While music teachers know what a wonderful thing they are offering, some children may easily get deterred by the squeaky strings of those first violin lessons or the breathless attempts to get a sound from the oboe. Parents may question the importance of a subject that’s not seen as academic. (Or maybe it’s the memory of those awkward recorder lessons where you were sat in a roomful of seven-year-olds all struggling to play London’s Burning at the same time!)
Schools have really changed their tune worldwide, though; just as school has changed a lot since you were a child, so has the teaching of music (there’s the ukulele replacing the recorder for a start).
We look at the music scene in Singapore’s international schools and speak to their music teachers to find out why music is an important and compulsory part of the curriculum. We ask, is music only a subject for future songwriters and performers? Or can all children benefit from studying music?
Music is compulsory in the UK National Curriculum from the age of five up to 14 years, and for many children their first experience of music will be at school. A substantial number of schools, including XCL World Academy (Singapore), Dulwich College (Singapore) and Nexus International School, teach IGCSEs in music.
There is only a small number of schools in Singapore that also teach A Level and AS Level music, including Tanglin Trust School. (The music cohort at Tanglin this year included AS Level student Harry James Lucas, who achieved Top in the World for Music in the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Awards.)
Similarly, the International Baccalaureate programme dedicates both time and resources to the arts. The IB’s Primary Years Programme includes music. During the Middle Years Programme (MYP), all students study three arts programmes from Grades 6 to 8: one visual arts, one performing arts, and one design course. Students then go on to study one of these fields during Grades 9 and 10 and end the programme with an arts showcase in Grade 10.
In the IBDP (Grades 11-12), students study music as part of the arts subject group. IBDP students must study Theory of Knowledge, which includes a unit that addresses questions such as ‘Who determines art and what is and isn’t art?’, ‘What are the standards a society uses to judge good art?’ and ‘What is the purpose of art?”. They also complete a CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service) project, which can include arts activities.
Music is also widely taught at schools offering a US curriculum, such as the Singapore American School, and other arts subjects are integrated into academic subjects. Some schools will teach music based on US programmes such as the Massachusetts Arts Curriculum. In the college years, students have a choice of art history, studio art and music theory under the Advanced Placement programme.
Private schools worldwide have a reputation for championing the arts, whether that’s music, drama, dance, film or art. While music education is a strength in countries like Sweden and Denmark, it can be less consistent in the US and UK where there are concerns that music is being squeezed out of the curriculum in state schools due to funding pressures.
Singapore is addressing its earlier shortcomings in arts education. There are plenty of international schools in Singapore that recognise the value of music in the curriculum – and bring it to the fore in the daily timetable. Specialist teachers are often brought in to teach creative subjects from early years (as young as three) up to college, and dedicated facilities ensure that music is not side-lined.
Clare Lambert, a music teacher at Nexus, explains:
“Music is more than just a subject. From an early age, learners immersed in music are provided with a range of life skills such as confidence, communication and empathy. Music ability is also associated with improved motor skills and cognitive development.”
The facilities here in Singapore range from simple outdoor music sheds to state of the art recording studios. Examples include Dover Court International School's Music Technology Room equipped with iMacs and headphones where students can compose soundtracks; this is used as part of the school’s unique Juilliard curriculum. Dulwich College (Singapore) spent $1 million on Singapore’s largest pipe organ, which is described as “the centrepiece of the College’s extensive music programme”. Students can learn to play the fully functional pipe organ alongside other unique instruments including the viola, oboe, bassoon and harp.
Smaller schools are also investing in music. EtonHouse Orchard may not have a large campus, but it is creative with its use of a small space; it uses a town square concept with a black box theatre, music area and small stage to give students a transformative space to perform. And The Perse School (Singapore) has a single music room filled with ukuleles and even handbells, giving students the opportunity to try a new instrument every term.
The much larger Tanglin Trust School has two floors of music facilities opening within its new Centenary Building in September 2022. These include an orchestra and rehearsal space, recording studio, 100-person rehearsal room, and recital rooms – all providing a more aspirational space for music that will be "good to look at and good to play in."
At nursery and primary level, schools offer students the opportunity to learn an instrument. Typically, this is the keyboard or guitar, but some schools offer other unique choices.
Tanglin Trust School runs a Year 3 string programme and a Year 4 wind and brass programme; students learn in groups of four or five for 10 weeks of the academic year “to help inculcate that idea that we are all musical”. It's ‘can-do’ programmes like this that offer students of all abilities a real chance to progress in an instrument.
As Michael Holiday explains:
“Our message is – if you come to Tanglin, you will leave being able to play and enjoy music, rather than if you’re musical come to Tanglin and you’ll get some great opportunities. We give everyone the opportunity.”
At Singapore American School (SAS) and UWCSEA’s East and Dover campuses, students can learn and perform on a gamelan instrument; and XCL World Academy (Singapore) runs a six-week string instrument course (violin/cello) for all primary students.
Free from the constraints of a national curriculum, schools are integrating various tried-and-tested global arts programmes into their curriculum. For example, Australian International School follows the Orff Music Literacy Programme, and integrates music, movement, drama and speech into its play-based learning for early years students. Stamford American International School (SAIS) is the first and only school in Singapore to offer the world-renowned Suzuki Violin Programme from the age of three, with the option to progress to the cello from the age of five.
Becky Jones, Head of Secondary Music, Instrumental Music Program & Performance Coordinator at SAIS, says:
“At Stamford, we strongly believe in the benefits of a general music curriculum that allows for experimentation and inquiry in line with our IB World accreditation. Students learn not only instrumental skills but develop creativity, composition, musical literacy and a love and appreciation for sound and global music.
"Curriculum time gradually increases over the age ranges with students receiving anywhere between 60 and 480 minutes of music education per week, dependent on age, and choice of program, with most students receiving on average 80 to 200 minutes of curriculum music in their schedule.
"Additionally, Stamford offers students the opportunity to take weekly one-on-one music lessons through its Instrumental Music Programme, which is a special opportunity to develop musical skills at a higher level, and a wide variety of Music Ensemble Program activities (CCAs) for students in a variety of styles.”
Music is taught through different mediums such as singing, song writing and playing instruments, and students are learning music of various styles, cultures and eras – everything from vocal, instrumental, film scores and classical to, pop, jazz, fusion and new music. There’s also a constantly evolving use of technology in music education, with students using GarageBand and LogicPro for making backing tracks, and YouTube, Spotify and iTunes for listening, transcribing and performing.
International schools can play on the strengths of having multi-national communities with a focus on global music. Walk into the music rooms at Tanglin, for example, and you’ll find all the instruments of a Chinese orchestra, the gamelan and Taiko drums alongside traditional Western instruments.
As Mr Holiday explains, it’s important not to be reductive.
“We’re not just teaching students Western, Euro-centric classical music, pop and jazz, which are all from the same geographical location, and then saying, by the way, here’s some music from Bali. Instruments such as the gamelan are woven through the student’s learning journey, so that student gains an appreciation of the place of music in the world – and how it is a different cultural artefact in different settings."
Tanglin is also using the Kodály method of teaching music and looking at how this can be interwoven into maths and English and other lessons to improve learning outcomes. "Music doesn’t just happen in the music hour," adds Mr Holiday.
The arts are a strength at Dover Court International School. It offers the Juilliard-Nord Anglia Performing Arts Programme which, it says, “promotes creative confidence and higher order thinking skills for our students”. Developed in partnership with the performing arts academy based in New York, this arts curriculum puts students in front of Juilliard’s performers and teaching artists at various workshops, masterclasses and performances. The love of music at this school starts in Year 1 when students take compulsory keyboard lessons.
Beth Brown, Director of Music at Dover Court, says:
“At DCIS, all students receive weekly music lessons with a specialist teacher from EYFS upwards. This ensures smooth progression for the students and the gradual acquisition of musical skills across the areas of performing, listening and composing.”
Most of us know that music is a good thing – it can lift our mood, reduce anxiety, and help you sleep better. As well as a being a subject in its own right, music can develop creativity, teach important life skills and increase confidence. There are opportunities to understand the importance of teamwork from being a part of a band or orchestra, think creatively to compose a piece of music, or develop confidence by performing a recital in public.
Mr Holiday (Tanglin) explains:
“There are lots of benefits to music in its own terms, but it is also true that music offers benefits in terms of soft skills, including teamwork, discipline, perseverance, and critical thinking. It also allows you to take joy and pleasure in something, which I think is an important skill to learn and have embedded within you. Music also allows you to express yourself.
"These are all crucial life skills, and music can give you the ability to hone, develop and practice them throughout your time at school.”
There is a vast field of music education that includes the expression of creativity, music performance, music theory, music ensembles, and music composition. This, says Becky Jones at SAIS, means that music has a "broader reach to all students, rather than a selective few."
"Additionally, school music programmes allow students to form deep friendships and relationships through shared musical participation with classmates and teachers, often forming bonds that last a lifetime," she explains.
"Developmentally, music performance is a complex function that requires mastery over all elements of education including reading, writing, and large and small motor skills. However, the ultimate value of music education is in its capacity to grow creative critical thinkers filled with compassion and ready to make the world a better place through art."
Taking a music qualification is linked to higher academic attainment; research by Cambridge Assessment found that taking music at GCSE equates to a typical student (at a UK state school) taking nine GCSEs getting one grade higher on one or two of their other subjects. There’s also plenty of research showing that you’re more likely to achieve a higher grade if you study something they are good at and enjoy. And, when it comes to emotional and psychological wellbeing, music has a long list of benefits.
Dover Court's Ms Brown says:
“Learning music brings a multitude of benefits beyond the classroom. Most importantly right now, music (whether listening or performing) promotes well-being and relieves stress. Learning a musical instrument ensures that the students develops problem-solving skills, excellent time management and perseverance. Music is also a collaborative activity which provides a social and creative outlet for many young musicians.”
Mr Holiday (Tanglin) adds:
“There are positive mental health outcomes that come from having a passion for music. Being able to pick up the trumpet, for example, and play with others is going to give you a sense of community, a sense of real pleasure.”
Music can open doors to a wide range of further education and career pathways – it’s not a subject exclusively for those students seeking a place at UK music conservatoire such as the Royal College of Music, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, or American colleges and universities including UC Berkeley and The Juilliard School.
Mr Holiday says:
“The best reason for choosing music is because you enjoy it – it’s the best reason for doing most things. I don’t mean that in a frippery way but because you take real pleasure in it. GCSES and A Levels are hard, and you’re much more likely to get a good grade if you enjoy the subject rather than taking it because it’s a more worthy option.
“If you’ve got something like music in your arsenal that you can enjoy and you can do well in – and it complements other things you are doing – then it would seem a sensible decision to make. Both in terms of the grade that you will get and your happiness.
"Biology may look great on your CV, but music looks good too – especially if you are going to get a better grade in it. It can be a better way of representing your hard work at school.”
Ms Lambert at Nexus tells us there's been a "dramatic uptake" in numbers at the school studying music at IGCSE and for the IB Diploma Programme. She explains:
"It shows the success in instilling confidence and ability in the lower years. At IB, learners are encouraged to follow their individual pathways and passions becoming increasingly independent and self-motivated. You will often see learners in the music department during their free time working on classwork, home learning or just wanting to make music with others."
For students hoping to become a musician, music therapist, teacher, composer or songwriter, then studying music at I/GCSE and beyond is a sensible choice. Students also have the option of taking a BTEC Music qualification at SAIS, which "allows students with an interest in pursuing a career in the music industry to gain a solid vocational foundation for future training and experience".
But music offers students a set of transferable skills that can be used in a wide range of professions, and it is highly regarded by universities worldwide. Combined with ‘facilitating subjects’ such as maths, English and the sciences, music can help to keep your child’s degree choices wide open.
Mr Holiday (Tanglin) says:
“Music at both GCSE and A Level is an academic pursuit. You’re being asked to do analysis and critical thinking, you’re writing essays, you’re creating output in response to chosen briefs, and you’re performing. There’s a breadth of skills that you need to master, and it makes you look rounded."
“You’d be unwise to take drama, art and music – just as it would be unwise to take all languages or all humanities – you want to show breadth in your exam. But you also want to get as good a mark as possible that represents the true culmination of your personal best.”
Whichever school your child attends, they will have an opportunity to participate in a variety of musical ensembles, full-blown musicals and choral concerts. There are inter-house music competitions, termly performances, Battle of the Bands, and local and overseas music trips. As Mr Holiday says, the ability to “prepare something, stand up in front of people, and present is an important skill”.
International school groups are giving students the opportunity to join a global community of young musicians. Dulwich College (Singapore), for example, participates in an annual Dulwich Festival of Music for its Asia family of schools; this was hosted by the Singapore campus in 2017. Dover Court, Dulwich College (Singapore) and Tanglin Trust are all members of the Federation of British International Schools in Asia (FOBISIA), which organises events such as music and drama festivals for its 61 members schools in Asia.
Music education is available at most schools – if you’re prepared to pay for it. Lessons are either held after school or during the school day; if the latter, lessons are usually scheduled on a rotating timetable to ensure that students don’t consistently miss the same class.
GESS runs a Vocal and Instrumental Programme (VIP) at its new campus and to encourage students to sign up for lessons, the school recently ran a Try An Instrument Week. Another example is Nexus International School, which works in partnership with the highly regarded Aureus Academy to offer instrumental lessons for students in kindergarten to Year 13. And at UWCSEA’s Dover and East campuses, more than 1,200 students are enrolled in its instrumental teaching programme.
Through the combination of timetabled lessons and extra-curricular activities, music certainly has a place in Singapore’s schools. As a parent it’s important to understand how music can provide your child with a well-rounded education. Music does not have to pigeon-hole them into a career as a singer or violin virtuoso – and it won’t close doors to them studying law, engineering or many other subjects at degree level.
For all the reasons above, there is an opportunity for your child to study something they have a passion for – and it is practical too. Music will not be the right choice for every student, but it should be considered.
Mr Holiday (Tanglin) offers a closing thought:
“I don’t ever want to hear someone say that they are not musical; music is a part of life and, while you may not want to do it now, you may change your mind in the future. By having music in the curriculum, you really promote the idea of not shutting a door – you will always have access to it.”