Pop and Jazz Music to be included to O-level syllabus

The Ministry of Education (Singapore) has announced that Jazz, Pop Music and Music Production will henceforth be included into the ‘O’ level Music syllabus. This is great news for music education. For too long, the focus on studying only classical music leaves students the lack of opportunity to experience and study genres that have evolved since the time of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart.

I have taught students who have a genuine desire to improvise, to learn modern genres, but a number of them face huge obstacles in areas like syncopation, spontaneous improvisation, odd time signatures, quartal harmony, modal and altered scale sounds, 16-beat shuffle, Latin-Cuban rhythms, the list goes on. The largely ‘straight’ nature of Classical sounds as opposed to Jazz syncopation is one, huge major obstacle.

Others attempt to study Jazz the same way they study Classical- the need to keep looking at notes on the score. The problem comes with heavy syncopated rhythms in say, Funk and Fusion. When all these are notated on a score, the attempt to play them just by counting notes produces a largely mechanical feel – the phrasing, interpretation and time-nuances are lost. Jazz is much more of an Aural art form, rather than written. You have to listen to it intensively before anything else.

I am looking forward to the day when the Education Ministry will include a more practical component in the music syllabus where creative improvisation is assessed as part of overall musicianship. After all, music is essentially a creative endeavour.

It is heartening to note that one of my students, who is now taking the Music at ‘O’ level, excitedly reported to me what his school music teacher did with the music students in class – 12 bar Blues! ‘Ah!, easy for me, cause you have already taught me this way before!’ he exclaimed. ‘Good, keep learning, keep moving forward!’ I replied, smiling. I am also glad to know that he is now slowly being exposed to things like boogie woogie, motown, funk, etc. Good! (music learning must go beyond Sonatas and Preludes too!).

Perhaps one day we can get the entire school to experience say, some exposure to Jazz music over a sustained time period. For eg, Jazz music could be played during recess periods over the PA system. Jazz could also be introduced in class during Civics periods- where its history includes discussions about racial tolerance and multi-ethnic issues.

A practical step forward is to educate music teachers to teach basic Blues and Pentatonic scales to all students during Music periods. Nothing too fanciful and complex is needed, just giving students an opportunity to play and experience improvisation and jazz – first hand!

I believe all these steps will push students to appreciate different musical styles more – to learn to improvise over music, to find freedom in their creative expression. In the end, it will only benefit the creative and innovative fabric of our culture. (By the way, do you know that Mozart improvised alot during his time? So did Chopin! So you see, if they could do it a few hundred years ago, why should we stop now?)