One of the most memorable things about my first week working for the Inspiration Trust was when John Stephens, the recently appointed Director of Music, had the whole staff singing on Welcome Back Day. Not only did he have us singing, he had us singing different parts, each representing a section of the orchestra, and harmonising with each other.
Getting a large group of people singing in harmony, as John so impressively did, is a wonderful example of what can be achieved with simple, direct, traditional methods. He displayed the words and the notes on the projector, but I was behind a column, so I could barely see them. I had to rely on my ear and the example of those around me, but I could still join in. I could still learn. I listened and imitated, and I listened and imitated, and I got the hang of it, along with most of the other eight hundred or so people assembled in St Andrew’s Hall.
Listening and imitating is at the heart of education, traditionally understood. I would not have got very far in this if I had not accepted John’s authority, and been happy to join in with the crowd, which he had turned into something much more than a crowd by the exercise of that authority.
Music clarifies so many things about education. If we want to produce music, we must submit to authority – the authority of the notes themselves, mediated to us through the skill of the conductor. We must practise repeatedly until we get it right. We must build up our skills incrementally, not shirking the need to revisit the parts which we have not yet fully mastered.
And what we can produce if we accept authority and the need for hard work is something which brings people together under a civilising influence. It is something which sits above both pupil and teacher – it is the inheritance of human culture, which should be available to everyone. I’ll always remember a comment from a pupil in my very earliest days of working in schools, when I asked her what she thought of classical music. She said it was ‘music for posh people’. That is an attitude which we are going to demolish at the Inspiration Trust.
Striving towards something difficult but worthwhile, with a good will – we learn about these things when we take part in musical performance, and these lessons apply across education, not because of any complicated bit of neuroscience, but simply because we need to learn the necessity of hard work and practice in all academic and creative work.
This is what learning to learn is, if it’s anything: learning the habit of working hard, of practising, of persevering. And with the drive to get more and more pupils involved in music across the Trust, I am sure we will see the benefits of these habits well beyond choir and orchestra rehearsals and performances.