As pop culture grabs teenagers, music is becoming cooler than sport at school, writes Jodie McLeod.*
School used to be about the survival of the fittest. Where you ranked in the playground hierarchy was proportional to your speed, co-ordination and how good your legs looked in your sport shorts. But now the criterion of “cool” at school is changing. As a wider variety of opportunities are opened up to students in schools, and as the instruments of pop culture increasingly infiltrate teenagers’ lives – musical involvement (listening to it, supporting it or playing it) is becoming more a marker of greatness among peers than one’s ball skills.
“Music is definitely perceived as more popular in this school,” says Tess Goddard, a year 11 music student at Kooringal High School in Wagga Wagga. “Girls who are into music are perceived as more confident and more individual, and it’s always impressive to see a guy playing guitar or drums,” she says. Goddard, who wasn’t into music before high school, has been taking singing lessons for three years and is studying the subject for her HSC.
School principal Glyn Leyshon says student interest and involvement in music is stronger than in past years, which he believes is largely due to the increased accessibility of music. “The fact that they can very easily download hundreds of songs onto their iPods means they engage a lot more with music,” he says.
Music’s feel-good factor also plays a part. Olivia Bittar, in year 8 at Kooringal, says that scoring in music is more fulfilling than scoring on the sport field. “I’ve been playing softball for seven years, but coming second in Year 8 Idol [a school competition modelled on the television show] was probably the most exciting thing ever.”
But the popularity of music is highly dependent on the way the performing arts is fostered within a school. As well as Year 8 Idol, last year the school staged a school musical, a battle of the bands and a song-writing competition.
“If you provide the opportunities then kids will want to participate,” says Leyshon. A study by the Music Council of Australia shows 75 per cent of Australians want to be involved in music making, yet only 23 per cent of government schools conduct music classes.
Steve Billington, the principal of Muirfield High School in North Rocks, says that if it were not for his school’s conscious efforts in the past five years to develop its music department, the popularity of music among students might not be as strong.
“We made it a priority to get teachers, parents and students involved in building music up. Now the proportion of kids that are involved in music is quite significant,” he says.
The number of students studying music for the HSC rose by 27 per cent between 2000 and 2008, from 4500 to 5700 students (there was an 8 per cent overall increase in the number of students enrolled in the HSC). Another study found there has been a jump in musical interest outside school, especially among boys. The Bureau of Statistics found that the number of boys aged five to 14 who played a musical instrument outside school rose from 13 per cent in 2003 to 18 per cent in 2006, which for that period was the greatest increase recorded for all extracurricular activities, including sport.
As well as iPods, interactive music video games are helping to engage children in music and raise its profile. A study in the US found that playing video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band – in which gamers sing vocals or play a mock electric guitar, bass or drum kit – increased people’s desire to play a real instrument.
Tom McCracken, a 14-year-old drummer in year 8 at Muirfield, has been playing these types of games since 2005 and began electric guitar lessons the year after. He says the games are central to out-of-school socialising.
Even though music mod cons are boosting the subject’s standing, children’s participation in music is not likely to match that of sport. A 2005 government study showed the quality and status of music programs within schools is “approaching a state of crisis”. Only 66 per cent of schools offer music to all students, while sport is mandatory for all primary and junior secondary students. Government funding for music in schools last year totalled an estimated $2.7 million; whereas for school sport, the NSW Government has committed $40 million over the next four years.
Health factors and the incidence of childhood obesity have made the provision and promotion of sport in schools a necessity. But the inconsistent provision of music classes in schools has not taken away from the fact that students revere rock stardom more than sporting prowess.
Says Billington: “If you ask who were the most respected kids in the school – I’m not sure if a sports person would come to mind, but certainly a few musicians would.”
HITTING A HIGH NOTE WITH STUDENTS
– The number of students studying music for the HSC in NSW rose 27 per cent between 2000 and 2008.
– The percentage of boys playing a musical instrument outside of school rose from 13 per cent in 2003 to 18 per cent in 2006.
–The biggest competition to taking part in sport or music is watching television or DVDs. In 2006, 97 per cent of children watched 10 hours a week.
– Only 23 per cent of government schools hold music classes; 88 per cent of private schools do.
– The NSW primary system allots 1.5-2.5 per cent of its curriculum to music, compared with about 8 per cent for physical activity.
– The need for comprehensive music education programs in schools and training institutions for teachers is recognised in the Rudd Government’s arts and education policy, and will be discussed this year as part of the national curriculum debate.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Survey of Children’s Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities conducted in April 2006
Australian Attitudes to Music 2007, http://www.mca.org.au/mpfl/campaign.htm Stevens Report, 2001 “Music instruction in pre-service training of classroom teachers”, by Rachel Hocking, assistant to the director at the Music Council of Australia.
* This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald, April 6, 2009. Click here to see the original online.