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My eldest son is fast approaching his 4th birthday, and one of the things I love about this particular age and stage is how his language is developing. On the one hand (and I love this), he makes a number of ‘mistakes’, often confusing the meaning of words and pronouncing things wrong; this is usually very cute! On the other hand, he will come out with something quite profound and insightful; he’ll use difficult words in the right context and string together complex sentences. A few days ago, he said to my wife over breakfast; “Mummy, was the Titanic called the ship of dreams?” My wife confirmed this, to which he responded, “Once it sank it was called the ship of bad dreams!” Whether his Titanic obsession is verging on unhealthy or not, it did make us laugh and it’s fascinating to see him learning to express himself.

I’ve noticed two things that contribute to his rapid development; his lack of insecurity when he makes mistakes and his opportunity to always talk or ‘practice’ with many people who are more experienced speakers.

Whilst we sometimes correct a wrong pronunciation and want his speech to keep developing, we don’t criticise him and make him feel bad for making mistakes. How mean would that be!… No, we are first and foremost loving that he is learning to communicate and we are actively encouraging that. We also speak to our son, all the time, and we encourage him to talk with others; other children as well as adults. The fact that his language is not as developed as ours is no barrier to him talking with us. We love the conversations we have with him (even if they are primarily about diggers and the Titanic!) If children weren’t able to explore language and communication with their peers or their elders, they would certainly be at a disadvantage. How would they learn new words, discover new topics or develop new ways to express themselves? Practicing with people different or ‘better’ than you, in almost any field, is one of the best ways to grow. This is evidently very true for language, and it’s also true for music. However, many of us have grown up in an educational system that doesn’t always facilitate this well, and I believe this is particularly true of music education.

Do you remember your first music lesson? I remember my first piano lesson well; I was a very excited 8-year-old; excited at the prospect of becoming a better musician. Whilst I learnt a lot from my teacher (she was a lovely, supportive lady), my lessons focussed on learning to read, never on learning to speak. The first things I learnt about music where the stave and notation; how to interpret symbols into pitch and rhythm. I was excited about learning to speak the language of music, but my introduction to music (like many) required that I read. This is true for many aspiring musicians, and in the most part we don’t think anything of it; we accept that this is what music lessons are like. I don’t believe we should.

Learning to read was a valuable skill, but at the beginning of my musical journey, notation put into my consciousness the concept of a ‘wrong’ note. When you read notation, it can be quite mathematical, and like maths there are absolutes – an equation is either right or wrong. Before I started learning music formally I played plenty of ‘wrong’ notes, but I didn’t class them as wrong; I was just aware that they sometimes didn’t sound very good! On some occasions I would play a ‘wrong’ note that actually sounded better than the one I intended! The problem with reading from the start, is that notation requires that we play the right note. If we don’t play the note that is written, it is ‘wrong’ – regardless of whether it sounds good or bad or whether we can learn from it. When our ability to make mistakes, and learn from them is stifled, our creativity and ability to grow is inherently stunted.

At Nexus ICA we are passionate about music and are convinced that it has power to speak powerfully. As the Head of Popular Music, I am a strong advocate for the importance and value of learning to read and write music. However, I am even more convinced that our systems of music education should develop this as a secondary skill that flows from a musician who can first speak the language of music. As author and speaker Ken Robinson comments, we can “educate our children out of creativity” (TED, 2007). This is something that we must never do.

Further Reading / Viewing

How we design our curriculum in the context of higher education is something that I’d like to explore in future blogs. However, if you are interested into delving into these topics a little further, here are a couple of videos to check out in the meantime.

TED. (2007). Do schools kill creativity? | Sir Ken Robinson. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Mar. 2018].

Matt Cossey

Matt is an experienced performer, educator, session musician and musical director who brings a wealth of musical experience to Nexus ICA.  As well as teaching and performing worldwide, Matt enjoys giving his time to composing, arranging ...

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