Skip to main content

Snobbery is a sound barrier

The new director of the Youth Music Trust is turning his attention to enthusiastic amateurs. Nicholas Pyke reports

THOSE who can, perform, make records and so on. As for the rest, their fate is well known. The musical world is divided by snobbery, says Gavin Henderson; and he intends to take it on.

Mr Henderson is in a good position to do so. He is, after all, principal of the elite Trinity College of Music in London, one of the great conservatoires.

Just as significant is his 14-year tenure as principal of the Dartington International Summer School, famous for a very different sort of music making. There is no shortage of big names. For the past 50 years, the leading lights of British music have been happy to sign up for the festival, buried in the Devon countryside. The difference is that they play for, and alongside, amateur musicians of widely varying standards and ambition.

Mr Henderson also wears a third hat, potentially the most useful of all: he has just been made chairman of the new Youth Music Trust, funded with pound;10 million of lottery money. And he is unashamedly clear that Dartington, with its emphasis on participation, is an excellent model.

Where else, he asks, could you see pianist Joanna McGregor play Messiaen's challenging Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus one day, and gamely take part in an African drumming session the next?

The Schubert Ensemble was there too, not just to perform. The group launched a series of works by modern composers commissioned specially for children. It hopes for 60 pieces or so - sponsorship willing - to help fill a major hole in the youth repertoire.

"It's not just about reaching virtuoso standards or worshipping at the shrine of the greatest artists," says Henderson. "The essence of Dartington is that people come together to make music."

He believes that teachers in particular have suffered from our obsession with fantastic levels of performance - fuelled partly by the recording industry.

He said: "It is as if there is something demeaning about being an amateur or a rank beginner. Many teachers, who probably started off wanting to perform, have fallen into this terrible bracket. That to be a teacher you have almost failed because you haven't made it. Music has been projected as something to admire rather than something to get involved in."

This, he insists, will change. He points to the new-found popularity of cookery as a rather surprising precedent. "People feel they can get involved. They are turning themselves into experimental, innovative cooks. Why can't they do that in music? We are made for music. The human form is built for music."

In practical terms, the trust will work locally, even to the point of funding individuals who promote music in difficult circumstances. Mr Henderson also wants to address the lack of public practice space. He has harsh words for arts centres, all too often dominated by facilities for big-name performers.

Artistic barriers are one thing but even Dartington finds it hard to overcome class division. Despite its bursaries - including many for overseas students - the home visitors remain firmly well-to-do. A fact, says Henderson, which has not been helped by the collapse of local authority music services.

"It's very measurable in the most disturbing ways. Standards are actually getting very much better. But the students are coming from an ever-narrowing group. Where the music services are well resourced, often privately, they are superb. But they are also from well-heeled parts of the country, Bromley, for example. It's absolutely stunning what's going on.

"On the other hand we see very little from Brent, where the music service has been all but axed." This year the Hackney Youth Orchestra failed to show at Dartington, the first time for many years. It has finally run out of funds.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you