Overture to a new music age

As schools everywhere perform their end-of-year concerts for children and teachers to demonstrate what they can achieve, Douglas Blane reports on a new wave of music.

There is a distinct impression of vibrant musical activity in schools around the country after a diminuendo passage that lasted for more than a decade.

After years of budget cuts and reductions in specialist teachers, funding from a variety of sources is helping to raise the numbers of participants in musical sessions and widen children's experiences.

The New Opportunities Fund and the Excellence Fund have provided millions of pounds between them towards out-of-school activities. The Scottish Arts Council has appointed nine education links officers around the country who are key figures in raising funds and applying for grants.

Increasingly music is recognised as a means of raising achievement and drawing in disaffected children, above all boys.

In North Lanarkshire more than 500 primary and secondary children of all abilities are bussed to a central location every Friday to take part in ensembles that include a jazz orchestra, a wind band, a preparatory band with 170 children, and two choirs.

In a NOF-funded project aimed at raising achievement for all, 900 primary pupils now practise regularly in after-school choirs, which raises not only their confidence, says principal music instructor Jim Park, but also their teachers'.

"It gets them working with music specialists and learning from them, so although the project is only funded for three years, it's building a base of teaching skills for the future. And it means the kids are going into secondary school with music, rhythm and reading skills."

Michael O'Neill, North Lanarkshire's director of education, sees music and music making as a "key part" of the authority's raising achievement for all policy. "For many young people it offers a lifelong learning interest and a possible career.

"Equally, music making in our bands, orchestras and choirs is an excellent vehicle to deliver many core skills such as working with others, problem solving, teamwork and inter-personal skills.

"Music, like sport, can give motivation, self-esteem and a taste of success to many pupils who might not otherwise experience it. A lot of research points toward the power of music to improve academic attainment.

"By developing rock and pop as well as the more traditional music, we are drawing in more boys and making inroads into their attitudes to education."

The authority's NOF after-school music, sports and arts programme costs pound;1.4 million and its bands, orchestras and instructors cost another pound;1 million.

East Ayrshire links officer John Wilson talks eagerly about music for all. "We have an awful lot going on. This year we've nine music summer schools with funding from NOF. Last week we had our annual showcase event, when our schools take over the Palace Theatre in Kilmarnock for three nights. We have a big charity concert in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall this Sunday, featuring our schools brass band, the senior choir, primary choir, and our pipes and drums. And last year we took 90 kids on a concert tour of Georgia USA."

Education director John Mulgrew says: "There is clear evidence that where young people are encouraged to participate in a wide range of opportunities in the arts, they benefit in many ways. Their personal skills and potential are developed, they become more assured, their creativity is recognised and communication skills are developed.

East Ayrshire's strategy also addresses the needs of pupils in areas of social deprivation.

"I have seen at first hand how young people benefit from their involvement in the arts and how their attainment levels rise as a consequence," says Mr Mulgrew. "Investment in the arts in education is an investment in improvement in education."

The expansion in music is happening throughout the country. In Highland, more than 50 ensembles are supported - "string groups, pipe-bands, junior and senior wind bands, orchestras, choirs" - and 2,500 children are receiving instrumental tuition. The groups range from a few pupils up to the Tain Royal Academy's orchestra which is a staggering 130-strong, one-fifth of the school roll. Highland also has the centre of excellence for traditional music in Plockton, which is funded by the Scottish Executive.

"I don't want to shout about it but we're quite well funded and things look very positive," says music adviser Bert Richardson.

In West Lothian, school ensembles have toured Australia and the United States. Arts and cultural services manager Brian Duguid, a former chair of Heads of Instrumental Teaching Scotland, says: "Instrumental music in Scotland is healthy, robust and rooted in our culture and there has been strong growth in recent years due to the work of the instrumental music service.

"Numbers of pupils at Standard grade and Higher Still are increasing all the time and there's been a big impact on school and community life through bands, ensembles and orchestras."

There are some continuing challenges, he says, such as working out the details of the post-McCrone agreement, which omitted instrumental teachers.

He is also concerned that 50 per cent of education authorities now charge around pound;90 a year for instrument teaching. "There's a worry that this may not be consistent with social inclusion.

"On top of the cost of tuition there's buying the instruments and the time parents put in to ferry their children around. It's a heavy commitment."

Mr Duguid would like to see some kind of short-term funding boost for the development of instrumental education and a career structure for instrument teachers, demand for whom greatly exceeds supply.

"When our instrumental groups go abroad we are constantly being told that young Scots are of the very highest standard. That's something we should sustain."

On a quiet Sunday afternoon in Cardenden, as the Fife Youth Orchestra practises in a small, packed hall for its forthcoming Queen's Jubilee concert, the conductor's manner brings to mind Arturo Toscanini's testy remark: "God tells me how he wants this music played - and you get in his way".

Time is short, the conductor Graeme Wilson, explains later. The concert is only four days away and the youngsters, from schools all over the region, are too relaxed to do justice to the music.

"No! No!" he shouts at one point during the rehearsal. "There's no excuse for making the same mistake twice!"

He gets the orchestra to stand up, turn around three times and waggle their arms to loosen up.

"Now then, this is all about the golden jubilee, so every note has to have gold in it. We want sparkly trills, golden, sparkly trills."

The soft-spoken, celebrated trumpet soloist by his side tries to find excuses for the youngsters. "They seem to be suffering from exam fatigue."

But the conductor is having none of it. "Come on now! We want big chunky playing. There should be colour, contrast and fun. That was far too deadpan."

Gradually his exhortations, with the quiet encouragement of the soloist, have the desired effect and the music begins to gain clarity and zest. The conductor dispenses a few words of praise.

Two more pieces have to be rehearsed for the concert and this is their only opportunity before the big day. The soloist, however, is only needed for the first piece so John Wallace, the principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, packs up his trumpet and then explains how a musician acclaimed in Vienna, Berlin and New York comes to be playing with children in Cardenden.

"I know Graeme Wilson, the music adviser in Fife, very well. I was born and grew up around here; my classmates were mums and dads of these youngsters.

"For many years Fife led the way in music, but there were signs in the 1990s of a retrenchment, as there were everywhere. I was very concerned to help out.

"We hear so much nowadays about science, technology and maths. But these are just the servants of ideas and creativity, which is what changes people's lives. All the maths I learnt at school was useless. Science isn't the key, it's the humanities. It's a poor education that focuses on science at the expense of culture.

"I don't think the argument is won yet, but maybe we've turned a corner. A lot of positive things are happening.

"We need to find more sources of finance though, by getting industry involved. They want a workforce that's able to change and music makes people adaptable."

After rehearsals are finished for the day and the orchestra has gone, Graeme Wilson, who was a principal teacher of music for 20 years, seems amused by the suggestion that he is quite tough on his proteges.

"You thought that was tough? That was me being nice to them.

"It's a big team, about 80 youngsters altogether, and they know the discipline. If you came to one of our residential courses you'd see how relationships develop, how we work with these kids. It's good natured but strict. We aim to get the best we can from them; we owe it to them to do that. And they do respond."

One of the greatest benefits of a music education is that it brings people together on an equal footing from a wide variety of backgrounds, says Mr Wilson, who has been Fife's education adviser with responsibility for music forseven years. He mentions a student from Japan who has come to Buckhaven High before pursuing his musical studies in Berlin.

"For the kids who play with him, it puts things in a worldwide perspective. Music has a way of doing that. It widens the scope of everyone's life."

Another benefit bestowed by a music education, say teachers, is self-confidence. The point is illustrated by Anne Johnson and Jacqueline Clark, two members of a classical guitar ensemble in Cardenden. Having finished their rehearsal session, the girls happily respond to a request for a demonstration and play quite beautifully a lyrical arrangement of a popular dance piece by Brazil's Celso Machado.

"They wouldn't have had the confidence to do that a year ago," says teacher Stephen Morrison.

There are more than 700 instrument teachers in Scotland - Fife has 50 - many of whom bring an added sense of relevance to their sessions in schools by continuing to perform professionally.

Mr Morrison says he would find it hard to stop performing. "It would be a tremendous loss. The time comes sooner or later for every musician but it's a tough decision.

"A big part of music's appeal is that each time you play it's different. Whether performing or practising, there's a life there; your reflexes, the conditions, the way you hear things are ever changing. The music is so complex there's always something new."

One of the recent changes for the better in instrument teaching, Mr Morrison says, is that teachers now go into primary schools, where he finds a freshness and enthusiasm that can be lost when the children reach secondary school. It also means that youngsters acquire early the habit of practising, and that, he believes, can make almost anyone proficient at playing an instrument.

His main concern is that instrument playing is not a compulsory part of the curriculum but an option which, in many areas, parents are now expected to pay for.

Mr Wilson also regrets the introduction of fees for music.

"I'd like to see a wider awareness of the benefits of music, both in schools and outside," he says. "And it would be good if we could wipe out the inequalities that exist because there's charging in some places and not in others.

"A lot of our parents say they don't have to pay for any other teaching so why should they pay for music. It's a thorny issue."

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