Musical inertia is a waste of our talent

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Last week saw a phenomenal effort from the Government to launch its "all-singing, all-dancing" music manifesto. However, two things were missing: specific plans for the return of music to the forefront of the curriculum and a financial commitment to make such plans work. So the question that still remains is, does this manifesto really offer children any tangible benefits at all?

When I was growing up in Scotland, I was fortunate enough to have regular music education from an early age. At my small local primary school near Methlick, north of Aberdeen, we had an external music teacher who came in once a week to teach all 40 pupils. During these lessons we learned to read music through singing and playing the recorder.

This experience inspired me to broaden my musical knowledge further. At the age of eight I began learning the piano, then at age 10 the clarinet.

However, it wasn't until I went to my secondary school that I started learning percussion, after seeing the orchestra playing in the school assembly. This exposure ignited my interest in music at a very early age and allowed me to discover and nurture my talent.

As a result, I went on to study piano and percussion at the Royal Academy of Music. This enabled me to follow a successful career as the first full-time solo percussionist. I was very lucky to have this opportunity, which is increasingly unavailable to today's children. I regularly visit schools all over the world and talk to teachers, parents and pupils. In the UK, it is worrying how many voice their concern about the decline in music education. As music is a non-mandatory subject, its teaching is entirely at the discretion of headteachers, and an alarming statistic reveals that some schools allocate as little as 0.4 per cent of the timetable to music.

I am not alone in believing that music plays a crucial role in a child's development. It provides inspiration in itself and complements other subjects. Recent research has shown that studying music has a positive effect on a child's performance in other subjects such as English and maths.

Music, particularly in groups, is an innovative form of communication, much needed when children spend so much time working and playing alone on computers. Music is therefore an essential part of the curriculum and crucial for the holistic development of an individual. For the Government not to make this a mandatory subject is simply not acceptable.

The music manifesto outlines how fortunate we are "in the richness of our musical heritage". This is true. Much of the world envies this country for its talent. However, what the Government needs to realise is that if tomorrow's musical talent is to be found in state schools, music must be returned to the forefront of the curriculum. Without this rich source of future talent the UK risks losing its global position in the world of music to those countries that continue to offer a high level of music education.

Fellow musicians Julian Lloyd-Webber, Sir James Galway, the late Michael Kamen, and I set up the Music Education Consortium in December 2002 to address these issues. Over the past 18 months we have been in discussion with David Miliband, school standards minister, to lobby for all children to have access to music.

The Government has so far refused to commit itself to anything specific. It has now been six years since David Blunkett's promise (following a campaign by The TES) that every primary pupil should be able to learn a musical instrument. Until music is made mandatory in schools, how is this commitment ever to be fulfilled? We need to see some action now and not in the next three to five years, as we are fast bypassing a generation of young musicians, whose talent, thanks to government inertia, may never be heard.

The Government has acknowledged that music education is in crisis and must be strengthened, but it must produce specific plans backed by the necessary finance, and engage the support of the whole education system from central to local government to individual schools, teachers, parents and children.

The Government's manifesto must move from pious and vague expressions of intent to positive action.

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