Jim Gilchrist: Don’t burst the ‘magic bubble’ that is the City of Edinburgh Music School

Pupils Hannah Morrison (16), Sean Hughes (17), Freya Ruuskanen (17) and Mia Scott (17) stage a musical protest against the planned closure of the school outside the City Chambers. Picture: Greg Macvean
Pupils Hannah Morrison (16), Sean Hughes (17), Freya Ruuskanen (17) and Mia Scott (17) stage a musical protest against the planned closure of the school outside the City Chambers. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Plans to close the City of Edinburgh Music School must be resisted, writes Jim Gilchrist.

Take three musicians from three diverse genres. The late Martyn Bennett, a gifted piper, violinist, composer and producer whose music will be performed as a highlight of the Celtic Connections festival’s 25th anniversary in Glasgow next January; Helen Grime, currently composer-in-residence at London’s Wigmore Hall, whose orchestral piece Catterline in Winter, inspired by the paintings of Joan Eardley, was recently premiered at the Royal Albert Hall; and Tommy Smith, the internationally renowned jazz saxophonist, composer and educator, whose recent John Coltrane tribute album, Embodying the Light, has been rapturously received.

What common ground links these highly successful but diverse artists? All three are former pupils of the City of Edinburgh Music School (CoEMS), one of Scotland’s four “centres of excellence” for non-fee-paying music education, which is now threatened with closure by the City of Edinburgh Council in a bid to save some £363,000 from its education budget.

Writing as both a music columnist with this newspaper and the parent of a former pupil – harpist Maeve Gilchrist, who has gone on to forge a highly successful career in music in the United States – I find it disheartening to see, yet again, music education being targeted as part of budget cuts in Scotland’s supposedly cultured capital.

The council plans to replace CoEMS by rolling out what it calls “a city-wide equity and excellence music service”.

While music education should be available for all as a vital matter of course, this sounds suspiciously like papering over the cracks left as a music school of international standing goes by the board.

Based at Edinburgh’s Flora Stevenson Primary and the neighbouring Broughton High School, this specialist music unit creates a unique environment which nurtures talented young musicians while grounding them in a mainstream school education.

Genre barriers are not a consideration: other alumni have included Shirley Manson, singer with the rock band Garbage, the feted young classical guitarist Morgan Szymanski and the US-based Scots singer and fiddler Hannah Read, a member of the award-winning Songs of Separation folk collective.

CoEMS is no ordinary school – ordinary schools don’t enjoy the patronage of such musical eminences as the conductor Sir Simon Rattle, who is a champion, incidentally, of Helen Grime’s music.

On visits, either for routine parent-teacher meetings or for concerts or recitals, I personally found it possibly the most vibrant educational establishment I know.

The council’s planned closure of the school and ‘roll-out’ of music education would not just dissipate – rather than ‘roll out’ – resources, it would burst the magic bubble of the school’s particular environment and ambience, with its intense one-to-one tuition combined with the essential process of collaborative music making.

Last year the council proposed a 75 per cut in free music tuition in schools, only to perform an about-turn in the face of massive petitioning, supported by the likes of violinist Nicola Benedetti, Manson and Smith.

Let’s hope that a similar degree of protest will avert this latest misguided ploy. As funding for CoEMS comes partly from the Scottish Government, parents of pupils and ex-pupils will doubtless be writing furiously to their MSPs as well as their councillors in anticipation of the next council budget meeting on 7 November.

Music is a fundamental element in any civilised society, its potentially transformative power cannot be underestimated. Yet it is all too often targeted as a conveniently disposable educational strand at a time of financial stringency. The council badly needs to change its tune.