Time for a triple-threat curriculum?

While Rose Ayling-Ellis & Giovanni Pernice proved that you can have dancing without sound, the dramatic contrast achieved in their Couple’s Choice dance on the last season of Strictly Come Dancing underlined the usual reliance of the artform of dance on the artform of music.

Similarly, you can have drama without music, but even Shakespeare recognised the value of a carefully positioned song, and it’s certainly impossible to imagine a TV or film drama without an underpinning soundtrack. The enduring popularity of the musical theatre genre on both stage and screen proves that when music, dance and drama combine, something magical happens.

So why do we teach music, drama and dance as separate disciplines? Even when preparing ‘triple-threat’ performers for musical theatre careers, we still often find these skills separated out in the curriculum, with music, drama & dance only integrated together when working on a particular number or show in rehearsal or performance.

Furthermore, in music itself we often break down the subject into sub-categories. Instrumental learning often takes place elsewhere, with a different teacher, in a wholly different learning context, and is very often only accessible by a select few pupils. Singing may be confined to a weekly singing assembly, where pupils undoubtedly experience the joy of large group singing, but have little opportunity to develop their own, individual voice. Listening may be positioned as a circle time or class assembly activity, which is passively consumed by children alongside a list of facts about the composer or musical style presented.

But actually, multiple research studies have shown that children develop quickly and more robustly as musicians when we combine these musical skills together in our curriculum. Conservatoires look specifically in entrance auditions for well-rounded musicians who are as creative as they are proficient on an instrument, and whose wide range of listening experience complements and enhances their performance specialism. On a more prosaic level, combining all these different musical skills within our lessons at the least ensures that everybody will be good at at least one part of every lesson, ensuring motivation and engagement with learning.

A curriculum which integrates the skills of performing, composing, and listening can be further enhanced by also reaching out to embrace other art forms. Whom among us hasn’t asked pupils to move to the music in order to ‘feel’ the beat, or show the patterns of high and low notes in the music with hand gestures? Do we not always encourage our pupils to show the emotion of the lyrics they are singing by using facial expression? The lines between music, dance, and drama are blurry, and often artificially imposed by practical necessities of timetabling, rooming, and teacher expertise. But if we can harness these, we can create powerful learning across all three areas.

The new Curriculum for Wales groups individual subjects into overarching areas of learning and experience, with music, drama and dance (alongside film, digital media, and art) falling into the category of Expressive Arts. This presents a fantastic opportunity for teachers in Wales to reimagine the way that arts subjects are taught, and specifically to highlight and draw upon the connections between them. There is potential for really exciting, large-scale project work, which immerses pupils in creative processes across disciplines and gives them an appreciation for how combining art forms can maximise their impact. These kind of projects can give pupils an experience akin to that in the working world, where artists may specialise in one discipline, but need mutual understanding of other disciplines in order to create successful commercial collaborations.

Wherever you are in the world, and whichever national curriculum or set of guidelines you operate under, it is worth considering whether you too can harness the unique power of artistic collaboration, and motivate and engage your students through implementing a triple-threat curriculum!

Dr Elizabeth Stafford 1st April 2022