Fanfare for the common good

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Independent schools must do their bit to give every child access to music, says Tonbridge's Hilary Davan Wetton. Tim Homfray reports.

HERE are two extremes: an independent school which could stage Musorgsky's massive opera Boris Godunov with pupils in leading roles; and a comprehensive school in which seven members of a music group of 13 were on probation, three of them for assaulting teachers.

Hilary Davan Wetton, now director of music at Tonbridge School in Kent, and a professional conductor, taught in both. The first is Cranleigh school, the second Stantonbury in Milton Keynes.

Davan Wetton has fond memories of the Stantonbury group - all in their studded leather jackets - silently working at aural tests while some distinguished and amazed visitors from Saudi Arabia looked on.

This was the Seventies, when Stantonbury was "the most comprehensive comprehensive in the country", full of firm believers in mixed-ability teaching, for whom any form of selection was anathema. Davan Wetton was himself a believer but now thinks this approach failed some of the most gifted pupils.

But he believes passionately that every child should get the chance to play an instrument as an everyday part of school life, echoing the TES "Music in the Millennium" campaign for free instrument lessons for every child.

Music breaks down age, class and national barriers, and even those between amateurs and professionals, he says. In January, for instance, he will conduct his professional Milton Keynes City Orchestra and "two huge groups of secondary and primary school children" in a "community oratorio" by the British-African composer Tunde Jegede that fuses African, Caribbean and Western music. "It's a hugely impressive piece; a massive project."

The bulk of Davan Wetton's teaching career has been in the independent sector, starting out at St Alban's School in 1965 where he was, surprisingly, the first head of music in the school's long history. "Quite a nice situation," he says. "You couldn't do worse than your predecessor."

At the time he was still studying on Sir Adrian Boult's advanced conducting course at the Royal College of Music, the last leg of an academic career which had taken him from Westminster School to the Royal College and Brasenose College, Oxford.

He moved from St Alban's to Cranleigh in 1967, then to Stantonbury. At his next post, at St Paul's Girls' School in 1979, he had the tough task of following in the footsteps of composers Holst and Vaughan Williams, before going to Tonbridge in 1994.

Throughout this time he has had a parallel career as a conductor, working and recording with both professional and youth orchestras. Earlier this year he conducted the National Children's Orchestra in the first BBC Youth Prom, and will do so again at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall this month when the under 15s will perform Elgar's Enigma Variations.

This wde experience has made him acutely aware of the unevenness of music education and facilities in Britain.

Tonbridge has its own music block, a concert hall and first-rate recording facilities. About 450 of the school's 700-plus pupils learn at least one instrument.

But in the state sector Davan Wetton is saddened by the low levels of investment, despite the fact that "the evidence that musical skill improves people's academic skills is overwhelming".

He refers to research projects which show clearly that those who learn musical instruments do better academically than those who don't.

But he welcomes the Government's Music Standards Fund, adding: "I think there's a lot of goodwill and David Blunkett is doing his best, but the money doesn't get to where it is needed fast enough. There's an enormous bureaucratic logjam."

Well-endowed Tonbridge offers at least nine music scholarships every year, and there are normally about 50 music scholars in the school at any one time. Unusually, it also helps to support children from the state sector who have been offered places by contributing to prep school fees to cover the two years between leaving primary and entering Tonbridge at 13.

Clearly, this can only benefit a few children, and he says the process of selecting them is itself discriminatory. "Inevitably, selection tends to have a class bias."

In the state sector too he sees signs that music is more than ever a middle-class activity, as the amount of free instrumental tuition declines.

Even where tuition is available, children need a stimulus to take advantage of it. "Most students arrive believing classical music is entirely alien. We should present its glamorous qualities.

"The idea that an adolescent is not going to be stirred up by Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky performed live in front of him is nonsense. The trouble is he won't buy the ticket in the first place because he has no motivation to do so."

Davan Wetton is keen to extend links between the independent and maintained sectors, although he hasn't yet seen much evidence of the publicstate crossover which the Government is seeking.

"Independent schools with big endowments should find ways, not of patronisingly inviting people to come and admire our facilities and use them occasionally as a special favour, but of integrating the process of education as far as we can."

He suggests, for example, having joint study days devoted to particular subjects, and points to musical performance as a particularly fruitful area of shared activity.

Tonbridge already has close musical links with the local girls' grammar and Davan Wetton is currently working to build connections with local primaries.

Music consumes a life spent performing and teaching with endless commuting between Tonbridge, London and Milton Keynes. In fact, he admits to only one other enthusiasm: tennis.

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