Hugh Reilly: Musical memories got me singing the blues
RECENT research struck a bum note when it revealed that approximately half of the UK’s music teachers cannot play an instrument.
This news may cause cow bells to ring in the ears of the general populace but, if truth be told, the ability to play a tune is not considered an essential part of being a music teacher.
A much more important skill is to be able to successfully plug in 20 electric keyboards and diligently check that each is fitted with a functioning set of headphones. In many schools, failed street buskers have found gainful employment as so-called peripatetic music instructors.
Taking time off from vying with Big Issue sellers for the loose change of charitable shoppers, these professionals are responsible for teaching kids how to play an instrument. It’s a tough gig teaching classes of three, sometimes four motivated students but, in my experience, most do it without a murmur of complaint.
School music departments are unique in subcontracting out core work to casual staff. As far as I am aware, home economics departments do not recruit chefs to show children how to make nutritious meals. Art departments don’t bring wandering artists into the studio to brush up the painting skills of pupils. Is it too much to expect music teachers to be proficient in picking a banjo or blowing a trumpet?
A former colleague, wee Ella, falls into the category of a music dominie who, shall we say, enjoyed limited success in getting a tune out of a musical contraption. Piano was certainly not her forte. My heart sank whenever I arrived early for mass in the school assembly hall and saw Ella tickling the ivories in a prelude to the happening.
The congregation held a collective breath when, on a rather apprehensive nod from the chaplain, Ella hit the keyboard with a dexterity that made Les Dawson sound like Chopin. Listening to 300 tone-deaf children desperately endeavouring to keep in tune with an off-key virtuoso performance of How Great Thou Art was truly torturous. Had she been hired by the CIA to perform a recital for Guantanamo prisoners, I guarantee there would have been a serious case of queue-jumping in detainees waiting to be waterboarded.
As a Sixties kid, I had dreams of being a bandana-wearing guitar hero, plucking my Gibson and pushing the wah-wah pedal, chillin’ out backstage with my weed and a posse of free-love groupies.
One can only imagine my disappointment when I was handed the runt of the woodwind litter, the recorder. By contributing a shilling to pay for after-school tuition, my mother thought that mastery of this poor man’s penny whistle would soon lead to me fingering a mean version of Kenny Ball’s Midnight in Moscow.
Mater felt somewhat short-changed when she heard my mangled rendition of that recorder classic, Three Blind Mice. Distraught, she grabbed the wooden pipe and stuck it through the letterbox of an Oxfam shop. It is of some comfort to know that somewhere in the Dark Continent, there is probably a wee bloke playing Frère Jacques on my school recorder.
In my day, a music lesson was a largely passive experience. For example, I remember sitting in a near comatose state as Mr Anglim’s room reverberated to the explosive sound of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
However, I do recall a kindly teacher having my class row along to the Mingulay Boat Song. The housing scheme wannabe Gaelic galley slaves heartily pulled on the make-believe oars as we headed homewards and into the arms of our tobacco-chewing, bristle-chinned fishwives.
To be fair, most music teachers of my acquaintance are excellent musicians, indeed, many make a good living from moonlighting as part of a ceilidh band or a wedding combo.
A good music department can raise children’s awareness of the different genres of music. Some years ago, I encountered a young teacher who had succeeded in opening teenage ears to the blues of Muddy Waters, BB King and John Lee Hooker.
He had also started the establishment’s first ever jazz band and, unsurprisingly, his enthusiasm resulted in large numbers of pupils choosing music as a Standard Grade option.
Thanks to a new breed of music teachers, the subject is less elitist and is slowly becoming more accessible to all schoolchildren, whatever their musical ability.
Play on, maestro, play on.
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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