Spring brings notes of hope

Some early sunshine has cut through the gloom on funding for music tuition. Seonag MacKinnon reports.

It seemed as if a cinematic rather than a musical director had been at work when a fledgeling national orchestra for children took a bow last week before Scotland's media.

After the stormy period in the run-up to the new financial year, when school music lessons seemed in danger of being blown away by local government cash problems, the first spring sunshine of the year appeared. Orchestra leader and child prodigy Nicola Benedetti, only nine years old, played under a blossoming tree with the wind in her hair and birds chirping.

National Youth Orchestra for Scotland director Richard Chester, who in the past year has helped establish this first ever National Children's Orchestra of Scotland for the younger age group of 8-14, is himself in sunny mood. With the start of a four-day residential course for the new orchestra, he is seeing the fruition of plans to encourage and channel young talent.

The moment is particularly sweet, coming just after the finalisation of council budgets, which Mr Chester among many others spent months trying to influence. Expected widespread damage to the provision of instrumental tuition failed to occur. "The worst is over - and it could have been a lot worse, " he says. Authorities cut instructor posts and introduced or increased charges, but early signs, he says, indicate no significant drop in student numbers. Middle-income parents seem to be meeting the expense, and tuition is still free in almost all authorities for those on income support and those sitting Standard grade and Higher music.

Cuts this year have forced the introduction of an Pounds 80 charge for instrumental instruction in East Dumbartonshire. In Dundee five instructor posts have been lost and charges more than doubled to Pounds 85. Stirling pupils are already paying Pounds 150 a year and Aberdeen pupils have to dig deep for Pounds 200. But Mr Chester is not downhearted. He says Scotland still has outstanding musical provision compared to most European countries.

"We are considered an example of model practice. They are amazed by our provision, as their children have to attend outside organisations in the evenings and at weekends, which requires substantial support from parents. "

But Mr Chester is not complacent, and in the run-up to the next financial year will be lobbying hard again. "The quality of life is better for children who have music - and for their families, schools and local community."

The director says he has found it particularly rewarding to see children from under-privileged backgrounds coming through the system, many of them launched by the former Strathclyde Region, which particularly encouraged young musical talent. "Rather than having them spend time in a city centre looking lost and perhaps doing things society would not like them to do, we can teach them to express themselves in a controlled way," he says. Social skills also improve when the children come together with different peers, he believes.

Although Hydro Electric is providing Pounds 15,000 a year sponsorship for this course, tutored by musicians from, for example, Scottish Opera and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, children still have to pay Pounds 130 towards tuition, meals and accommodation. Local authority grants are unlikely.

Rehearsals and workshops are infrequent because of the expense and difficulty in assembling 95 children from many areas of Scotland. However, as well as this spring course, which concluded with their first public concert, before a capacity audience in the Queens Hall, Edinburgh, a workshop in the autumn is planned. Also under consideration is a national tour which is expected to include some of the more remote areas of Scotland. And Mr Chester would like to see a trainee orchestra for this age group, as he believes there is much talent among the 300 children who had to be turned down for the new orchestra.

At the course, for which not one person offered a place refused, the skill and enthusiasm are tangible. Rounded, fresh faces concentrate hard as they rehearse. When night comes, the super-keen need to be deterred from further playing, and chased to bed.

Whatever the future brings, on this particular day the outlook seems brighter than most anticipated for the country's young musical talent. Nicola, the youngest violinist ever to lead a Scottish orchestra at a public concert, who will soon join the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, continues to play for the photographers. It gives pleasure to some watching the saccharine scene when Nicola, as unpretentious as she is talented, grins widely and proceeds to play scales.

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