Why the bell tolls for elitism in music;Analysis;Profile;Christina Coker

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Backed by pound;30m of Lottery money, the chief executive of

the new National

Foundation of Youth Music is determined to bang the drum for wider access, reports Diane Spencer CHRISTINA COKER is a striking figure in cosmopolitan London, so imagine the reaction to her and her family in the Northumberland village of Wark where she was born.

The chief executive of the new National Foundation of Youth Music recalls: "We were the only black family up there, and there aren't many now. I was a curiosity, but there was no hostility."

Ms Coker started work in July at the foundation, set up by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to champion young people's music-making with the help of pound;30 million of Lottery money. She was a founder and director of the Hackney Music Development Trust, which ran the borough's music services when the Inner London Education Authority was abolished.

Her father was a Senegalese doctor, invalided out of the army in the Second World War. He was recuperating in the village when the local GP died in a car accident. He took over the practice and later met his Sierra

Leone-born wife in Bristol, where she was training to be a nurse.

Music has always been part of Coker's life, although her parents were not particularly musical. She fondly remembers Terry Atkinson, her music teacher at Queen Elizabeth grammar school in Hexham, who was also the organist at the town's famous abbey. He ran the school orchestra and, on discovering a dearth of viola players, said: "Come along Christina, you learn to play one." And she's done so ever since, playing semi-professionally with the Westminster Philharmonic in her spare time.

Her twin daughters, who live with her and her actor husband in Hertfordshire, both play - one the violin, the other the cello - but "I made them badger me for a year before they started. I wanted to be sure it came from them, not me pressuring them."

Coker abandoned the idea of playing professionally after a year at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, going instead to do a music degree at Bangor University, followed by a PGCE at a Cheltenham college.

"This was the only lost year in my whole life." A tactful pause. "Put it this way, I didn't find it stimulating; but it didn't put me off teaching."

Her first post was teaching French and music at Angley comprehensive in Cranbrook, Kent. After four years she wanted a change and worked on the American programme for the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges.

This was followed by "an uninspiring few months" at County Hall in the Greater London Council's arts and recreation department, then a spell as an educational outreach worker at the Roundhouse, in London's Chalk Farm, which in the early 1980s was an African-Caribbean arts centre.

Administration again beckoned, this time in the role of adviser to Herman Ouseley, director of equal opportunities at ILEA, (who later chaired the Commission for Racial Equality). She then moved on to advise David Mallon, ILEA's chief executive, until the authority's demise.

Access to music at the earliest possible age is all-important, she believes. The foundation will seek out the "bits of wilderness" where there's no music-making.

She emphasised that the new foundation would not be a substitute for education department or regional arts boards funding.

It has published a document setting out its aims, and has also launched six "pied-piper" pilot schemes around the country to encourage children to make music.

During her time in Hackney, Coker saw how music could make a difference to children's lives. They got the chance to work with members of famous orchestras like the London Symphony and visit the Dartington International Summer School, presided over by Gavin Henderson, now chair of the foundation.

He and his chief executive share the same vision. Coker says: "We both believe, passionately, that music is not an elitist thing to do; it's a normal activity for young people and they have a right to take part."

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