A trip to the epicentre of culture… and some thoughts on exams…

It was with a strong sense of anticipation and exhilaration that I touched down at Vienna airport for my first ever visit to this wonderful city – in many ways the cultural centre of the world.

 

I was only scheduled to be there for two days but was determined to pack in as much as possible. The main part of those two days was speaking to teachers at the Vienna Musik Schule (six hours each day!) on Simultaneous Learning, The Virtuoso Teacher and other topics. 

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On the first evening, the excellent Susanne (my host), took me straight to Mozart’s house.  There was a real a frisson of excitement as we walked along the very street that Mozart must have done so many times in the 1780s…

 Mozart's street

Mozart's street

 

The second evening we visited Beethoven’s apartment. Ludwig lived on the fourth floor – up many many steps.  We arrived only ten minutes before closing and I had the impression that the custodian was not best pleased to see us!   Nonetheless we had time for a good look round.  Though I really wanted to play a few notes on B’s piano another custodian’s rather severe and protectionist glance at me as I approached the keyboard suggested maybe looking rather than touching!  Again, the excitement of being in Beethoven’s rooms was tangible.

 Beethoven's piano

Beethoven's piano

We also visited Haydn’s house (closed unfortunately) and by the time we did (and had consumed a wonderful piece of Sacher Torte) we had to leave Schubert, Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg and the rest for my next visit. 

 Haydn's House

Haydn's House

The fact is that Vienna exudes culture – the air is heavy with it and the Viennese and Austrians in general delight in it. And they are keen for the young to be immersed in it too.  Thus, all children have access to free music tuition by a large team of very committed teachers. But there was one serious issue: all children have to do a ‘one-size-fits-all’ exam after a certain amount of learning time, in order to access these free lessons. 

The Government, who pay for the lessons, understandably want to see that their money is being well spent.  But is an exam the answer?  It turns out that this exam causes both students and teachers quite a lot of stress.  And this caused me to offer some rather provocative thoughts.

My deep dislike of our public exam system in the UK stems from the fact that all children are different and, most significantly, learn at different speeds.  We all have (quite substantially) different brain processing rates – that’s how it is and that’s fine.  So we need to create an education system that acknowledges that. The graded music exam system does this, if used at its best, in that pupils are never required to enter. They choose to when they are ready. The one-size-fits-all approach of public exams only suits a small number – and the rest end up thinking: I’m not good enough… I can’t do it… I’m a failure.   And the number of learners with mental health problems in this country, which result from our public exam system should ring far more alarm bells than it seems to do.

I suggested that the Austrian teachers write letters to their government expressing their concern that the exam idea is not a good one. To replace it we simply need to define what happy and well-developing young musicians look like - at any time. In my opinion they look something like this: smiling, enjoying their music, thinking always how well they are doing in comparison to their own previous work. They shouldn’t be trying to fit in with someone else’s set of one-size-fits-all demands and requirements that may indeed suit some, but almost certianly won’t suit the majority.

The teachers seemed to agree with this.

So, if I haven’t stirred things up too much, I’m looking forward to my next visit!