Chorus of anger at music Higher’s lower standard

TEACHERS, musicians and academics have warned that new Higher music courses are being "dumbed down" and could leave gifted pupils illequipped for a future career.

The revised exam programme will be introduced from next year, and jazz artists Tommy Smith and Cathie Rae have joined a growing chorus of concern about standards.

A review of the subject aimed at reducing bureaucracy will require children to achieve a lower standard in terms of listening to and reading music.

Peter Douglas, head of music at the High School of Glasgow, said the new courses would not give young people the skills they need to participate fully in music in later life. He said a colleague was told off at her school for making standard grade pupils read music. “She was told to write the names of the notes underneath. People aren’t going to write the names
under the notes for the rest of their lives. They have to learn to read music.”

He said school exams were dropping in terms of equivalence to musical proficiency exams. “A Higher will now equate roughly to a grade four in the associated board music exams, when it was previously closer to a grade seven or eight.”

Jean Murray, who runs the Edinburgh Young Musicians Saturday school, said it would disadvantage pupils whose parents cannot afford private tuition.

She warned that Scottish students, having reached only grade four or five, will struggle to get in to college to study music. “They will be competing against people whose parents have paid for them to be taught outside school.”

Havilland Willshire, director of the junior Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, said there was a case for making the Higher more accessible, so as to involve more young people in music. However, he said most of his students were already “far, far above” the standard of the new qualifications.

Smith, perhaps Scotland’s best known international jazz musician, said he was concerned about the new exam which will ask young people merely to fill in a simple bar missing from a score. “It is not good to reduce the level of rigour.”

Rae said it would be much harder now to come up through the school system and make it as a professional musician. The singer, who sits on the arts council’s Scottish Jazz Federation think tank, said: “When I did Higher music it was actually quite difficult. But those skills have been really useful.”

Mike Haggerty, a spokesman for the Scottish Qualifications Authority, said changes had followed consultation with music and teaching professionals. Numbers taking the exam were rising, he said, adding: “While the technical”degree of difficulty” of performance pieces has been reduced, there is still nothing to stop candidates presenting pieces at a higher level than
the minimum.”

The Scottish Executive has also revised the promise made by Jack McConnell in 2003, suggesting all pupils would be given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument in primary school. A spokesman told Herald Society the target had been refined to something more “practicable”.

The Scottish Herald
18th October 2005