'Students' lives are saved by music'

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
However, Fife's local authority wants to reduce the service by 25 to 50 per cent

The protest is being held in public space outside Fife Council's high-rise HQ in Glenrothes. There are no police or barriers. Dozens of musicians are playing `We Shall Overcome' just 10 yards away, and they are eager to tell everyone why they are here.

With an emotive local issue - the future of Fife's music service - taking centre stage on the general election trail, politicians of all hues are accosting anyone with a notebook. The most determined is Ross Vettraino of Fife Council's SNP administration.

He strides out the council offices, determined to ensure both sides of the story are told. He's exasperated that the 100-strong gathering of musicians and their supporters don't comprehend that "something's going to suffer" in these painful economic times, and that an initial 25 per cent cut in music instruction will still leave a pound;1.2 million pot other parts of Scotland would envy.

"People can make up their minds - do they want the music service, or a decent police service or social work service?" he states.

Mr Vettraino understands the benefits of music, he insists, because he has grandsons in British and Scottish national youth orchestras. But confronted by claims that music deserves to be protected because of its cross-curricular benefits, he counters: "Numeracy and literacy are taught in the classrooms, not in music classes."

His indignation is shared by colleague Douglas Chapman, chair of the education and children's services committee. Year after year, he and his colleagues ignored recommendations to make cuts to the "gold-plated" music service, he says. He speculates how a series of 5 per cent cuts over several years would have been received: "Would people be demonstrating on the streets? I don't think so."

The demonstrators are more pragmatic than the two councillors perhaps realise. Everyone who speaks to The TESS accepts that difficult decisions have to be made in these trying times; it is the scale of the proposed cuts that has shocked, particularly since Fife is renowned for music. One online protestor writes: "It's the only f***ing thing we're good at."

Amid the hubbub of music and dismay, a less obvious issue rises slowly to the surface: nobody seems sure of the exact figures they're protesting against. Council documentation stated that a 50 per cent cut equated to 34 instructors; instructors were told in person that the figure was 24. The council claims cuts have been reined in to 25 per cent; but despite a review looking for alternative savings, a further 25 per cent has not been ruled out.

One instructor says the proposals came to light through a single line in a local newspaper in February. Hours later, a council email summoned all music instructors to a meeting within the week. The atmosphere was "grim, fraught, and angry" as they were told, for the first time, that the budget for music instruction had to be halved.

The pain has been heightened by a sense that proposals have not been thought through or explained properly, the instructor says. Why hasn't the duration of the belated consultation been made clearer? Why ask the small number of instructors who are officially teachers to return to the classroom for the first time in quarter of a century?

Many fear instruction in primary schools will bear the brunt of cuts, meaning future pupils will not get the strong start others have enjoyed.

The current instructors are wary of speaking out, but Joyce McIver, a retired violin teacher in primary schools, says it is crucial to start an instrument young.

A primary teacher, whose son is in P4 and recently started violin lessons, concurs: "If you don't learn strings before 12, you won't get any good at it. We can't afford to pay pound;25 an hour for private tuition. If he doesn't get it at school, the chances are he won't get it at all."

The organiser of the Glenrothes protest, Morag Warren, 30, has come from the south of England to be here. Head of music at Welling School in Bexley, she learned viola from the age of seven at Ceres Primary and played in the Fife Youth Orchestra while at Cupar's Bell Baxter High.

"I counted the instructors as my family," she says, "even before my father passed away when I was 17. I dropped out of school, struggling to cope, and music was all I had.

"My story is far from unique - every single year there are students whose lives are quite literally saved by music."

There are many such personal stories in the crowd. Yet the mood is not despondent: the protest feels like a celebration of music's lifelong pleasures. Two young girls draw their bows tentatively across a violin and viola. Nearby, a group of teenagers are jamming in a huddle. Random noise gradually becomes recognisable and loaded with meaning - the ominous theme from Jaws. It's a moot point whether this portends the danger facing music instructors - or the backlash against Fife Council.

Famous performers from classical through to pop look back and thank Fife for the melodies

A janitor with a tuba was all that came between James Gourlay and a life of crime, booze and drugs. Four decades later, Radio 3 says there is "no more powerful advocate for the tuba as a solo instrument than James Gourlay".

Life could have been very different if Willie Ross - the school janitor and a talented musician with Buckhaven and District Miners' Band - had not trawled round Methilhill Primary more than 40 years ago, looking for volunteers to play some old instruments he had found.

The tuba was thrust upon 10-year-old James as one of the taller pupils. Two weeks later, he and other reluctant "volunteers" made their performing debut, playing hymns at assembly.

"All of my friends from school ended up as junkies, alcoholics or in the jail," says Mr Gourlay, 53. "It's not that I'm a better person, but when they were out getting up to mischief, I was enjoying myself rehearsing. Otherwise, I'd have gone the same way as many other people from poor areas of Fife.

"I certainly wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now - travelling round the world playing music - if I hadn't come through Fife music service."

Mr Gourlay fails to comprehend why Fife's councillors "are attacking the jewel in their own educational crown" with threats of 25 to 50 per cent cuts to its outstanding music service, and he is not alone. Some 3,400 people have signed up to a Facebook group, and the musical protest outside the council offices on April 8 attracted a camera crew from BBC's Panorama.

From classical musicians to world-famous pop stars, the effects of the small kingdom's music service are prodigious.

Singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, named Best British Female Solo Artist at the 2006 Brit Awards, was introduced to the flute at Lawhead Primary in St Andrews, when she was 11. School tuition helped her reach Grade 8 by the age of 15.

It was, she told The TESS, "one of my proudest academic achievements". She formed "lasting friendships" and grew in confidence by performing with Madras College's wind band and going on to gain a place at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Ms Tunstall is busy preparing her new album but was prepared to speak out for the Fife music service.

"The proposed cuts will inevitably make it much more difficult for children in Fife to access the kind of readily-available music tuition and one-on-one attention I experienced at school," she says.

But the benefits of outstanding music tuition are wide-ranging, she believes. "It teaches patience, focus, skill, emotional communication, group participation and joy in achievement, all in a way that puts self- expression first - which is so great for kids."

The music service, she says, "seems to have contributed to a fantastically healthy array of creativity in Fife" - so much so, that people have often commented to her about the plethora of professional musicians it produces, asking "What's in the water up there?"

"I don't doubt that a strong support system at school level is part of the answer," she says.

Fife derives much of its musical heritage from mining and other traditional industries, explains Bob Tait, former head of the old Fife Regional Council's music service. In the 1940s, industry bands became concerned about their future, and started sharing their expertise with children. Perhaps the most famous, the brass band formed at the Tullis Russell paper mill in Markinch in 1919, still exists.

The strength of today's music service can also be traced to the efforts of go-ahead music advisers in the 1950s and 1960s; some primary schools even had their own string orchestras. It is "easier to destroy than create", says Mr Tait, who warns it could take many years to rebuild the service.

Seonaid Aitken, 32, a violinist with Scottish Opera who has played in more than 40 countries, attended Pitteuchar West Primary and Auchmuty High in Glenrothes. At the age of 12, she told her parents she had no need to go to the junior academy at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, because "we had such a good music service in Fife".

Classical violinist Feargus Hetherington, 30, an ex-pupil of St Margaret's Primary and St Columba's High in Dunfermline, finds it "staggering" to consider what he and his friends tackled with Fife Youth Orchestra between the ages of 12 and 14: "some of the most important classical symphonies ever written", including Rachmaninov's second.

"Even now, I know my ability to fit in and be confident in the profession has an enormous amount to do with my experiences at that critical age when I was a pupil."

Tim Ribchester, a 30-year-old conductor and concert pianist based in Philadelphia, USA, was "convinced to give (his) whole life to music" by week-long residential trips to Biggar, South Lanarkshire, with Fife Youth Orchestra.

"Rehearsing real symphonic music seven hours a day and socialising day and night with such energetic, creative peers was like nothing else I had experienced in high school," he says. "It transformed my self-esteem, social relationships and interest in other people.

"If Fife council makes these cuts, not only will there be an impact on music," he says, "there could be profound social effects."

Original paper headline: `Every single year students' lives are saved by music'

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