Still hitting the high notes

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
A centre of musical excellence is surviving hard times after council reorganisation, says Brian Hayward

On the hilly northern outskirts of Glasgow, the windows of Douglas Academy look west to the Kilpatrick Hills and north to the Campsie Fells. It is a lofty situation, and one the Academy has aspirations to match, especially for its music school pupils. One of the few centres of excellence for music in Scotland, the school was founded in 1979 by Strathclyde Region and is, in the opinion of Ian Mills, director of education for East Dunbartonshire, "the most important special facility we inherited from the former region".

There are less fortunate legacies from the demise of Strathclyde. Academy rector Gordon Wilson regrets "the loss of the large-scale events that the region could promote - the Garden Festival, the Mayfest - important cultural events that our pupils could share in", but he is appreciative of the close support and encouragement the school gets from the new leadership in East Dunbartonshire.

The financial clout of Strathclyde is sorely missed. The latest budgetary squeeze is forcing education authorities to warn East Dunbartonshire that they may not in future be able to fund pupils for the music school. Ian Mills is negotiating with the Scottish Office to try to find central government support for children with exceptional musical ability whose family could not bear the cost of their education. The matter is urgent; the school auditions its next intake next month.

The negotiations go on, but until now it has been business as usual, says Ronald Mackintosh, the head of the music school: "There has been almost no change in the number of applications and admissions in past years. Normally, we get about 35 applications, mostly from the west of Scotland, and that hasn't changed. Everyone gets a first audition of 45 minutes, and about 15 are invited back for the second, two-day audition. Places are offered to about 12, but selection is always on agreed criteria; there is no 'annual quota'."

The second audition takes place in a residential centre and is conducted by a small, independent team of assessors. They investigate the candidates in a range of activities, but Mackintosh believes the litmus tests are how they respond in individual tutoring sessions and to group work: "Music is a language, and language is for communication. Unless a musician can play in concert with others, and respond to a listener, the musical skills can go for little or nothing."

The lucky dozen are admitted at any stage of secondary education, because there is no "catch-all" starting point. The latest to develop are the singers, whose voices will go on maturing long after school. Jamie McDougall, now nationally known as a concert singer, started at Douglas as a violin student, and only transferred to voice in Secondary 3. Brass and woodwind also wait for the upper school, when the physique begins to match the needs of the technique.

Younger students are well suited to piano and strings, and should start as soon as they are ready. In an ideal world, Mackintosh's dream would be to start at the kindergarten stage, where all the tots could learn to play the violin. Before that, mind you, he would frequent the post-natal clinics, advising the young mums to sing to their children, keep Vivaldi playing in the background, and above all not make them walk too early, to improve their co-ordination.

Some musical parents are alert to this kind of conditioning, but less musical parents are bewildered that their child has an outstanding talent, of the kind that requires them to go to a special school, maybe many miles away.

Over the years, the music school has drawn pupils from all over Scotland, from Shetland to Dumfries, and had to offer a residential option, this year taken by 23 of the 37 students. So far this has been supplied by St Andrew's College, Bearsden, though its merger with Glasgow University may affect that.

Every music student gets specialist instruction for 20 per cent of the timetable, and follows the normal academic curriculum for the rest of the week. Every student has a specialist tutor, usually an orchestral player or university lecturer, for his or her principal instrument, and tuition in a second or maybe a third study. Always there is a general musical education, to produce the "all-round" musician.

Beyond the classroom and practice room, a prized element of the training is "performance". Every opportunity is taken to develop the communication skill of playing to an audience in a small group.

These young music students are by no means all brash extroverts, and they are brought on by weekly lunchtime recitals, performances in churches and music clubs, and guesting in choral concerts. Orchestras at school, authority, regional and national level, give them baton practice, and Ian Mills canvasses the major orchestras, leading venues, and Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama for opportunities for pupils to play, learn or simply meet distinguished musicians.

Asked to measure the success of the music school, Mackintosh looks no further than the school gates. "How do you quantify success? By being a big name? There are three stages in becoming a successful musician: the music school, the conservatoire and being lucky. About 70 per cent of our students go on to study music at conservatoires like the RSAMD or universities. For the 30 per cent who choose not to, the general education they have had at Douglas has given them other options.

"All we can promise to achieve is a good experience for the students, and the tutors, during the years they are here. I met a couple of former students at a charity concert last week, one from the music school, one from the academy. I asked them what music had done for them and they said it brought people together, in fact they had both met their husbands through music. Now that's a kind of success."

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