thu 21/10/2021

What price musical learning? | reviews, news & interviews

What price musical learning?

What price musical learning?

Last year I took my musical instrument to Tower Hamlets. The heartland of the capital’s huge Bangladeshi community is not a part of London where you expect to hear much orchestral playing. Nor are boroughs like Hackney and Newham ordinarily seen as wellsprings of classical musicians. But they all have a dedicated music services department among whose tasks it is to stimulate instrumental learning.

For the last four years the council’s music services department has been teaming up with teachers to get children to take up instruments. It has been a remarkable success. Already there are 7000 Tower Hamlets children learning an instrument in school for free. The school I visited for rehearsal was Bishop Challoner RC School in Shadwell. Shadwell - the very name evokes a murky Dickensian past, with cockney ne’er-do-wells skulking through grimy slums. Nowadays, as the Docklands Light Railway putters overhead past serried housing estates, ethnic corner shops and caged football courts, the flavour of the multicultural inner city is inescapable.

In this neighbourhood most children grow up in a family culture where violins and oboes and even pianos play no part. But Tower Hamlets' music service, in only its third academic year, was already working with 80 of the borough’s 100 schools. I rehearsed in an ensemble of young musicians ranging from nine to 17. Unlike them, I had the advantage of private lessons and private education. I can testify that they applied themselves to musical learning a lot more assiduously than I ever did.

Why am I recalling this visit now? Because it has emerged that Central Bedfordshire Council is proposing to cease funding its own music service just as soon as it is able. That date is April 2012. Since 2007 local authorities have been required by the Government to allocate a given sum of money to stimulate musical learning. The statute expires in 2011. The financing of music services in most local authorities is drawn from a mixture of government funds, local authority funds and whatever parents are prepared to pay for their children's lessons. While it varies from council to council, if Bedfordshire is no longer prepared to pay for its own music service, the burden will increasingly fall on parents.

I spoke to Michael Rose, who ran the county's music service for 18 years from 1972 and is leading a campaign for Bedfordshire music. The proposed reduction runs counter, he argues, to the Coalition’s statement that public funds should be used “to provide opportunities for all children to learn a musical instrument and to sing and to participate in performances of high quality”.

"Assuming the local authority makes a decision", he told me, "and there are no instrumental teachers employed by the authority, and assuming that the government fund is heavily reduced as one expects it to be, the net result will be that learning an instrument will be a very expensive business and will become the province of middle-class families." When he took charge of Bedfordshire music services, four-fifths of the county youth orchestra membership were privately educated. When he left 20 years ago it had been reduced to one-fifth.

“It takes a couple of school generations to build these things but it can go within one year. We had a very deliberate policy of extending instrument coverage to all schools and indeed concentrating effort in disadvantaged areas, which revealed just as much talent if not more than in the affluent areas. Some showed so much talent that they are now in leading positions in British orchestras.”

Rose fears that other local authorities will be watching the outcome of Bedfordshire County Council's proposal, that if they get away with it, other councils will have the green light to cancel their funding too. Music services in some of the most deprived boroughs in the country, such as Tower Hamlets, may well be subject to the same threat.

These things can never be proved in laboratory conditions, but the idea that instrumental learning has a holistic impact on a child’s social development is there in the famous example of Venezuela’s El Sistema. We need not rehearse the facts and figures here. But it’s worth mentioning the Scottish offshoot of El Sistema in Stirling. Begun in 2009, the project remains in its infancy. One of the professional musicians regularly involved in visiting the project is Nicola Benedetti. I asked her this summer if she’d noticed any early signs that intensive musical learning had a measurable impact on the five-year-olds now wielding violins and flutes etc.

“It was a tough shaky start,” she says. “I know quite a few people were a little bit sceptical but I’ve met all the kids and they’re just amazing. There is something about them. You can tell they have something and they experience something on a daily basis. They have this aura which is both like a fascination in things around them and a concentration, and a contentedness. You can just tell. I don’t know how you can tell, but you can just tell.”

Of course you could argue that music services are a luxury we cannot afford in the current economic climate. You could equally argue that it’s a luxury we cannot afford not to have.

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A Luxury that can't be afforded? It's about educationalists and politicians alike started recognising that a musical training is about the most cost effective form of education a child can receive. Unless there is another subject out there that builds team work, self discipline, self-confidence, and communication skills while measurably increasing cognitive powers - all in one hit ! Michael is spot on. The net effect will (ironically) be to make music lessons the elistist activity that I suspect many prejudiced and ill-informed politicians already believe it to be.

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