We all need the Max factor

10th December 2004 at 00:00
Harnessing local talent, be it the WI or the Master of the Queen's music, can reap rich rewards. Jill Parkin reports

You must meet Max," said the head. Fine. A visit to a school in the Orkneys: met the postman, met the pilot of the island's hopper plane, might as well meet Max. Wonder who he is?

"He'll pop in on his way to his birthday party," the head of Sanday school went on, "at the Albert Hall."

And he did. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, master of the Queen's music but known as Max, is often to be found at his local school helping with music lessons.

Visiting authors are two a penny in schools these days. Visiting composers, however, are rather rarer.

Not that the fluting babes have any idea that Max with the silvery, crinkly hair is a distinguished composer and conductor. He is just Max, conducting the fiddle club or helping the younger children with the recorder.

But Jackie Sinclair, head of the Sanday community school on this remote island, knows just what a jewel she has in Max. "As master of the Queen's music and Sanday resident, Max is the ultimate 'expert in your community'," she says. "But our children have no concept of his stature in the world of music. He has written music for our fiddle club and for our recorder players. He always tries to involve our children in concerts and, along with Glenys Hughes, the director of the St Magnus Festival, is pivotal in attracting the most amazing orchestral performances to Sanday."

There is a strong musical tradition in the Orkneys. The capital of the islands, Kirkwall, has a population of only 7,500, but it has not only a cathedral but the mighty Kirkwall City Philharmonic Pipe Band too. And thanks partly to 70-year-old Max, the children see, hear and take part in top-class music.

"I've watched our children on several occasions sitting interspersed among members of some of the very best orchestras around performing their little hearts out," says Jackie. "And Max is as proud of them as I am. As he finishes conducting a piece in which the children are performing, there's always a fond tilt to his head and a proud smile as he thanks the musicians."

Jewel he might be, but there is nothing precious in the other sense about Max. He wrote his song cycle "Songs of Sanday" for the pupils of the school, the music matching the words written by Rod Thorne, the school's former head. And he wrote music for the recorder groups to play to mark the retirement - and unexpected death - of a much-loved recorder teacher.

"I enjoy the contact," says Max. "It's lovely to see your pieces being used in a normal way by children. You feel you're contributing to a real community."

Max has a driving belief that music matters and that if it matters it should be done properly. It's what Yeats called "the pleasure of what's difficult".

Max, who spent three years as director of music at Cirencester grammar school, is appalled that anyone should be able to pass public exams in music without being able to read music. "In Scotland you can get an honour without knowing anything about dots and lines," he said.

"Children can compose, of course they can. Even without an instrument they can compose, using their own voices. But they need the tools to record it and work on it. They need to be able to write music so they can communicate it to others playing instrumental parts."

But there are people out there who believe in something called cultural relativism, that one man's rap is as valid as another man's rallentando, if somewhat faster. What would Max say to that? A nod and a smile. He's met this one before. "I would say: 'You believe one thing and I'm happy to believe something else'.

"Elitism is a word you often hear bandied about. It's usually people who are frightened. They are frightened that others will have something they haven't got. Without training you can't know how a symphony works and if you don't know how it works you can't interpret it."

Max's own upbringing was far from elitist. A working-class child brought up in Manchester, he considers himself fortunate to have lived near a good public music library. When he told the head of his Leigh grammar school that he wanted to do music, he got the reply: "Music? This isn't a girls' school." So he found his own way to the Royal Manchester College of Music, via the scores supplied at the Henry Watson Library in Manchester.

There was nothing easy about the route he took which led to about 300 published compositions. And a glance down the list of these compositions reveals an awesome cultural hinterland, something he fears we may be losing in education today.

I mention a trip Imade three years ago to the National Gallery with a group of Renaissance studies students, most at least 20 years younger than me.

They had real difficulty reading paintings whose biblical and classical references rang at least a few bells with me. It is a scenario Max recognises. "Without such background, children are cut off from their own heritage, handicapped. For example, I'm a musician, but I've always been extremely pleased I learned Latin. The background, the preparation, is so important."

It's a serious approach to enjoyment - something that perhaps comes best from someone at the top of his or her field. Experts bring expertise to schools, but they also bring a passion and a proof that hard work can bring success. And that can inspire pupils and staff, says Jackie Sinclair.

"I'm a wiser head for having Max here to share his knowledge, enthusiasm and energy with me. Max really is an expert in our school community - an expert at making music make a difference," she says.

Max says: "If music is taken seriously it can change children's lives."

And in the years to come, the Sanday children will live to discover the truth of that.


* First find out who you've got. This will be easy if your school is somewhere like Walberswick in Suffolk. It boasts scriptwriter Richard Curtis, a fair number of Freuds and actress Caroline Quentin. Local gossip - the PTA and the school secretary - will let you know if you have expertise among your parents.

* Grab the passing trade. Fleeting visits by those with expertise or books to promote can be made into something more permanent. HRH the Duchess of Kent visited Wansbeck primary in Longhill, east Hull, in 1996, and for the next eight years gave weekly singing and music theory lessons there under the alias of Mrs Kent.

* Be discreet. Whether they're film directors or celebrity gardeners, if they're helping out on their own doorstep they probably won't want the sort of publicity that leads to loads of requests from the entire nation.

* Be open to new ideas. If your local RSC star wants the drama club to do Beowulf instead of Annie, go for it.

* Be tactful with your own staff. If you have Einstein living in your village, don't give him chunks of the physics syllabus to cover. Ask him to run a relativity club. The idea is that experts help and boost, rather than take over.

* Don't forget sport. Many football clubs have a community programme. A super coach can lift the sporting profile and performance no end.

* Once you've established that relationship, nurture it. Small groups will work best. Don't expose your expert to the beast of Year 9 unless there's a trained teacher in there too. Don't assume your expert will necessarily be free next term as well. Invite him or her to special school events.

* Be prepared to be flexible. It's worth putting up with the odd postponement -children will gain a lot from working with someone successful in the outside world.

* Sometimes short-term relationships work best. A finite project may appeal to your expert more than a regular commitment.

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