No strings to their bow

6th August 2004 at 01:00
Until music is made mandatory in schools ministers can never fulfil the pledge of every child playing an instrument, says Evelyn Glennie

Last month saw a phenomenal effort from the Government to launch its "all singing, all dancing" music manifesto south of the border. However, two things were missing: specific plans for the return of music to the forefront of the educational 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 learnt to read music through singing and playing the recorder. I found this experience extremely rewarding and it inspired me to broaden my musical knowledge.

At the age of eight, I began learning the piano, at age 10 the clarinet.

However, it wasn't until I attended secondary school that I started learning percussion, after seeing the orchestra playing in the school assembly.

This exposure ignited my interest in music 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, enabling 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, which benefits the child's overall development and aptitude.

Music, particularly in groups, is an innovative form of communication, much needed when children are now inclined to spend so much time working and playing alone on computers. Music is 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 at grass roots level, 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 its rightful place at the forefront of the curriculum. Without this rich source of future talent, there is the risk that the UK will lose 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 ministers to lobby for all children to have some access to music. The Government has so far refused to commit itself to anything specific, in England at least.

It has now been six years since the original promise south of the border that every primary school child 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 may never be heard.

Ministers have acknowledged that music education is in crisis and must be strengthened, but it must produce more specific plans backed by the necessary finance and engage the support of the whole education system from central to local government and local education authorities to individual schools, teachers, parents and children. The Government's manifesto must move from pious and vague expressions of intent to positive action.

Evelyn Glennie features in Touch the Sound - A Sound Journey with Evelyn Glennie, which has its international premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, which opens on August 18.

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