The message is clear: don’t make musicians angry

15th December 2017 at 00:00
Music education is crucial to develop talent – and councils shouldn’t stand in its way

The history of music is littered with revenge lyrics. From Lily Allen’s Smile to Bob Dylan’s Idiot Wind, musicians over the years have found a way to hit back – powerfully and with a wide reach.

In June this year, the young RnB singer Jessie Reyez revealed that her song Gatekeeper described an incident when a producer tried to sexually assault her. With #MeToo still trending in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, that producer was probably shaking in his boots – and with good reason. The message is clear: don’t piss off a musician.

Yet that is exactly what councils all over the country are doing, by repeatedly cutting instrumental music tuition, despite weasel words to the contrary. Parents at the City of Edinburgh Music School – a National Centre of Excellence – were horrified recently to read a secret internal document drawn up by council officials, proposing the closure of the facility, a state-funded specialist music school unique in Europe, fully integrated into Broughton High School.

Digging deeper, they were even more shocked to hear misleading, inaccurate assertions about “quality” coming from officials, more reminiscent of BBC mockumentary W1A’s “More of Less” initiative than of the experiences of music teachers and young people with musical needs.

Needless to say, the parents – like parents all over the country – fought the cuts with vehemence, supported by the wider community, who are astute in their perception that this is a slippery slope.

As one parent at a local primary school said, “If they won’t even fund it for the best and the brightest, what hope is there for any of our children?” And there was good news when the Edinburgh plans were quickly scrapped, as the scale of opposition became clear.

Every child benefits from music education: the rewards in cognitive development, increased co-ordination, language development, and pattern recognition are well documented. A mastery of music leads to increased creativity, imagination and intellectual curiosity, and helps prepare young people for the important creative economy.

It can also bring joy, relaxation and positive mental health. Its inclusion in schools is, quite frankly, a no brainer.

And it has often unforeseen advantages, as the academic results emerging from Feversham Primary Academy in Bradford suggest – here, in an unusual move, children have up to six hours of music a week.

Practice makes perfect

Children who have a particular talent in music, however, need even more. Let’s be very clear about this: for musical talent to be nurtured, it needs lots of attention. Just as a child or young person with a talent in sport needs a rigorous, time-intensive training programme, with coaches and teachers, so too do budding musicians. The key is in the focus on “individual” and on the “intensive”.

How far do you think Rebecca Adlington – or, indeed, any sportsperson – would have got along the path to Olympic glory if she had had to make do with a 35-minute class lesson in the pool once a week? Young musicians require individual, expert teaching – and plenty of it.

Hours of daily practice, painstaking and comprehensive individual expert tuition and multiple opportunities to play and perform all guided by outstanding teachers – this is what young people with musical talent need.

And they deserve it. A deep, philosophical belief should underpin our support for young musicians. A career in education in the UK and internationally has taught me that every single child has special, unique needs, which it is our collective responsibility in schools to meet. Our social contract with children, from when they are born to when they reach adulthood – and arguably beyond – is to nurture and support them, to help them realise who they genuinely are and to stretch their uniqueness, so that they can find their personal balance and contribute to society to the greatest extent possible.

We need musicians in our world – music is the beat of our lives, from downloads on the daily commute to magnificent concerts.

We cannot conceive of a world without music. And yet a cultural desert lurks just over the horizon if we don’t develop the individual needs of children who have an innate musical talent.

If all children are treated to a diet of equal mediocrity, spread ever more thinly as budget cuts bite, then no one benefits – neither the young people, nor the world into which they will emerge.

Finally, we mustn’t forget that this is about all children. People with money can pay for anything, including music tuition. But musical talent isn’t just gifted to children from families who can afford to invest in their children’s musical education.

While many independent schools do a phenomenal job of giving financial and educational support to young people with musical talent, they can’t do it for everyone. Diversity matters, equality of access matters and – above all – excellence matters. Each one of these should form the foundation of decisions made about musical tuition in schools.

It is imperative that as a society we provide excellent, individually targeted music education. Music may be what saves us all. As Bono once famously said: “Music can change the world, because it can change people.”

Council officials across the land should wake up to this. Because when the last instrumental teachers are given their marching orders, when music education shrivels up and dies, some musicians, somewhere, will slip through the net. Watch out, bureaucrats, for those acid revenge lyrics…

Dr Helen Wright is a former headteacher who now works in international education

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