Stephan loves playing jazz, and has started to record some of his work
Music is an important part of my life. I've collected records since I was 13, and there's little that gives me greater pleasure than sitting in front of my hi-fi on Friday evenings dipping into my collection and wallowing in a symphony or two. Nobody ever thrust classical music at me; I can remember the moment I got turned on to it, at college via a battered record player. The incredibly cheap Classics for Pleasure label had been introduced and I risked some of my student grant on Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, not expecting to like it at all. I surprised myself, started attending concerts and, when I got my first job, discovered that the deputy head was a classically trained pianist and as crazy about music as me. She made me aware of how important music is for children, and I am constantly amazed at the ability children show from a very young age.
At school we have three choirs, a brass group, 60 guitarists and lots of percussion, and every child in key stage 2 plays descant or tenor recorder. We also have a dozen children playing the violin - an instrument I was dubious about introducing because I thought the children wouldn't cope with it; on a guitar you know exactly which fret produces a G, but a violin has no frets.
Shortly after we'd introduced the violin, I received an intriguing phone call from the local education authority's music co-ordinator asking if some of our children, with a few from other local schools, would like to take part in a unique experiment.
On the radio, Yehudi Menuhin had been discussing his teaching and he'd said there were ways of telling if a child would make a good violinist. He declared he'd prove it by selecting some children from deprived inner-city areas and, by using his own academy teachers, turn them into excellent violinists. A television series would be recorded, showing the children progressing week by week. We jumped at the chance, and Menuhin visited to test and select a lucky handful. The children were excited, their parents were thrilled, a programme budget wa agreed, the cameras rolled and everything went swimmingly for a month. Then, suddenly, the television company got cold feet. It wasn't sure the project would attract good ratings, and it was shelved "for the time being". Everybody was bitterly disappointed. It could have been a fascinating view of a great musician working with the youngsters he loved, but, then again, it wouldn't have had the pull of EastEnders.
There are bright spots, though. Stephan, for example, wasn't that keen on the core curriculum and was a bit of a lad in the classroom, preferring to muck about than write. But he did have an ear for music and, after a handful of lessons with him, my visiting brass teacher knew the boy had an affinity for the trumpet. The teacher spoke with Stephan's mother about buying an instrument for her son, but she wasn't interested. What about a secondhand instrument then, he persisted, but she wasn't interested in that idea either. Frustrated, the teacher bought the boy a secondhand trumpet, telling his mother that he'd paid only pound;20, and she grudgingly parted with the cash.
Stephan blew the trumpet day and night, and became the core of the talented little brass group we had in school. Soon he was begging to stay in at playtimes and "have a go" on the piano as well. His extraordinary diligence prompted the music co-ordinator to abandon coffee break and give him exercises and simple tunes to learn. Stephan left my school several years ago. He plays the piano and five brass instruments to a high standard, and belongs to a youth orchestra. He loves playing jazz, and has started to record some of his work. His career is assured - because somebody was determined his talent wouldn't be ignored.
Fortunately, people such as Sir Simon Rattle are making a fuss about the lack of music in schools, and some money has been forthcoming. Not a lot, mind - last year my share was pound;700 - but enough for a few violins and tuition. It's better than nothing, but we'll still have to raise money for instruments at the school discos if we want to push the children's musical sights higher.
Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school, Camberwell, London. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org