Changes in Music Education in Ireland: Part 1

Zoe Conway working with the students of Music Generation.

Changes in Music Education in Ireland: Part 1

Ita Beausang charts the changes in music education in Ireland in instrumental tuition, music in schools, and third level music education.

When the topic for this article was suggested to me by the Editor of the JMI I was deterred at the outset by its valedictory connotations, prompted by the realisation that my experience of music education in Ireland goes back over sixty years as pupil, teacher and parent. I was also tempted to add a question mark after the title, and felt reluctant to add to the ever-growing pile of reports on the subject.

However, although I fear that music education in Ireland, like Liszt’s description of the history of music, may be ‘overflowing with unresolved dissonances’ I hope to avoid the hazards of 20/20 hindsight, and to look objectively at the past in the context of the present. Before stepping into the musical minefields I would like to refer to the seismic shifts which have transformed the socio-economic landscape in Ireland during the years at issue. It is against this backdrop that I shall chart the changes in music education under the headings of instrumental tuition, music in schools, and third level music education.

Instrumental tuition [1]
All music education begins with the discovery of music by the child. My access to music was ensured from birth by a father who loved music, but to his everlasting regret could only play a wind-up gramophone. Listening to well-worn 78 records of orchestral music by Mozart, Grieg and Brahms are among my earliest memories. Later came Cortot playing Chopin and Schnabel’s recordings of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas. Instrumental music tuition was preordained for me by my father’s passion for music and by the availability of an excellent local music teacher, Maud O’Hanlon, near my home in Cork.

While at secondary school and at university I studied theory with J.T. Horne, organist at St Finbarre’s Cathedral, and piano with Bernard Curtis at the Cork Municipal School of Music. I also travelled to Dublin by train on the special rugby day excursions, for extra lessons with the redoubtable Patricia Read, always called ‘Miss’ Read (intoned grave as two minims), at the Read School in Harcourt Street, and with my cousin, Elizabeth Huban.

Practical tuition in Ireland at that time was provided by private teachers, members of religious orders, and by six Schools of Music, five in Dublin, one in Cork. In 1952 a Register of Music Teachers[2] (excluding staff of universities, teacher training colleges, schools of music, cathedral organists,[3] and members of religious orders) listed a total of 594 teachers, mostly female, teaching in their own homes. The majority of teachers were based in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and the large centres, but every county in Ireland was represented.

There is no doubt that private teachers, including religious, were the backbone of music teaching profession in Ireland, until social factors resulted in a major change in the nature of provision. In 1973, when the marriage bar in the public service ended, the days of the music teacher in the parlour were numbered, as more women entered the workforce outside the home. The decline in the number of religious vocations has also contributed to the reduction in number of local music teachers, especially in rural areas. The role of the religious orders in the provision of music education has not been fully acknowledged; for many years they virtually provided a peripatetic system across every county in the country, and identified and encouraged musical talent that would have otherwise have gone unnoticed.

In 1950 five Schools of Music – the Dublin Municipal School of Music, the Cork Municipal School of Music (both VEC-funded), the Royal Irish Academy of Music, the Leinster School of Music and the Read School of Pianoforte Playing – accounted for a total of approximately 3150 pupils.[4] The Army School of Music, established at Portobello Barracks in 1923,[5] trained musicians for four army bands, three based outside Dublin. In 1949 the terms of the Vocational Act of 1930 had been extended by Order of the Minister for Education, Richard Mulcahy, to include ‘instrumental music, the formation and training of choirs and orchestras, theory and appreciation of music.’[6] It was hoped that this would open the door to new developments, such as a music school in Limerick, and VEC music schemes.

The Municipal School of Music eventually opened in Limerick in 1961; a VEC-funded music scheme which was already functioning in County Cork was extended, and additional schemes followed in Counties Waterford, Dublin, and Westmeath. Other positive educational developments included the establishment of music schemes under the auspices of Forás Ceoil in counties Leitrim, Wicklow and Carlow in 1958, and the introduction of the Suzuki method of string pedagogy to primary schools in Cork in 1969, which had a major impact on string playing in the south.[7]

In 1952 Professor Aloys Fleischmann lamented the fact that ‘no Irish institution exists which offers full facilities for the training of church organists and choirmasters’.[8] This deficiency was remedied in 1970 by the Catholic Hierarchy with the establishment of the Schola Cantorum at St Finian’s College, Mullingar. Talented music students from all parts of the country were offered scholarships incorporating quality instrumental tuition and musicianship training. This initiative has produced two generations of distinguished alumni, many of whom now work in the area of music education, and most of whom continue to contribute nationally to the development of church music in Ireland.

The call for regional Schools of Music sounds as a leitmotif throughout the years. In 1985 the Deaf Ears? Report noted the geographic inequalities of instrumental tuition and the absence of a school of music in the West of Ireland. Musical exclusion is not confined to rural areas, many urban areas are equally disadvantaged. One of the recommendations of the PIANO Report (1996) commissioned by Michael D. Higgins, T.D., Minister for Arts, Culture, and the Gaeltacht, was the establishment of regional music schools initially in Galway and Sligo, and later in other urban centres. The review group was unable to find any publicly-funded music school north of a line from Ennis to Dublin.

In Ireland today there has been a vast increase in the number of music schools – sixty-five at last count. Many of these schools have been developed by VEC Education Officers and County Council Arts Officers or by private individuals to fill an educational void in a region; all rely on a pool of part-time teachers who travel from school to school, wherever work is available. The nature of provision varies in quality and consistency and is not subject to quality control, but there are shining examples in many parts of the country which point to outstanding achievement by dedicated individuals and the local community. The increase in mobility has also had an effect, enabling pupils and teachers to travel to music schools in other areas; in the cities traffic congestion and parking problems put extra pressure on parents ferrying children to and from music lessons

Of the six music schools listed earlier five still provide instrumental tuition as a core activity today, despite changes in location and identity.[9] In 1956 when I was a teacher in the Cork School of Music the ‘new’ building was opened on the site of the old Municipal School of Music at Union Quay. The School, a constituent school of the Cork Regional Technical College (now CIT) since 1993, is soon to be demolished and replaced by a £46m state-of-the-art building under the Government’s Public Private Partnership initiative.

The Dublin Municipal School of Music has undergone a series of changes since it was subsumed into the Dublin Institute of Technology in 1978, first as the College of Music, more recently as the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama. The Royal Irish Academy of Music has been closely involved in plans to set up an Irish Academy for the Performing Arts, a joint project between two Government Departments.[10] The Leinster School of Music has moved to a new location at Griffith College Campus. The Army School of Music, under serious threat of near-closure in 1995, has survived, but with reduced personnel.

Outside the mainstream system two agencies, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the Band Movement, have been central to the provision of instrumental tuition in Ireland. Both have a countrywide network and have filled the musical vacuum in many local communities. Educational initiatives developed by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann include a Teacher Training Diploma Course, a Performance Certificate, and since 1999 an examination system in association with the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

Youth orchestras too have flourished. I remember when Ruth Railton brought the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain to Cork for a residential course in 1958 their high standard seemed unattainable by young Irish players. Nothing daunted, following the visit, Michael O’Callaghan founded the Cork Youth Orchestra, the first of many such ensembles. The Irish Association of Youth Orchestras, founded in Ennis in 1994, has currently c. 55 members, totalling c. 70 orchestras/ensembles.[11] The standard of playing of the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, both Junior and Senior, and the Irish Youth Wind Ensemble compares favourably with their counterparts in the UK and Europe.

One of the most significant changes in recent years is the advent of sponsorship. In the past there was a certain amount of financial support from the VEC, the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of External Affairs, the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon, and private individuals. Today business sponsorship of the arts is promoted by Business2Arts, formerly Cothú (1988), and funding for scholarships and music projects is provided by numerous businesses and state agencies.[12] There is also an increase in the number of bursaries and competitions, such as the RTÉ Young Musician of the Future, regrettably cancelled in 2002 owing to cutbacks.

In the early days of Irish broadcasting music programmes for schools were broadcast by 2RN, until they were discontinued when the number of participating schools was reduced by conditions during the Second World War. Later Radio Éireann encouraged budding talent with programmes such as Children at the microphone, and provided orchestral concerts for children in association with Ceol Chumann na nÓg. Today, as the main patron of music in Ireland, RTÉ organises concerts for primary schoolchildren – the Irish Times Music in the Classroom series – and has set up a children’s choir, Cór na nÓg.

The NSO broke new ground in October 2001 with their first residency in Kerry, and individual members of the orchestra participate in the In Tune ESB/NCH music projects in primary schools. Unfortunately there does not appear to be any definite RTÉ policy to promote music education through radio and television. This may be a missed opportunity, especially since Lyric FM has the potential and resources to be a strong influence in the area of arts education.

Feis Ceoil continues to provide a platform for young talent, as it has done for over a hundred years; in recent times it has received sponsorship and support from Siemens and the RDS. The Music Association of Ireland, founded in 1948, has organised concert tours throughout the country, arranged debut recitals for young Irish performers and brought live music into schools since its foundation in 1951. The European Piano Teachers Association (EPTA Ireland) and the Kodaly Society of Ireland provide continuing education for their members through lectures, seminars, and workshops.

The role of the Arts Council vis-à-vis music education has changed radically over fifty years. It has moved from peripheral involvement to become a key player today, through its support not only for individual composers and performers but also for the main organisations and agencies in the field. Its first full-time Education Officer was appointed in 1979, it seems strange that the post is currently vacant, especially at a time when the Arts Council is shedding its skin to become a developmental agency under the terms of the second Arts Plan 1999-2001.

Music Network, established in 1986 by the Arts Council to develop classical, traditional and jazz music in Ireland, has taken on the educational mantle through an innovative programme of music projects in primary and secondary schools, and has set up the Young Musicwide programme in support of young Irish performers. The Minister for Arts, Culture, the Gaeltacht and the Islands, Síle de Valera, has recently commissioned Music Network to undertake a feasibility study into the establishment of publicly-funded local schools of music.

The opening of the National Concert Hall in 1981 has had an educational spin-off, enabling students to hear international soloists and ensembles, and providing masterclasses and primary school music projects through its Education and Outreach programme. But masterclasses and curriculum development are not a new phenomenon. From 1946 to 1956 the Department of Education held Summer Schools of Music in Dublin for students and teachers from all over the country. Tutors for the 2-week courses in choral and orchestral conducting, piano, strings and composition included conductors Jean Martinon, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and Carlo Zecchi, composers Arnold Bax and Alan Rawsthorne, violinists Henry Holst and Jean Fournier, pianists Herbert Fryer, Kendall Taylor and Ginette Doyen, and cellist Pierre Fournier.

I remember the Conservatoire-like atmosphere in Marlborough St., where the instrumental courses were held, as music echoed from adjoining practice rooms. I doubt whether such a musical invasion of the Department would happen today. There was even a rumour that the Summer Schools would lead to the establishment of a National Conservatory of Music, but … a general election was called, there was a change of government, and that was the end of that. Why does that sound familiar?

So after all that how have things changed in the provision of instrumental music teaching in Ireland? Plus ça change plus ça reste la même. With the exception of Irish traditional music, access is only available for children today, as it was for me sixty years ago, if they live in the right geographical area and have enthusiastic parents who can afford to pay the costs of their tuition. Some children are more equal than others.

Part 2 of this article will appear in the July/August issue of JMI

1. Not including N. Ireland.
2. Ed. Aloys Fleischmann, Music in Ireland, a Symposium, Cork University Press: 1952, 339-357.
3. Ibid., 160. The Register lists a total of 31 cathedral organists many of whom were also private practitioners.
4. Ibid.,122-128.
5. Now Cathal Brugha Barracks.
6. Ibid., 47.
7. Other important factors have been the location in Cork of the RTÉ and the RTÉ Vanbrugh String Quartets.
8. Music in Ireland, 83.
9. The Read School of Pianoforte Playing closed c. 1960.
10. See Richard Pine, ‘In Dreams Begins Responsibility’, The Journal of Music in Ireland, March/April 2002.
11. Including N. Ireland.
12. e.g. Arts Council, AXA, Black Tie, BOI, Bórd Gais, Bus Éireann, ESB, Fulbright, Goodbody, Heineken, IMRO, IRMA, Irish Times, Irish Examiner, Penney’s, RTÉ, Sunday Business Post, Toyota, Yamaha.

Published on 1 May 2002

Ita Beausang has recently retired from the School of Music and Drama in the Dublin Institute of Technology, where she held various teaching and administrative positions. Her research interests include music education in Ireland, Anglo-Irish music and music criticism.

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