There's so much hope in Singapore's music education. This post may seem extremely naive and idealistic and invite some eye-rolling from non-believers or jaded music educators but it shall have to be such, for now.
STAR Singapore has been doing some great music stuff for music education in MOE schools. In the arena of music beyond MOE schools though, it's standardized instrumental exams galore with Trinity, ABRSM and the likes. Are our kids not taking enough exams in school, that we have to mould their music journey with an exam route as well?
This phenomenon started years ago, and have now been engrained into the Singapore music education system. As a child, I took these exams diligently as well and it was something to be proud of to have achieved Grade 8 in primary school. Nowadays, educators have learnt to help their kids tackle exams so well that Grade 8s and diplomas in primary school is so prevalent. But if we look at the kids who have achieved these certificates, how many truly enjoy music? How many are truly independent learners? How many have enjoyed their musical journey? How many recognise the benefits of their musical journey? How many are advocates of music? How many would go on to enjoy the benefits of music throughout their entire life?
Obsession with exams is not the fault of parents. Who hasn't heard as kids about these notorious exams which have been used to peg any musical "achievement"? These kids grew up to peg their own child's achievement with these exams as well. Who hasn't heard about the benefits of music education - higher IQ and improved testing scores? The desire to enable their child to reap these benefits, using music as a means of an end, is entirely valid.
Neither is this obsession the fault of teachers. Majority of music educators in Singapore have probably been brought up in this exact grading system. We teach the way we were taught. We help kids and parents the way we were helped before.
The system desires teachers to prove their "teaching worth" by the number of kids they have taught that scores distinctions or merits in these examinations. Students and parents are judged by peers and institutions through the grades they have achieved.
It's a vicious cycle. And quite a venemous vicious cycle I must say. People are judged by these exams, which creates demands for these exams, which in turn creates demands for teachers to prove that their kids excel in these exams.
I'm not saying that these exams are the problem. The issue is the mentality that our music education revolves around these exams. The way these exams are used presently limits and restricts music education greatly. It produces generations of students whose aim is to "finish" Grade 8/diploma and to move on with their lives, like how they achieve their PSLE, O-levels and A-levels/IB. Is there really a way to "finish" music education though? Is there a point of "finishing" it?
Essentially, these exams are not teaching methods as well. They may be used as occasional indicators of musical excellence and benchmarks, but should not be used as sole teaching materials.
Music is a lifestyle. Music can be a life-long partner to anyone. Our students don't necessary have to become musicians, how many really do anyway? However, music can play a huge role in each person's life - for one it can be an outlet of expression, for another it may give a sense of belonging to an orchestra or musical group or a way to create a more balanced lifestyle.
Since returning to Singapore, I've met many like-minded fellow music educators who are excited about pedagogy, about learning more as well as doing more for students, parents and the music education in Singapore. We all recognise the challenges of music education in Singapore and lament the obsession of examinations in the system and the lack of encouragement for love of music for music's sake. We may not make up majority of Singapore's music educators, but as passionate pedagogues with strong beliefs, we can definitely make the difference needed. Coming together with these pedoguges gives me strength and I hope that gradually, a community of music educators come together to keep each other motivated, support each other's work as well as constantly learn to become better teachers. The environment we are in is trying, but when we come together, there is strength in numbers.
It has not been just fellow music educators who have inspired me. In the past months I've been back, I've talked to many sets of parents who have been incredibly open-minded about music education. While I'm unsure of how prevalent such parents are, they may possibly be few and far beyond, to me it's a great start and I'm happy to start creating an impact for a handful of kids.
This is a post that will act as a reminder to myself in future when I become jaded, that there is always hope! There are fellow educators I can talk to who will inspire me, creating new energy, rekindling love. There are parents who can relate to my vision of music education in Singapore. I moved back not knowing what to expect but am now excited by the prospects and the direction music education has the potential of moving in the long-term.