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Music to our ears

maintaining music programmes in ISASA schools

Recounts Stephen Holder, head of music at Kingswood College, Grahamstown, “When I asked some students, ‘How does music benefit you?’ they fell silent.

“Then they answered that it was rather like asking how oxygen benefits life. Music is something a musical child enjoys doing. To do it is profoundly pleasurable and exciting.” Holder’s hit the right note, and he’s in good company. A veritable choir of musical maestros at ISASA schools all around the country laid down their batons, instruments and sheet music to contribute to our debate around the following two-part question: what are the benefits to children of a school music programme, and how can a school with few resources put a music programme in place?

Music crucial but undermined

All of our expert contributors agree that music should play a role in every child’s education. In fact, says Leslie Elderkin, music teacher at St Michael’s School and Learning Centre, Mafikeng, “Because of television programmes like Idols, children delight in listening to and performing music, and storing it in their iPods and other electronic devices. So keeping music classes in schools alive seems more important than ever.”

Sadly, say our contributors, not everyone shares this view. Holder is succinct: “Schools train children to support the economy, and developing their particular talents and interests is just a useful by-product. Since music is not generally financially productive, it is not part of the economy. If the economy fails or performs poorly, school music programmes will be cut.” Carike Rademan, head of music and cultural affairs at Woodridge College in the Eastern Cape and currently completing her Master’s degree in music education at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, extends the argument: “Our society supports a scientific and technological way of thinking reliant on rationality, causal linearity and factual evidence. It favours technology and, by extension, values the production and acquisition of material goods. Creative and artistic enterprises are marginalised in the school curriculum because they are not seen to be useful in achieving these goals. Music and the arts, however, offer various opportunities to escape the autocracy of the scientific world by accentuating perception, imagination and individuality.”

Many benefits

Many studies have been published about such benefits, observes Elsabe Fourie, director of music and culture at Kingsmead College, Johannesburg. “Research shows clearly that every aspect of academic development is improved by learning music: concentration, reading, the ability to make mathematical calculations, coordination, analytical and critical thinking, listening, evaluating, making contrasts and comparisons, assimilating, reasoning, memorising, creating, working towards a goal, persevering, developing resilience, self-discipline, courage and confidence.”1

Rademan adds to the list: “Music provides pupils with unique intellectual challenges. It can stimulate learning at any age, and the development of focus and auditory discrimination skills such as sequencing, pattern recognition and sound classification, as well as the understanding of the basic physical components of sound in science. Pupils learn to express, comprehend and discuss complex emotions and ideas.” Adds Hall, matching listening skills with actions such as marching, hopping and swaying, allows students to practise crucial muscle and motor control.

Holder opens up the conversation still further. “Being part of a music programme at school is beneficial because of what it reveals of and to a child. It takes a long time to learn to play a musical instrument. You learn that by hanging in, by playing a little every day, you get somewhere, that by contributing to the ensemble, the communal effort is improved, and that integration is not only possible but deeply desirable and satisfying.”

Music’s ability to “soothe the savage beast”2 should never be underestimated, says Sandra Hall, head of music at St Andrew’s School in Welkom. “In a post-apartheid South Africa, and a fractured world, music can play a unifying role. Songs from different cultures and countries provide excellent opportunities for children to learn about other people and places. Traditional songs, handed down from one generation to the next, can be kept alive.” Petra Byloo and Musa Ndlovu, senior primary choir teacher and primary school music teacher respectively at St Nicholas Diocesan School in Pietermaritzburg, are keen to remind readers of a simple yet enduring truth: “Music gives children an opportunity to discover a talent. As they discover a way to express themselves, all manner of problems – like psychological disturbances – can be addressed.”

Fourie points to other benefits. “Music performances showcase a school’s talent and bring it alive – always good for marketing! And equally importantly, watching children create music invites parents to participate in school life. Music unifies an audience, whether it sings along, or just cheers on the band.”

Music teachers must attack to defend

Society’s tendency to undervalue the arts is but one factor threatening music programmes at school, says Fourie. “When the pressure to achieve stellar academic or sporting results means longer school hours and even more homework, it’s typically the arts, like music or drama that suffer.” Roza Elderkin, head of music at the International School of South Africa, Mafikeng, agrees. “Far too often music in schools is pushed aside in favour of what are viewed as more important subjects.” Adds Holder, “It’s significant that many school accounting systems classify music as an ‘extra’.”

Fourie is also correct when she comments that of the decreasing numbers of newly qualified teachers in South Africa who graduate, fewer and fewer are music specialists.3 “In an effort to improvise, many schools shift the job of teaching arts and culture to class or language teachers.”

Constant devaluing of the subject makes many a music teacher weary, says Rademan, yet they must choose attack as the best form of defence. “My own research suggests that many music teachers are their own worst enemies. Rejecting a proactive stance, they lament a lack of support, and the ‘us (music teachers) against them (school management)’ mentality prevails.”

The problem could in part be solved if universities re-vision their music teacher training programmes. “The training of aspirant music teachers in South Africa needs to prepare them for any eventuality, so that teachers – and their students – will be able to thrive in a school without resources if necessary,” explains Fourie. “Student teachers must learn about the whole school context; about, for example, financial management as it affects the sourcing and costing of instruments and other teaching materials. Then those fighting for music in schools will be able to motivate for their cause against competing departments like science or maths. Music teachers must be experts who can provide facts and workable solutions to practical challenges to school business managers and governing boards,” adds Rademan.

Music programmes need support and careful planning

Ben Oosthuizen, director of music at St John’s College in Houghton, Johannesburg, agrees that music teachers must develop resilience. However, they also deserve support, he maintains. “School management must have the desire to offer pupils the opportunity to experience music and should facilitate the space for a time-table that enables musicians to make music without it conflicting with other activities.”

Like the strains that make up a symphony, other elements are necessary for music to survive, says Oosthuizen. “Where possible, schools must employ a music director strong enough to fight not only for the daily sacrosanct music rehearsal times, but also for the ongoing financial commitment from management. Then, parents of musicians need to understand how important it is for pupils to maintain a daily individual instrumental practice schedule, as well as a commitment to ensemble rehearsals. And, music programmes will thrive where a passionate music educator is in charge.”

Furthermore, says Rademan, “a music programme should not just be a collection of activities which engage students, but rather a well-planned sequence of learning experiences leading to the mastery of clearly defined skills and knowledge. At this point, theoretical knowledge meets the practical realities of specific situations.” For those facing financial challenges, she advocates the Kodaly system of sight-singing, focusing on aural development and music literacy and employing a systematic and graded set of musical activities; or the Carl Orff, Gunild Keetman or Emile Jaques-Dalcroze systems based on improvisation or the study of instruments.

Simple solutions

These kinds of approaches suit schools lucky enough to employ specialists, but all schools can put at least a rudimentary programme in place, says Fourie. “With an enthusiastic teacher at the helm, a basic keyboard and any available percussion instruments, one can go far. Add a CD box-set and a CD player – together they can provide backing for voices – and you are on your way.”

Say Byloo and Ndlovu, teaching rhythm is another inexpensive way to go. “Everyone can learn to clap hands and stamp feet. Pupils can make their own rhythmic instruments using pebbles or seeds in plastic bottles to create a variety of sounds and rhythms. They can also learn to hear different sounds and tones by filling glasses with different amounts of water and tapping the glasses with a stick.”

Wembley College in Greytown, KwaZulu-Natal, is one small ISASA school – 280 pupils from Grade R to Grade 12 are enrolled – that uses resources innovatively to ensure a music education for its pupils. Harriet Van Rooyen explains that all primary school pupils enjoy a weekly or biweekly singing class. Two choirs – one junior and one senior – practise and perform regularly. All this – plus guitar lessons – are taken care of by willing parents and teachers with at least some musical skill.

Enthuses Van Rooyen, “Our children sing for enjoyment, unaware that they’re also learning tonic solfa; through various songs, a second or third language; and through recyclable materials, an understanding of how different instruments work.” Hall approves. “Tone blocks (wooden blocks hit with a beater), claves (wooden rods hit together), shakers and leg rattles are easy to assemble from basic materials.”

Recycling also caught Pretoria-based Collette Isaac’s attention. Joining Cornwall Hill College’s music department in 2005 to teach subject music and the music component of arts and culture to grades 7, 8 and 9, she formed an unusual group. “We started making music on old metal dustbins. There was no need for previous musical experience. Anyone could join! All that was required was a strong sense of rhythm and a great attitude.

“Soon we were incorporating house and hip-hop beats, and sawing broomsticks into quarters to create drumsticks that added a new dimension. We experimented with handclaps and foot stomps, finger clicks and the spoken word, vocal sounds and tins; anything we could think of to create texture and draw in the audience. We were recycling and doing something intrinsically South African – sharing music, and it got us as far as the semi-final round of the South Africa’s Got Talent competition!”

Keeping the magic of music alive

Our contributors agree that such ‘out-of the-box’ thinking is required to keep music alive in our schools.4 Fourie is full of good ideas. “Schools can sponsor matriculants keen to pursue a music education degree at university, on the proviso that they return to their alma mater to teach. Recruiting music students from your local university to teach music for a nominal fee is also an idea.” Holder chimes in: “Make music with disadvantaged communities to share resources; and tour wherever and whenever you can to source funding for basic resources, such as music books or ledger paper. Even if you have nothing, encourage song. Singing is free!”

In closing, Holder and Fourie draw attention to two contrasting aspects of music’s appeal. Says the former, “We started a student exchange programme with a music school in Karlsruhe, Germany. The first group came back, full of adrenalin and new, unsettling visions. Because you are part of a music class in Grahamstown you could be in Germany one day, enjoying what one student told us was the most exciting time of his life.” And, says Fourie: “Music brings reflection and calm; a sense of accomplishment when a child walks back to their seat after a performance. There is a certain magic in making music that just lights up a child’s eyes.”


1. See, for example, Baedeker, R. (2011) ‘Seven ways music boosts that brain.’ Available at: academic-skills/; Cerbasi, J. (2012). ‘How important is music education in schools?’ Available at: is-music-education-in-schools/#ixzz1qaS3hum5; and (2007)Why Music Education? American National Association for Music Education. Available at:

2. Congreve, W. (2008) The Mourning Bride. Gloucestershire: Dodo Press.

3. Herbst, A. (Eed.) (2005) Emerging Solutions for Musical Arts Education in Africa. Cape Town: The Pan African Society for Musical Arts Education/African Minds.

4. For further ideas, see Baedeker, R. (2012). ‘How to start a music programme.’ Available at:

Category: Winter 2012

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