In my ‘About the Author’ page, I stress the excellence of my academic qualifications to show that I am not attacking a system that has hurt me in an obvious way. I am attacking a system that has heaped praise upon me, a system in which I have excelled, and despite all of the laurels I have won, it is a system which has left me ignorant of many things which are vital to a proper education. It is a system which allowed me to pick up bits and bobs of intellectual and literary history, and manipulate them into impressive arguments, all the while leaving me ignorant of most of the great heritage of Western civilisation, and hardly even aware that such ignorance was a problem. If I was getting the grades, what did it matter? I roamed freely, and I could dazzle with a touch of Proust here, and a smattering of Biblical quotation there, but I lacked foundations. It wasn’t even a house made of sand; it was a beat-up old camper van, destined to break down at some point and leave me stranded in the wilderness.
My wife has been through a similar journey. As a talented pianist, she had been through university and, despite doing very well, always felt that there was something fundamentally missing from her education. She could play the piano in an impressive way, and even won first prize for her recital one year, but she couldn’t sight sing or make sense of harmony. These skills are fundamental to real musical literacy, and yet no-one was insisting that they were vital to becoming a musician, or providing classes or material to help. She was like someone who has learned to read mostly by guessing or memorising words, but their lack of phonic awareness constantly hampers them, and eventually places an insuperable barrier to further progress. Trying to learn very difficult piano works without real musical literacy was so arduous that despite all of her achievements, my wife lost interest in becoming a performing pianist. She tried teaching the piano, but didn’t believe in it, because she was still operating in the same system which had failed her. How could she hand on this stunted education to the next generation?
Then, at the age of 33, my wife discovered Kodaly, the musical equivalent of proper phonics instruction. As a composer and performer, Zoltán Kodály had a longstanding interest in folk music traditions. This awareness of the power of an oral tradition influenced his work to improve school methods in his native Hungary. When he became aware of the poor state of music education, he started collecting best practices in music teaching when on tour around the world. These best practices were then gradually compiled by Kodaly and his friends to make what is known as the Kodaly method, or concept. It is a systematic way of teaching musical literacy, understood as being the skill of ‘hearing what you see, and seeing what you hear.’ Musicianship is developed by singing. Children first learn basic concepts of pulse and pitch through lots of singing games, and progress through learning sol-fa hand-signs and letters to reading staff notation.
There is a committed body of Kodaly enthusiasts in Britain: they come together at workshops and classes to be introduced to the concept, or to learn more, or just to get encouraged. These workshops are full of music teachers who aren’t quite sure why they feel music education is a bit off track, but they know something is wrong, and are looking for an answer. Sounds a bit like the Saturday education conferences that are springing up around the country . . .
My wife was an enthusiastic convert to this systematised version of traditional methods, as I was a year ago when I read Christodoulou and Hirsch and realised the importance of core knowledge and direct instruction. She immediately perceived that the Kodaly method, if studied properly, would provide her with the missing heart of her own musical formation. If a school had the courage to adopt a Kodaly based programme, then with careful and faithful implementation, they would achieve impressive results after a few years. It would also prove the ineffectiveness of what otherwise passes for good practice, and would challenge people to expect far more out of music education than they ever thought possible.
If you are interested in finding out more about Kodaly, here are a few links:
The Kodaly Centre of London is David and Yuko Vinden’s project. David is Britain’s most distinguished Kodaly educator and he runs courses from his base in Northwood Hills, Middlesex, but he also does workshops tailored to the needs of groups which approach him. My wife went to a one-day introduction on Kodaly in Manchester, which was excellent.
The Len Tyler Music School in Farnborough and its vicinity is, in some ways, the musical equivalent of Michaela. It teaches music classes to children according to the Kodaly principles. Len has written his own courses, just as Michaela have found it necessary to put together their own materials. He has a lot of time to give people interested in implementing Kodaly practice. After my wife had been to one of his workshops, she sat in on some of the classes at his music school. It was soon clear that the children had core musical concepts in place, and their level of musicianship was better than many older, more technically accomplished instrumentalists. Is this sounding familiar to anyone who has visited Michaela?
The Kodaly Method could be seen as part of the new traditionalism. Perceiving the desolation of modern education, some brave souls have worked to revive traditional methods. They have found it necessary to add a level of systematisation to enable the restoration of something that previously depended upon a shared culture, much of which was oral. But there are still remnants of traditional traditionalism which have survived into the modern era, in the training of Anglican choristers. The level to which choristers are trained exposes the lamentable mediocrity of standard musical education. They can sight read; they can sight sing; they can harmonise. They are in a class of their own. Choristers develop thorough musicianship skills because, as well as all the singing they do, they receive regular musicianship classes. The success of choristers as musicians (as well as the positive impact it has on them in other ways) testifies to the effectiveness of their training and the importance of lots of singing.
Thorough oral drill survives in some places as a thread of a great tradition stretching back into antiquity. But for the rest of us, we need evangelists like Kodaly, Hirsch or Engelmann and their disciples to revive it, and to create materials and institutions which bring to our modern educational wilderness what had previously flourished within a shared traditional culture that did not need codifying.
Given the proven success of the systematised traditionalism of the Kodaly method and of traditional choral training, one might wonder why such approaches are not more widely adopted by county music services. Perhaps there is a fear of being shown up? My wife has herself experienced the humiliation of recognising her own inferiority next to those who have been properly trained, and do not have to struggle as she does. The resentment frequently expressed against Michaela may have similar roots. Better methods are certainly not universally welcomed with open arms. There are many reasons why the status quo prevails, however compelling the evidence for reform. In the end, we must overcome our resentment at those who do better than us, and resolve instead to learn from them.