Australian conductor and educator Richard Gill has branded the notion that teaching children music notation is elitist as “a strange idea indeed” following the Guardian’s publication of an article titled Music is Now Only for the White and Wealthy. The article by Charlotte Gill (no relation) has drawn criticism from music circles around the world, with critics condemning its “anti-intellectualism” and “romanticisation of illiteracy”.
In her article Gill critiques the state of music education in the UK and claims that musical notation is “a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education. Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.”
The article has drawn a fierce reaction, including a letter by pianist Ian Pace – now published by the Guardian – that has attracted over 650 signatures from music professionals, including conductor Sir Simon Rattle, pianists Imogen Cooper and Stephen Hough, cellist Stephen Isserlis, flautists Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway and composers Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Nyman.
As one of Australia’s most important figures in music education, Richard Gill spoke to Limelight about his take on the furore. “While it is true that one can appreciate music without necessarily reading notation, the idea that teaching notation to children is elitist is a strange idea indeed,” he said. “Millions of children from all sorts of backgrounds from all over the world read music. Someone taught them and they have all survived, it would seem.”
“Teaching notation is not quite the same as teaching Latin, as Ms Gill states. In fact there is, as far as I can tell, no comparison between Latin and notation of music,” he said. “Ms Gill, who regrettably shares a surname with me, seems to me to be in favour of mediocrity and dumbing down music education.”
Richard Gill has long been a passionate advocate of making high quality music education available to all children. “We already have enough dumb people in the world, which is why we try to give children the very best where possible, including the teaching of musical notation,” he said. “The good, however, that will come from this strange article is that a debate will be generated and music education will be brought to the fore.”