Instrumental music

4th July 2014 at 01:00

Primary school music is in trouble again. Acclaimed musicians including Tasmin Little and Julian Lloyd Webber have been campaigning against plans for councils to stop funding music services. The government says it is doing its bit because every child will be taught to sing in the new primary curriculum - but then, that doesn't cost any money.

Quality music teaching for primary children is essential. But instruments are expensive and in recent years music has been accorded much lower priority. There is little real appreciation of how important music is, or how much pleasure it can give to a child. Early in my headship, violinist Yehudi Menuhin spoke on the radio about violin teaching, stating that not only could he tell within half an hour whether a child could learn the violin successfully, but also that he was looking for an inner-city primary school to prove his theories by teaching pupils himself. He invited the BBC to film a series about it.

I was desperate for my school to be chosen. I contacted the BBC and we were selected from a shortlist of eight schools. All we had to do was buy a dozen violins. Within weeks several of my youngest pupils were rapidly becoming proficient. Menuhin even talked about taking the students to Vienna. And then the BBC pulled the plug. Somebody had decided that viewers wouldn't be very interested, and that was that.

From that moment on, I was determined to make my primary school into a musical showcase. We already taught guitar and recorder and we had two choirs, but now I wanted something challenging, so I bought six second-hand brass instruments from my local music shop. By Easter, my little band was playing a credible version of When the Saints Go Marching In. Since the children had handled tenor recorders well, I bought five clarinets and found a charismatic teacher. Before long, the clarinet group was playing a jazzy version of Jingle Bells. The years passed and we added more instruments. Six cellos, timpani, a full drum kit, some flutes and some keyboards. Then I realised that we had all the components for a real school orchestra. Although I didn't have the skill to put one together, my new deputy did and she set to work with a passion, spending Saturdays trawling music shops for scores.

First rehearsals were difficult. Some instruments went out of tune quickly and getting the balance right was hard. But one morning everything gelled. A group of 35 young musicians had successfully played an orchestral version of What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?

Yes, there had been the occasional dodgy note, but to me it was as thrilling as the Last Night of the Proms, and when the orchestra was invited to play their first gig at an educational conference, I couldn't have been a prouder headteacher. "I'll never, ever, forget today," whispered a little violinist happily, on the coach as we travelled home. "Neither will I, Chloe," I said. "Neither will I."

If funding for music teaching disappears, we will be depriving an untold number of Chloes.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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