Should we be professionalising trad music teaching?

By David Francis, TMF Co-ordinator

At the recent collogue, ‘Who’s Got an A?’ which focused on questions about how we go about organising teaching and learning in traditional music, Kathryn Deane suggested that we launch an investigation and call it ‘How Ever Did It Go So Right?’ Kathryn runs Sound Sense, the national community music organisation, which has long grappled with many of the questions we were dealing with.  The headlines on the cover of recent issues of their magazine, Sounding Board, include, for example, ‘On the importance of Reflection’, ‘On the Problems of Evidence’, ‘How to Ensure Music Education is for All’. The suggested title was in response to discussions around standards of knowledge, skills and understanding, quality of teaching, lack of frameworks, patchy training and so on. Any yet despite these apparent problems the standard of playing seems to do nothing but improve.

Or that is the anecdotal account at any rate.  How do we know?  What are our points of comparison?  In traditional music we have a wide range of informal practices contained within an ad hoc system for teaching and learning outside formal education, and a formal education framework that has arisen in response to demand created in the non-formal system.  You only have to go back twenty years to find a Scotland with no Plockton, no Scottish music course at the Conservatoire, and no traditional music courses in Further Education either.  All of these initiatives were put in place to build on the work happening with young people in communities up and down the land.  But twenty years ago, as now, the set up for providing learning opportunities for young people and adults alike was based on a ‘little black book’ approach to finding and hiring tutors. ‘We need a fiddle tutor. OK you play the fiddle – can you come and do it?’ Not a lot of rigour involved.

That does not apply to the piping world, however.  The teaching of the bagpipes has long enjoyed a progressive, structured approach with a Piping and Drumming Qualifications Board, agreement on a world-wide standard of instruction, and a general acceptance of the value of the certificates which back this up.  Yet in the world of teaching and learning traditional music beyond piping it is still the case that when the door of the teaching room closes the people hiring the teacher by and large have no idea what is taking place, the students have no idea what they are going to get, and the teacher has no benchmark by which to figure out what is expected and how they are doing.

I am pulled in two directions. On the one hand I value the progress that has been made by the mosey-along, suck-it-and-see, seat-of-the-pants, ach-it’ll-be-grand approach that has contributed to the healthy scene we enjoy now.  On the other hand, I think we owe it to ourselves as a community to do better, which might be possible if we think about adopting a framework common to non-formal teaching and learning organisations across the country, that the largely voluntary people running these organisations can buy into; if we give people who are offering teaching a set of common standards within a plurality of activities and approaches (standards do not have to mean standardisation); if we put in place a proper system for coaching and mentoring those we charge with passing on the tradition.

In advocating for the latter approach I might be accused of seeking to professionalise something that has always worked, however haphazardly. However, with over 10,000 people learning traditional music on a regular basis across Scotland, and with people paying for the privilege of doing so I think we owe it to them to emulate the pipers and take a radical look at how we can act together to improve the system as it stands.  Otherwise we may one day stop asking ‘how did it go so right?’ and start asking the other question instead.