Famous performers from classical through to pop look back and thank Fife for the melodies

23rd April 2010 at 01:00

A janitor with a tuba was all that came between James Gourlay and a life of crime, booze and drugs. Four decades later, Radio 3 says there is "no more powerful advocate for the tuba as a solo instrument than James Gourlay".

Life could have been very different if Willie Ross - the school janitor and a talented musician with Buckhaven and District Miners' Band - had not trawled round Methilhill Primary more than 40 years ago, looking for volunteers to play some old instruments he had found.

The tuba was thrust upon 10-year-old James as one of the taller pupils. Two weeks later, he and other reluctant "volunteers" made their performing debut, playing hymns at assembly.

"All of my friends from school ended up as junkies, alcoholics or in the jail," says Mr Gourlay, 53. "It's not that I'm a better person, but when they were out getting up to mischief, I was enjoying myself rehearsing. Otherwise, I'd have gone the same way as many other people from poor areas of Fife.

"I certainly wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now - travelling round the world playing music - if I hadn't come through Fife music service."

Mr Gourlay fails to comprehend why Fife's councillors "are attacking the jewel in their own educational crown" with threats of 25 to 50 per cent cuts to its outstanding music service, and he is not alone. Some 3,400 people have signed up to a Facebook group, and the musical protest outside the council offices on April 8 attracted a camera crew from BBC's Panorama.

From classical musicians to world-famous pop stars, the effects of the small kingdom's music service are prodigious.

Singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, named Best British Female Solo Artist at the 2006 Brit Awards, was introduced to the flute at Lawhead Primary in St Andrews, when she was 11. School tuition helped her reach Grade 8 by the age of 15.

It was, she told The TESS, "one of my proudest academic achievements". She formed "lasting friendships" and grew in confidence by performing with Madras College's wind band and going on to gain a place at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Ms Tunstall is busy preparing her new album but was prepared to speak out for the Fife music service.

"The proposed cuts will inevitably make it much more difficult for children in Fife to access the kind of readily-available music tuition and one-on-one attention I experienced at school," she says.

But the benefits of outstanding music tuition are wide-ranging, she believes. "It teaches patience, focus, skill, emotional communication, group participation and joy in achievement, all in a way that puts self- expression first - which is so great for kids."

The music service, she says, "seems to have contributed to a fantastically healthy array of creativity in Fife" - so much so, that people have often commented to her about the plethora of professional musicians it produces, asking "What's in the water up there?"

"I don't doubt that a strong support system at school level is part of the answer," she says.

Fife derives much of its musical heritage from mining and other traditional industries, explains Bob Tait, former head of the old Fife Regional Council's music service. In the 1940s, industry bands became concerned about their future, and started sharing their expertise with children. Perhaps the most famous, the brass band formed at the Tullis Russell paper mill in Markinch in 1919, still exists.

The strength of today's music service can also be traced to the efforts of go-ahead music advisers in the 1950s and 1960s; some primary schools even had their own string orchestras. It is "easier to destroy than create", says Mr Tait, who warns it could take many years to rebuild the service.

Seonaid Aitken, 32, a violinist with Scottish Opera who has played in more than 40 countries, attended Pitteuchar West Primary and Auchmuty High in Glenrothes. At the age of 12, she told her parents she had no need to go to the junior academy at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, because "we had such a good music service in Fife".

Classical violinist Feargus Hetherington, 30, an ex-pupil of St Margaret's Primary and St Columba's High in Dunfermline, finds it "staggering" to consider what he and his friends tackled with Fife Youth Orchestra between the ages of 12 and 14: "some of the most important classical symphonies ever written", including Rachmaninov's second.

"Even now, I know my ability to fit in and be confident in the profession has an enormous amount to do with my experiences at that critical age when I was a pupil."

Tim Ribchester, a 30-year-old conductor and concert pianist based in Philadelphia, USA, was "convinced to give (his) whole life to music" by week-long residential trips to Biggar, South Lanarkshire, with Fife Youth Orchestra.

"Rehearsing real symphonic music seven hours a day and socialising day and night with such energetic, creative peers was like nothing else I had experienced in high school," he says. "It transformed my self-esteem, social relationships and interest in other people.

"If Fife council makes these cuts, not only will there be an impact on music," he says, "there could be profound social effects."

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