Why music has hit a wrong note in the land of Puccini

17th April 1998 at 01:00
ITALY. The Italian football team do not sing their national anthem "because they do not know the words" the Rome correspondent of The Times noted recently. He could have added that most players probably can't sing, either.

Or rather, they think they can't, and for a simple reason: music is in decline in Italy and they never did singing at school.

For the country of bel canto, the homeland of Verdi and Puccini, this looks like criminal negligence. The problem is that music is either taken too seriously (there are more than 50 conservatoires churning out unemployable musicians after a gruelling course which can last up to 10 years) or it is sidelined.

At primary level, for example, the curriculum includes "sound and image education", but teachers are not trained in music. So educazione al suono might be just that - teaching children to distinguish between different sounds, between a high-pitched sound and a low one, or a musical note and unmusical noise.

Things are a little better in the scuola media (for 11 to 14-year-olds), where pupils do two hours of music a week, because teachers have to be trained. But, says Mara Bortolato, who has been teaching music in a scuola media near Venice for 15 years, until recently it was enough to have passed an exam in music theory; no practical experience was necessary.

Mara considers herself lucky. When she arrived in her school she found there was no piano, and complained to the head. She got her piano, a soundproofed room, and an annual budget of pound;1,000 for instruments.

But more than anything else it is singing, she believes, which has been usurped by the passive "sound recognition" approach common in so many schools, and which desperately needs to be reintroduced into Italian schools. "Children need to live the experience of music," she says, "and this is what is missing."

In her free time she does what she can to make up for this by conducting a children's choir used by the Fenice (Venice opera house).

After the three-year interlude in the scuola media, music all but fizzles out at scuola superiore (upper secondary level), where pupils can choose between history of art and music. Most choose history of art. The musically-inclined can go instead to a conservatoire, but this will give them a highly-specialised diploma, with slim job prospects outside a saturated professional musician market. As one conservatoire student puts it: "In a normal school you're just playing with music, but here it's deadly serious."

But by announcing plans for a liceo musicale (music high school) for each province this year the ministry seems to have accepted recommendations by a panel of 38 "wise men" who have drawn up a document for major educational reform. One member was Riccardo Muti, principal conductor at La Scala Opera House in Milan.

Although full details have yet to be released, the liceo musicale looks like offering a middle way - a school providing a basic general education with a musical slant.

For Mara Bortolato this does not go far enough. "Any reform" she says, "has to make music available to everybody. Otherwise, it will be a failure before it begins, and music will stay as it is now, as something just for the pochi eletti - the chosen few."

David Newbold

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