It is an idea that most if not all music teaching outside the school classroom is founded upon: musical attainment is not pegged to age level. However, fundamental to the way our school system works, and to how the Australian Curriculum is structured, is the notion that children must be grouped with their same-age peers in each stage of their learning.
Music as taught outside the school classroom is entirely different. The AMEB, for instance, makes no ruling on what age a student must be to progress through its examination stages, other than recommending minimum age for entry into its professional teacher qualifications. Private and studio teaching are the same: they proceed by ability, not age level.
Perhaps it is time to introduce similar thinking into the school classroom. Music as a curriculum subject can be regarded not as one discrete field of study, but many: it brings together creativity, analytical and skill-based knowledge, historical study, and cultural enquiry. The Australian Curriculum makes a brave effort at synthesising all these elements into a graduated sequence of study from Foundation to Year 10, but it is still tied to the notion that student ability and age level go hand in hand.
In common with other performing arts subjects, musical aptitude depends heavily on a range of factors that exist outside the school environment, such as musical participation in the family and private tuition in singing or playing an instrument. Consequently, a student’s ability within their age cohort may vary considerably. This imposes real challenges on the teacher who is responsible for delivering the school curriculum.
The ideas put forward by Geoff Masters, Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, are particularly cogent here. He envisages school teaching being organised more flexibly around a student’s ability level rather than being fixed on chronological age.
He writes in Teacher Magazine “Schools tend to be organised on an assumption that the vast majority of students of the same age are at broadly similar points in their learning and development. In reality, … students at the beginning of each school year are spread over a wide range of achievement levels.”
The direction Masters comes from is not music but maths: he would like to see that subject taught in a way that recognises a student’s individual stage of attainment, and that engages them with the syllabus according to how they progress.
He advances his argument by reference to what happens in some well-established teaching models in music. He singles out the AMEB for instance: “Grade 4 piano can be achieved by a five-year old or a 75-year old. Individuals can present for assessments when they feel ready and so have a level of control over their own learning goals and progress”.
Masters praises the Suzuki method similarly. In this, each child progresses at their own rate through its graded repertoire, irrespective of their age. It “is underpinned by Shinichi Suzuki’s belief that, if properly taught, every child is capable of successful progress and eventually reaching a high level of musical achievement,” he remarks.
One can add youth orchestras and choirs in the same context as learning platforms in which age is not a fixed criterion in achieving and learning.
It makes sense to look at such models if alternative ways of teaching music as a curriculum subject at schools are to be considered.