Music in schools – a mixed bag
The state of music in our schools engenders both delight and dismay in the music development specialist at the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC). Avory Crooks has reasons to believe both sides of the paradox.
On one hand, she can declare that, “Our people are immensely talented … we have nuggets of (musical) excellence right across the island,” and “our children are just naturally musical.” On the other hand, compounding the fact that most Jamaican schools are without trained music teachers is that there is only one music education officer at the Ministry of Education and Youth (MoEY). He is Matthew Silpot and he serves the entire island.
Also on the positive side, our three most musical parishes, as identified by Crooks (Kingston and St Andrew, St Catherine and St James), are this year entering hundreds of participants in the JCDC music competition. Some 350 students from the Corporate Area alone participated in a January 26 music workshop at the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre. A second workshop is planned for later this month.
And, Crooks said, St James has the capacity to enter “five, six, maybe seven concert bands … some of them with as many as 40 persons.” No other parish can do that, she added.
She spoke with evident pride for she was educated into adulthood in that parish and benefited from an innovative programme started by Music Professor Judith Grimes, initially of Indiana State University and later of Elmhurst College, Chicago.
“She would send teachers in her bachelor’s programme from America to Jamaica,” Crooks explained, “and they worked alongside Jamaican teachers to build music bands. They got credit for the course they did here. She would also send instruments. I came up through that programme.”
The programme also saw Jamaican students going to the US in the summer and playing in the orchestras of musical shows, Crooks said. She added that though Professor Grimes has retired, “her legacy lives on”. Part of that legacy is the popularity of music bands in St James.
But while Crooks is happy that there are tertiary-level music programmes at several of our institutions – including the Edna Manley College School of Music and as of last September, its campus at Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College, Montego Bay; Northern Caribbean University (NCU) and the Mico University College – she laments the fact that most of the graduates migrate.
They do so for two main reasons, she said – to get higher salaries and to further their musical education. She herself started her music education at Montego Bay High School for Girls, continued at Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College, moved on to a bachelor’s programme at the School of Music and then did additional courses at NCU.
Now, in order to pursue a master’s and doctorate degrees in music, she would have to go overseas. “Postgraduate degrees are not available here (in Jamaica),” she said.
So one of her dearest wishes for music in Jamaica is to have music teachers, trained or not, get more opportunities for further education in the island. She said tangible incentives should be provided to teachers entering their students in the competition.
“We have music teachers who are working very hard with students, so I would love to see those teachers get opportunities to further their music studies,” she said. “Rather than just a trophy, if they’re offered scholarships they would stay and work in the system and would better themselves. They would be able to give more and the quality of teaching would improve.”
The training could be given by the music training institutions as “crash” courses. “They could be done over two summers, and they (the student teachers) would get certified,” she said.
The music workshops are part of the JCDC’s current islandwide series for the various performing arts – dance and deaf dance, drama and theatre arts, music, traditional folk forms and speech. Crooks has been in her post as JCDC music specialist since 2015, and when she was a music teacher, would take students to the JCDC music competition.
She was also a JCDC adjudicator and in her experience in the different posts, she said, she found that the music competitions mean a lot to the participating students.
“Talk to these students ten years from now and they’ll remember coming here to the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre and performing, getting tips and meeting other people who also sing and play. It makes a difference in their lives [and impacts] the kind of human beings that they become.”