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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 1

The State of Music Education in Quebec

by Marie Valla / September 1, 2000

Version française...

Music professionals in Quebec and elsewhere are prone to complain these days that even the most prestigious establishments don't receive the public support they deserve. For many, this lack of interest in music as culture, and not just as entertainment, is linked to the fact that music teaching in schools is very poor.

Jacques Desjardins of the University of Sherbrooke's music school is worried. "As long as music isn't considered a basic subject, we will have trouble _lling our concert halls," he says.

Quebec's Ministry of Education has strengthened music in the schools with its elementary school reform project that will be operational when school opens in September. Unfortunately, the project is not designed to rede_ne the importance of music as such. Continuing dif_culties are caused by the fact that music teaching in Quebec schools differs widely. Moreover, music still has to compete against other special courses such as visual arts, computer science, and so on. The real question is whether music is a body of knowledge or a teaching method helping children in their development.

"Should children in elementary school be learning music for its own sake? And is learning music as an end in itself any guarantee that symphonic music will survive in Quebec in particular, and in the world in general?" asks UQAM professor Nicole Carignan, an associate member of the Canadian Music Centre. "Elementary schools must give priority to discovery, exploration, creation, and developing imagination."

There are some public schools that offer specialized teaching in music in the regular curriculum in all grades. FACE (the initials stand for Fine Arts Core Education) is a good example. This bilingual public school in downtown Montreal offers artistic training integrated with traditional subjects. Theodora Stathopoulos has been teaching there since 1992. "At FACE we feel that training in the arts reinforces other subjects," she says. Music has a particularly important place there. "The students must take vocal and instrumental music courses and can't opt out of them while attending the school."

Unlike the École du Plateau, another downtown public school that offers a music specialty alongside regular studies, FACE doesn't have entrance exams or auditions. The pupils are not chosen for their talent or skill. They are expected to show their determination to work as much in music as in drama or visual arts, in addition to traditional subjects.

But this accent on musical training is far from common in public schools. "The success of a few has been easier to achieve than access to quality teaching for the majority," says Carignan. Since music is de_ned as a secondary subject, its teaching varies from school to school.

In elementary schools, for example, ministerial regulations require music as an obligatory once-a-week course. Some schools use music specialists. But Karine Messier, a B. Ed. student at UQAM, points out that it's often the general class teacher who has to teach music.

Education reform doesn't affect the principle whereby "each school does what it can," according to Monique Gallant, president of the Fédération des musiciens éducateurs du Québec (FAMEQ). The reform promises more teaching of so-called specialties, including music, in the curriculum, but it has no provision for increasing the number of teaching hours. The reform sets aside 5.5 hours per week for the specialties block, but it is up to the school to allot time to various courses. Arts specialties often can't compete effectively with other subjects (for example, multimedia) which are considered far more useful.

In a context where musical language is evolving and technologies are continually changing, and where young people's cultural behaviour is in flux, the Ministry considers it imperative that "activities in music classes [take] these realities into account."

Gallant wants to put an end to the perception of music reduced to the music-media star system. "There are some aspects of music, such as discipline and seriousness of involvement, independent of whether you're learning to sing or play an instrument, that can be transferred to everyday life," she points out.

The desire to make music part of individual and collective cultural life is one of FAMEQ's rallying cries. The goal of the thirty-year-old federation is to bring together everyone involved in music education at all levels, in order to defend the place of music in schools. The Ministry consults FAMEQ among other bodies. It was FAMEQ that initiated a coalition to protect the role of specialists in the teaching of the arts.

Music is not differentiated from other arts disciplines that promote the development of a child's personality. François Legault, the Education Minister, has stated that "The arts are an important means of expression for the young. Cultural activities are important because they contribute to children's development." Nicole Carignan feels the bene_ts of education in the arts go further than this. "In our fragmented society, it seems to me that teaching the arts could help our young people make sense of the world."

Monique Gallant sees music as having a very special role. "Studies have shown that developing the inner ear is vital in learning to read and in mathematics," she says. She notes that "only music makes the two lobes of the brain work at the same time." Her experience as a teacher has shown her that in helping children _nd their voices, she is helping them _nd their place in society. To get children singing together instead of competing with each other helps them develop a collective sense of pride. "Making music means doing things together, at a time when television and the internet are isolating people."

Theodora Stathopoulos shares the view that "all children should be exposed to music. They should be able to reach a level at which they understand its essential nature. That will make them good consumers of music. The same is true of literature. You don't stop reading after you've learned your alphabet; you keep on until you understand."

"The key is to expose children to music as soon as possible, and to teach them at the same time as they are learning to read and write," says Jacques Desjardins. "If children can have the tales of Daudet as beginner readers, why can't we do the same thing with Bach in music?" The of_cial guidelines for music teaching leave teachers a lot of room. "There may be a chance for a revolution from inside the school," he adds.

Music is one of the poor cousins of Quebec education. The same is true in France. The strength in this _eld of countries like Holland, Hungary, and Japan is based on what Theodora Stathopoulos says is the conviction that "music in the school shouldn't simply be dessert at the bottom of the menu. It's an indispensable ingredient in the main course, and without it we won't be well nourished."

Translated by Jane Brierley

Version française...

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