Is this the most musical street in Britain;Music for the Millennium

19th June 1998 at 01:00
The whine of bagpipes drifts through the neighbourhood every evening - and narry a complaint. What's with the residents of Merton Road in north-east London? Reva Klein visits the suburban street that comes alive to the sound of music

Sixteen-year-old Michael Levis says it's the perfect way to relax. Neighbour Anna Jones, also 16, doesn't think she could have a friend who wasn't into it. Raves? No way. They're talking about serious music here. And they're not alone. Walthamstow's Merton Road has more than its fair share of musicians - there are 21 in the street's 40 homes. Four of the children have played in national orchestras and there's a French horn player who's a member of the Royal Opera Orchestra. But there's no evidence that there's something in the water in the well-kept suburban street off the charmless Lea Bridge Road in north-east London.

Then you start making the connections. The glut of professional musicians - there are four in Merton Road and up to 60 in the area - is due to the combination of relatively cheap housing and the Victoria Line with its quick access to the recording studios and concert halls of central London.

Schools are a crucial part of the picture. Most of the young musicians are girls who went (or still are going) through Henry Maynard Junior School, where they received one-to-one instrumental teaching and then Walthamstow School for Girls, in Waltham Forest education authority. They've all been friends or the siblings of friends for years and have shared their enthusiasm for music. Says Anne Love- luck, head of music at Walthamstow Girls' (and who lives in the next street to Merton Road): "This kind of thing spreads. It's made a huge difference to our music department and to the ethos of the school generally."

The number of oboe and bassoon players in particular points to the contagious quality of friends sharing their interests as much as to the influence of an enthusiastic teacher at junior school firing up her pupils. Maxine Davies, a peripatetic teacher who has taught all the oboeists and bassoonists in the road, lives in the street with her husband Chris, a member of the Royal Opera Orchestra.

At number 26, Enid Hennessy, the mother of two bassoon-playing sisters, is wonderfully candid about the lack of musical talent in the family before the girls caught the bug. "When Cecily (now 21) came home from school and told me she had a bassoon, I didn't know what she meant. I thought it was a disease. The sum total of my own musical experience was playing the recorder in primary school. I think the girls' musical achievement is to do with having been given the opportunity and the encouragement to continue."

Two children in the street attend the Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where parents not receiving a bursary for their children pay pound;480 per term for Saturday sessions which include one-to-one instruction.

Merton Road is unusual, there's no doubt about it. It's not every street that can put together its own orchestra for VE Day (lots of Vera Lynn) and summer street parties with a professional accordionist, bagpipes and tuba. But it's also an example of how a well-supported school-based music service can change children's lives and aspirations.

Nine years ago, there were 25 instrumentalists at Walthamstow Girls'. There are now about 100 playing in a range of borough bands and orchestras. But those numbers belie a sea change within the music service not just in Waltham Forest but throughout the country. The impact of local management of schools has hit instrumental tuition hard. Six years ago all children were eligible for one-to-one tuition through the borough's music service; now they have to pay. And fewer music teachers are now employed to teach individual children, although there are more children getting general instruction in the classroom.

One teacher in the street observes: "It's like the NHS. More people are being seen but fewer people are getting what they need." And like the NHS, unless parents can afford to go private, the number of instrumentalists will wither on the vine.

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