, a pupil who opts to continue will hopefully have a good grounding in the basics of playing the instrument, and some knowledge of musical notation. The teacher needs to build on their enthusiasm whilst making it clear that developing a good technique requires effort and practice! My new book with Bloomsbury, Abracadabra Flute Technique may well provide part of the solution for flute students: a comprehensive and accessible book for young players which not only explains how to play, but also provides practice material with CD backing to reinforce the learning points. And, needless to say, it should be just as useful for pupils starting to learn from scratch in small groups or individual lessons.
Malcolm Pollock is a flute player and conductor who has worked in music education all his life, helping to lead music services in London and Buckinghamshire before moving to Gloucestershire to head up the music service in 2003. He has helped develop thinking on music education locally, regionally and nationally, and is the author of Abracadabra Flute and the recently published Abracadabra Flute Technique. After retiring in 2013, he now has the opportunity to revisit his own flute playing, and this year became Chair of the British Flute Society.