Show of commitment

14th November 1997 at 00:00
With school music's popularity waning, what drives young players and how can the trend be reversed? Children's Express reporters went backstage at this year's Schools Proms to find out.

It's big - it's huge. And the atmosphere is great because everyone supports everyone else." Kate Mylnar, 18, is a saxophonist from the Tom Arthurs Quintet in Northamptonshire. She is just one of more than 1,500 young musicians who took part in this year's Schools Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall last week.

She is unequivocal about the value of such an event in the young performer's calendar. But she is bucking the trend. Figures released last week by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music show that since 1994 the proportion of children playing musical instruments has fallen from 45 per cent to 41 per cent and the number taking music lessons in school has dropped substantially. So why have these young people given up hours of free time to rehearse and perform, and how would they persuade others to do the same?

Tom Arthurs, 17, says becoming an accomplished musician depends on two factors - talent and dedication. "You must want to keep practising your technique, " he says. "Learning to play takes a lot of self-motivation. You have days when you play really badly and days when you can play well.

"You start off in junior orchestra bands - big bands. Then there's the training level and the top level bands. The people in my band have all come up through that system. Now we're in the top bands and we've decided to form our own."

He should know about commitment. He not only wrote the piece his quintet performed but also played with different groups on all three nights of the proms. One of the organisers said the event should be retitled the Tom Arthurs Proms.

But an event like the Schools Proms is not simply about being the best. Larry Westland CBE, founder and executive director of the organising body, Music for Youth, says music has something to offer everyone. "Music is a universal language," he explains. "The main purpose of music education is not to train people to go into orchestras, but to introduce them to music and its performance."

Mr Westland admits some other pastimes possess an immediacy that playing an instrument might lack, but he maintains that music proves more satisfying in the long term. "I don't imagine a child would go into a shop that sells Gameboys and cellos and say 'I want to play the cello'. But you can go on playing a cello for years. You get tired of Gameboys in a matter of days, " he says.

James, Matthew, Lucy and Caroline, aged between nine and 12, from The St Gregory's Irish Traditional Music Group in Merseyside, agree that children often need an introduction to music from someone who is passionate about it. They explain theirs is a "very musical school" and two cite their older sisters' involvement as a spur to getting started. One says: "I would not have got into music if my sister hadn't."

This view is echoed by Owen Cox, 16, who plays first violin with The JOHL Quartet in Nottingham. He claims it was his dad's playing that prompted him to take up the violin at the age of six.

One of the pieces the Irish music group performed was inspired by the movements of the sea. The school's contemporary dance group enhanced the music by emulating sea rhythms. All the pieces are learned by ear. The enthusiasm this novel approach develops is palpable. Matthew says: "I like the first piece we play because it's lively. I like the second piece because I've never heard anything like it before." Lucy adds that she enjoys the reels of the first piece, while Caroline remarks: "It makes you tap your foot to the beat. " All this from a group unanimous in their affection for the Spice Girls.

Members of Jazz Vehicle, aged 14 to 18, say children need help with practical details if an early interest is to be sustained. They explain that the group pulls students from schools and colleges across Lincolnshire and that getting together can be difficult - they have practised in their entirety only once since July.

One reason school music may be failing to attract students is its concentration on more traditional forms, to the exclusion of modern types such as soul, R 'n' B, rap and hip-hop. The Associated Board's figures support this view, showing that the past three years have seen a substantial increase in the number of children expressing an interest in learning electronic keyboard, electric guitar and drums.

Tom Arthurs concludes on a more positive note. He says young people could be part of the solution to declining interest in music education. "A lot of people who study music at school, especially middle school, get stick from others, " he explains. "For years people have said 'Oh, music is for poofs'. It's stupid and it happens to boys more than girls. It's time that changed."

Making Music is available free from: marketing department, Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, 14 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3JG. Tel: 0171 467 8279 Children's Express is a programme of learning through journalism for children aged eight to 18. Report by editors Senab Adekunle, 15; Abeyna Jones, 14 and Nicola Smart, 14; and reporter Mehrak Golestani, 13


Associated Board's figures indicate that since 1994: * proportion of children playing instruments has fallen from 45 to 41 per cent * likelihood of a child aged 11 or over ever playing a musical instrument is small and shrinking * decline in instrument-playing is almost entirely from families in social grades C1 and C2 * decline is sharpest in the Midlands * number of children taking school music lessons has fallen substantially * number of adults playing musical instruments has increased

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