How Copyright Spoils Music Education

My relationship with music education is fairly long. I first began volunteering in a training band when I was a teenager and during my year out before going to music college I took on the responsibility of running it. I was teaching occasional lessons whilst I studied and teaching was something I began doing straight away once I finished my degree. Like many musicians in the UK, faced with the unknown post-college mystery of how to make a living from music, I studied for a post-graduate teaching qualification as well.
After working off-and-on as a classroom music teacher for a few years and knowing the job wasn’t what I wanted long-term I left that job and went on to working as a peripatetic instrumental teacher for a small local music service. To cut a long story short, in the last twenty years, off the top of my head I can think of twenty five schools and a university that I’ve taught at, a handful of training bands and community music groups I’ve coached and I honestly don’t know how many private pupils I’ve worked with, but I’ve easily worked with hundreds of people so far.

Having worked in this field for this long there are certain things you see over and over again. It’s easy to be cynical about the job and try to assign blame to government cuts, the education system in general, cultural shifts or short term fads, and these are genuine issues, but overwhelmingly I believe that music education can succeed on its own merits provided that people have access. Music is a huge part of the modern world and it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Sure, there are things we need to figure out, such as how the system is going to evolve without the peripatetic music system that resulted in the last few generations of musicians (see this post for more info on that topic). But there are thousands of talented and enthusiastic teachers out there right now who’ve adapted very well to teaching online during lock-down and will also adapt to whatever system we choose to build next, once they realise that looking to the past or waiting for the government to make a U-turn on budget cuts is not how we’re going to survive.

What I want to discuss instead is a problem that has existed in the world of music since at least as long ago as the invention of the photocopier: systemic piracy of published musical works. How I want to discuss this topic is probably different from other opinions that you frequently hear, but even if unpopular it is an opinion that needs considered as a part of the bigger picture.

I believe that the copyrighting of beginner’s music books, when written for the sole purpose of education fundamentally undermines the work that we do as music educators. Let me be clear about what I’m saying here: I do believe that composers, arrangers and writers should be paid for doing their job. There is a place in the free market for people to create unique, high quality resources for education and those who wish to dedicate their time to this work need to be paid. But basic music theory and simple melodies written for beginner instrumentalists has been done. In fact it has been over-done. It is all the same and most of it is bad. I’d love to think that people keep publishing books for beginners to improve on the old and outdated ways but this is not the case. In fact the new books are often worse than the old ones because more effort has been put into an engaging visual appearance than quality instructions or musical content. There are a lot of issues at play here and I think that people’s behaviour in terms of sheet music piracy is a result of the current system, not a reaction to it. Allow me to paint a scene:

Over the years I have taken on a lot of trumpet pupils who had their first lessons with other teachers. Although there are exceptions, the majority of the time this is how it happens: I turn up to a school and wait for a pupil to arrive. For ease of writing I’m going to name this pupil Jordan. I ask Jordan to get out his trumpet and sheet music. He opens his case and what I see is an instrument underneath a pile of squashed photocopies. He takes out these photocopies, makes a sad attempt to flatten them and then puts them on the music stand. “What’s all that?” I ask. “This is my pieces” is the reply. I have a quick flick through the crumpled pages and what I see is one or two sheets of long notes, some hand-written scales or maybe a photocopy from the ABRSM scale book, and then a few pages copied from a variety of easy trumpet books. To the untrained eye this music looks completely random but I instantly notice a page from Time Pieces Volume 2, another from The First Book Of Trumpet Solos, and a third from Easy Jazzy ‘Tudes. “Just done Grade 3, have you?” I ask. He nods. Bearing in mind that the last exam season finished around May and now it’s mid-September I ask Jordan what he has practised since the exam. “My last teacher [let’s call him Mr Smith] was going to get me the music for Grade 4” comes the response.

Now lets break down this situation. There are a number of things happening, all of which result in a negative learning experience for Jordan.

  1. Mr Smith has no problem with making photocopies of music and distributing it to all of his pupils.
    This is not unusual. There are a few reasons that he could give that seem obvious enough:
    – If had asked Jordan to buy the book then it could be weeks or months before he did… What would I teach him during this time?
    – I won’t teach them out of a beginner’s book for long, because as soon as I can I’ll get them on to exams and they won’t need it any more.
    – Exams are expensive enough, but you have to buy three books for an exam and only learn one tune from each book then it’s a waste as well.
    Generally speaking every reasons that I can think of for people distributing photocopies this is either for convenience, financial (i.e. the parents can’t or won’t buy the a book – maybe this necessity wasn’t explained to them when their child decided to take up the instrument), or the result of the teacher being dependent on the exam system because they don’t know what else to teach (this is a problem of epidemic proportions in my country).
  2. The pupil has clearly gone for at least six months with no new learning material. How can we expect pupils to practise if they don’t have anything to work on? Even if Jordan’s parents had taken him to a music shop then everything is sorted in reference to the exam system. There are no obvious books that an un-knowing parent could just pick up and if they call Mr Smith, or ask the shop assistant for advise then we soon get redirected back to the exam system for gauging difficulty… There’s no mention of what music interests Jordan, because that is not a part of our system.
  3. Jordan could have only been playing for a year, or maybe he’s been playing for three or four years and he has been led to believe that playing a musical instrument is about taking exams and nothing else. Maybe Jordan took Grades 1, 2 and 3, which means that over a number of years he has played a grand total of nine short melodies. But hopefully Mr Smith was astute enough to notice that Grades 1 and 2 are not really very different from each other and skipped at least one of them. Unfortunately that would mean that Jordan has learnt even less music. This may seem like a crazy exaggeration but I didn’t make this story up, it has happened to me more times than I can remember. Oh, and even though Jordan passed his Grade 3 exam, he couldn’t sight-read Twinkle Twinkle Little Star if his life depended on it. He has not been taught a single thing that would result in him becoming a musician.

In this situation I’ve only described the work of one bad apple in Jordan’s musical experience, but unfortunately of the twenty-five schools that I thought of earlier on, fewer than five of them had a school band, choir, or orchestra. The schools were primary and secondary schools and in both the private and public-funded sectors. So don’t go imagining that these kids are learning other aspects of music elsewhere… this thirty-minute lesson, of which they are usually only allowed to receive thirty in an academic year, is all that they get.

Looking back at what I’ve written so far it sounds like I have a pretty big issue with the exam system, and I do, but I don’t blame it for the problems I’ve attempted to describe. In fact the subject matter here is the books. I think that the real reason that teachers would rather photocopy these books than make their pupils buy them is simple. They aren’t worth buying. This is not a criticism of any one book (though there are some I could easily give you two-thousand words of criticism about). This is a criticism of the practice of taking simple melodies, transcribing them into easy-to-play keys and churning them out by the thousand to sell to people who won’t use them in the long term. The Prince Of Denmark’s March, written out as a sixteen-bar piece in the wrong key, just so that it can be learnt and played in a twelve-minute exam is not worth paying money for. Any trained musician could produce better learning resources for their pupils if only they realised that that’s what their job is. Teachers like Mr Smith instinctively know this, and that’s why they have no problem with stealing.

It’s certainly questionable whether anything I’ve said here really matters other than noting a sad abundance of poor education. When I think about the books I had and the process I went through when I was learning to play then I remember curious times of flicking through pages looking for some tunes that I could manage to figure out and have a go at playing. I remember listening to a Wynton Marsalis CD and then trying to learn the Carnaval of Venice even though I could only scramble through the first page. That kind of curiosity and the learning that comes as a result isn’t really something that Jordan would experience because if he doesn’t have the books then he can’t flick through them. Curious or not, he’s at a dead end.

But here’s the thing… There is a lot of music out there in the public domain that could easily be turned into free, legally shareable educational materials if only people had the motivation to do it. In the trumpet/cornet environment alone there is the Arban book, with over two hundred melodies and duets in the back, plus plenty of technical material, all out of copyright because it was written over a century ago. For those who are fed up with hearing me go on about that there is also the St Jacome book, which is a more enjoyable and completely comprehensive guide to learning to play. There are centuries of classical music and folk music in the public domain that could be transcribed for any instrument and used for teaching but very few people seem to do it.

Writing out music is an every-day part of my job as a musician and teacher. For me it is easier to write out some tunes or technical exercises than to have to rely on someone else’s “wisdom” to tell me what to teach. I see it as part of the reason that I’m allowed to charge the amount that I do. I don’t charge that much because I have qualifications, I charge because teaching is more than the half-hour per week that I spend with my pupils.

I think I could probably ramble on for longer, but that’s not really going to achieve anything. I have begun dedicating my time to writing out public domain music for use as educational resources and if you’d like to know more about that then pop over to the openArbanProject website. I also wrote a blog post about that earlier this week and I encourage you to read that for further explanation about my reasoning behind all of this. I believe that if there is enough high-quality, free of charge, free from copyright, material available for teachers to download and use, then we can start to move them away from toxic habits and lazy teaching. The future of music education will definitely be different from how it is today and if we can lower the barrier to entry by providing an abundance of resources to pupils then hopefully it will also be better.