Visiting the music department of a school I am surrounded by all the paraphernalia of modern classroom music. There are the serried ranks of desks that I remember so well from my school days, but that's where the similarity ends. These desks have neither the ink stains, the graffiti nor the well-thumbed appearance of the wooden desks of my youth, but are metal framed tables with pristine plastic surfaces each one surmounted by a desktop computer, keyboard and screen, a pair of headphones, a pair of speakers, a mouse and a midi keyboard. I count 36 of them, while the teacher's desk is weighed down by a huge desktop computer with laser printer, router and enough wires to keep a whole generation of school pet rodents gnawing away for an eternity. The walls are blank, apart from the statutory notices about fire escape plans and term timetables, and what cupboards there are house a plethora of music-related computer programs - I see Sibelius 7 and something called Cubase Essential - boxes of speakers, keyboards (both musical and computer), mice, CDRs, headphones and wires. It has all the atmosphere of an internet cafe without the unsavoury smell. Clearly, the salesman who got the contract to sell all this electronic gadgetry to this school - and bear in mind this is just one classroom in the music block - is even now swanning around in his large BMW and taking 90 days holiday a year on the commission from this one sale alone.
How dramatically different from the music classrooms of my school days. Then, music was taught in a formal, and decidedly dull manner, with the random dates of musical history, composers' names, nationalities, dates and major works, forms, keys, instruments and their transpositions and the layout of an orchestra drummed into us almost by rote. There seem to have been endless years of writing Bach chorales and Haydn quartets, studiously avoiding parallel fifths, doubled thirds and unresolved sevenths, while pages of manuscript paper were covered in juvenile scrawl, with whole staves devoted to placing minims precisely on the line or in the space and countless admonitions to Eat Fruit or Deserve Favours, depending on the clef being taught at the time. I hated music at school and it was only an inspirational private piano teacher who really fired my interest. How lucky school children are today, able to listen in the privacy of their own headphones to the very fruits of their creation without ever the need to rub out an errant crotchet or fetch a ruler to avoid a wriggly bar line.
Had I been taught in a classroom like this I am sure I would have been much more excited and absorbed by the whole process, and I am likewise convinced that a lot more children enjoy class music now than they ever did then. Whether that makes them more likely to become worthwhile musicians is another matter, and from my experience I doubt it; I do not see a significant rise in either numbers or standards of those turning to music as a profession since computers replaced blackboards in music school rooms. But no matter, if the way music is taught today encourages more people to listen to it when they are adults, that is only a good thing. We do need to train people to be audiences - not merely hope that one day they will accidentally stumble across a concert hall, accidentally find their way to the box office, accidentally hand over their credit cards and accidentally find themselves in an orchestral performance where they accidentally discover that they enjoy it and want to go to more.
There is, though, one issue that worries me with this paperless, bookless, musical instrument-less classroom. There is not a stave, a sheet of manuscript paper, nor even a depiction of a musical note to be found anywhere. Yes, you can argue, all the music is stored on the computers and as the children create their own, so it is presented before them on the screens in a recognised musical format which their teacher can then print out, but that merely teaches them how easy it is to present a good-looking piece of music on paper. You only need to have to endure student compositions presented in an examination to know that presentation is 99 per cent of the job; if it looks nice, that's all that matters.
For composers it must be wonderful to be able to have their music presented to erstwhile performers in a format which is readily readable and even accessible, and it must be greatly encouraging for school children to have a visual representation of their hours spent at the computer keyboard and midi file. In welcoming any technological advance which makes the job of presenting creation to the outside world easier, we are in danger of devaluing the achievements of the past.
We only need to see what has happened to the writing profession. I am inundated by adverts and requests to write for blogs and for online publications. On a daily basis I am told there is money to be made writing for such things (I have yet to make a penny from either my blog or for the online publications I do write for, so I remain deeply sceptical) and stumbling across an internet writers' chat room I discovered that there are millions of writers out there churning out characters by the zillion. And it's mostly rubbish; unedited, unverified and usually ungrammatical words which look great and fill the space but do not bear close scrutiny. It's a different world from that of the writer who sits painstakingly creating a true work of literary merit, and the sad thing is most people do not differentiate between Charles Dickens or Dickson Charles whose www.dontgizzatossblog.com gets 40 million hits a day and earns him a bundle with its pop-up ads over which he has neither control nor concern.
So it is with music. Ask a school child about how Bach wrote his music, and the idea that the man might just have had to draw his own manuscript paper and then spend hours on a single page of music, painstakingly lining up the staves so that the harmonies coincided and carefully ensuring that all the bars have the right number of beats in them, is completely alien to them. They assume that, because they can turn out a nice looking piece of music in a single lesson, Bach tossed off his cantatas in a matter of hours. They may believe that he lived in such backward times that he was using Sibelius 2 and a dot matrix printer, but pen and ink? – no way! And as for printing out multiple copies…how many great works of genius got lost because the mice ate the manuscript before anyone was able to make a copy?
We no longer applaud human endeavour unless we see it in front of our faces; hence the passion for televised sport amongst those who have absolutely no sporting prowess in themselves. The music being written today is not necessarily poorer because of the ease composers have in putting it down on paper, but that ease of presentation does devalue the labours of those who worked in the pre-computer age. If the children in the school I have visited, or in the thousands of others similarly equipped around the world, are given just one lesson when they have to write music by hand on to a blank sheet of paper using pen, pencil, erasers, rulers and ink, they will surely then appreciate something of the dedication, determination and sheer genius of those composers we glibly refer to as “great”. They may not like Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, but they will surely appreciate all the more keenly the monumental efforts they made in getting their own creations into the public domain.