When the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, listened to the complaints of parents and children through iron railings outside the Victoria Hall in Selkirk last month, he instinctively played to his gallery. "There should be no question of music being cut," he declared. "To have kids coming out in the cold to plead for their music lessons is an absolute disgrace."
It had a reassuring ring to it, but little more in the way of substance. Within hours he had clarified his statement by announcing that any extra funding for music would have to come from within existing council resources, which darkened a landscape that was already quite bleak enough.
The financial pressures on local government had escalated to such an extent that three of the old regional authorities - Central, Tayside and Grampian - had felt obliged to impose charges for instrumental tuition. When Scotland's 32 new councils assumed power in April 1996, 15 decided to implement charges. These varied from #163;40 a year in Inverclyde to #163;150 in Stirling, though some councils preferred payment by individual lesson, typically at a rate of #163;6 or #163;7.
In most cases the charging regime does not apply to families in receipt of income support or to pupils following Standard grade or Higher courses in music. Those who receive income support are required to pay for tuition in Clackmannan and Falkirk, as are those taking SCE courses in North Lanarkshire.
The remaining 17 authorities have - until now - continued free tuition, but the enormity of their financial problems has led many to introduce charging or discontinue the service .
The Scottish organiser of the Musicians' Union, Ian Smith, attributes the deterioration over the past year to the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1996. "The education section of that legislation contained 'core' and 'non-core' provisions," he explains. "Instrumental teaching was classified as non-core and as a result it can now be targeted as a soft option by councils which have been forced into a position where they have to explore all possibilities."
The Musicians' Union has been campaigning for some time for instrumental teaching to be seen as part of the core of the music curriculum. The issue becomes critical in upper secondary, where performance and practical skills are integral components of the Standard grade and Higher examinations. At these levels, knowledge of at least one instrument is essential. So the spread of new charging arrangements makes it increasingly likely that some promising candidates will miss out because their parents are unable to pay.
According to Ian Smith, there is still time to learn from events south of the border. "After local government reform in England and Wales," he says,"instrumental teaching completely disappeared in some areas. In South Glamorgan it was wiped out within a week. In Newcastle, instrumental teachers have formed themselves into a co-operative to offer their services, but that means they are operating on a casual basis, with no employment or pension rights. "
He is very concerned about the wider implications of any further erosion of instrumental tuition in Scotland. "It will affect our orchestras, choirs, rock and pop bands, jazz ensembles, folk groups, opera and ballet companies, theatres and ceilidh bands," he says. "These are full of people like you and me who got the chance to find the ladder and tentatively put one foot on the first introduction to music at school - and it was free. The ownership of instruments is not really the issue. If a pupil is seriously interested in music, the parents will usually buy an instrument. In other cases the school normally has a stock of instruments which it lends out."
Among the new councils which have been stoutly protecting existing levels of instrumental tuition is West Lothian, which has a strong musical culture and a long tradition of community bands. "Instrumental teaching is a centrally funded and managed service," says Brian Duguid, West Lothian's head of expressive arts. "That has been its strength but could become its weakness, since central services can more readily be cut.
"Now that the Scottish Office intends to raise to over 90 per cent the proportion of education funding delegated under devolved school management,it will be more difficult to guarantee the service."
Its loss, he feels, would be a tragedy. "It was originally litist and bolt-on," he admits, "and that was reflected in the small numbers of SCE presentations. But the picture has changed over the past 20 years, with a flow of high-quality instrumental teachers from the colleges. Schools have developed programmes which include instrumental tuition. The SCE numbers are now at their highest level and the results are the best ever."
Where do we go from here, Duguid wonders, if pupils are charged for music tuition? Will they also have to pay for class auxiliaries and science technicians? "Eventually it will affect the budding Evelyn Glennies," he maintains. "It will be a question of 'who pays plays'. It can only be influenced if there is a unified campaign against it. When that happened in Denmark, all live music stopped one day at 9pm - TV, radio, everywhere,it had a dramatic effect."
Charles Maynes, director of expressive arts for City of Dundee Council, agrees that "it would be an absolute disaster if instrumental tuition were to fall away. But I recognise that it is an expensive provision and I know that all that is being done with a heavy heart. If it goes on like this, it could well be that there will eventually be no orchestras left, especially in smaller council areas. The bigger ones will probably still be able to offer an orchestral experience. The sad thing about the whole situation is that we may be talking, in official language, about a non-core provision in curricular terms but in the eyes of most of us it is essential all the same."
The structure is increasingly under threat at all levels, according to Sylvia Dow, education officer for the Scottish Arts Council. "Even the top of the pyramid will be hit, " she says, "since three-quarters of the players in the present Scottish Chamber Orchestra went through the school system of instrumental tuition.
"At local level it is not just the tuition itself that is being adversely affected - staffing levels in the educational development services and in-service training programmes for teachers are suffering at the same time.The expressive arts look to be a target in many authorities despite the 5-14 programme."
Though the private sector may move in and one or two co-operatives along the lines of the Newcastle model may be formed, the standard reaction of councils forced to review instrumental teaching is either to charge for it or reduce its availability. Until now, only one authority had done both. Facing budget problems of unparalleled severity, Glasgow last year imposed a "contribution" fee of #163;80 a year and initially terminated the employment of 20 instrumental teachers, though half were later reinstated.
For Jean Murray, headteacher of Shawlands Academy on the south side of the city, one of the most uncomfortable aspects is having to approach parents for payment. "So far the level of provision hasn't been greatly affected in this school," she says, "because the education department is doing its best to spread the reductions around and we will have lost at most half a day per week in terms of tuition.
"Likewise, charging has had a limited impact on us because over 600 of our pupils qualify for clothing grants and are therefore exempt from fees. However, the rest have to pay. Fortunately, our parents have been very supportive but I don't know where we would stand if they refused."
Cleveden Secondary School in the west end of the city has seen its instrumental tuition numbers drop from about 100 to 90 since charges were introduced. "Payment is required of 43 out of the 90," says headteacher Ian Valentine. "Of the remainder only 14 receive clothing grants; the others are following SCE courses. There is a lot of unhappiness around over what is happening.
"There is widespread deprivationin Glasgow. If you want to raise horizons, music must play a strong part. It helps to enhance a school's ethos, even for those who do not aspire to take their music anyfurther."
The message is clear. Instrumental teaching is going through a process of attrition and there is no end in sight. The lesson which has to be learned before it is too late is that there are services which, once allowed to start withering, can never be restored to their original state. To borrow a Michael Forsyth image, when you make the omelette you say goodbye to the egg. Instrumental tuition is not yet in omelette form but the eggshell is gradually breaking.
New cuts and charges
* Angus music tuition up from #163;43 to #163;60 a year
* Clackmannanshire music instruction time cut and charges increased
* Dumfries and Galloway instrumental tuition may be cut
* Dundee five instructor posts cut and charges up from #163;39 to #163;85 a year
* East Dunbartonshire new #163;80 charge for instrumental instruction
* Fife #163;300,000 saving on music instruction by shedding four posts and charging #163;40 a year;
* Renfrewshire music tuition charges up from #163;15 to #163;75 (#163;50,000 saving)
* Scottish Borders one music instructor to go and music charges up 50 per cent
* Stirling grant support withdrawn for pupils attending weekend music and dance schools outwith the authority