Investing in music is not an indulgence, it keeps communities vibrant and gives meaning to our lives, writes Tiffany Jenkins
The exhibition on the Ice Age held at the British Museum, earlier this year featured a bone flute made from a griffon vulture’s wing, which had been discovered in a cave in south-west Germany. It is thought to be about 40,000 years old, making it one of the oldest instruments ever found. The long, off-white, thinly carved bone, with holes bored into it, was amazing. It was recognisably a musical instrument. Imagining what it sounded like and what it meant to the community connected me to a period in time about which we know very little in a way that no other artefact on show could.
From the earliest time, before recorded history, human beings sang and played music, communicating feelings and stories, giving meaning to their lives and providing respite. At the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford there are cases of flutes from different historical periods from all over the world, such as one from south Sudan made from an antelope horn, as well as a small bamboo flute from 19th-century Polynesia. People invented songs and initially relied on memory to pass them on. Musical instruments were fashioned from local materials. Notation, writing down the work, much later in history, has meant that we can still hear and perform many later pieces today.
Whilst music has always been with us and although there continues to be new music composed, we should pay attention to key moments in the history of music and note what enabled it to flourish. There is no danger that it will die out, but we are failing to nurture it in important ways. In particular, we are turning into people who listen but do not play a note. So few pianos are sold today – about 4,000 a year – that hardly any are currently made in Britain, yet in the early 20th century, in Camden Town, London, alone, there were 100 small factories. Despite the pleasure we get from hearing a tune, and despite the fact that it is important to listen well, that many of us have put down our instruments and that our children are taking them up in fewer numbers and for a shorter period of time, is a problem.
In the 19th and early-20th centuries music was more often played at home, or in the community, than heard in the concert hall. The piano or violin was played in the parlour, at dinner, at parties and in the pub, for family, friends and acquaintances. That most people could play, or at least sing something, that it was embedded in community, meant that it was appreciated as part of everyday life. There was a tradition of songs that people knew backwards and these were shaped into something new as times changed. That music was part of people’s lives meant that it evolved – older generations handed down music, others composed new songs, or adapted the old tunes to their moods and circumstances. Music was something living, it thrived.
Today, instead, we listen but actively participate in music less. This is why we should be pleased that Fife Council, after an angry reaction from teachers and musicians, has backed down over its proposals to abolish its instrumental music tuition service. The Scotland on Sunday newspaper helped, running a campaign to scrap instrumental tuition fees in schools across Scotland, where a postcode lottery system now means that children can be charged between £95 and £340 to learn a musical instrument – something that was once free to them. The future of music is not entirely dependent upon music lessons in schools, of course, it will continue without it. What is more, learning and playing is something we can and should do ourselves, outside of schools – that’s us adults as well as kids. But it is a very good idea to provide music lessons for young people and to do so for free. It can only mean more people learn to play an instrument from early on and that a message is sent out that it is important. Pressure should be sustained on councils across Scotland to make music lessons free and available in schools.
There are good reasons for music lessons. They may cost money in difficult times but they produce benefits. Playing music helps us to understand and appreciate it. Listening to someone play a tune on the piano, for example, and then trying to play it yourself, reveals how, not just technique, ability and practice is important – that goes without saying – but also, crucially, that the interpretation of work changes it. This is one of the most important lessons to learn about music – that it changes. Your own feelings about how a piece should be played can make an interesting difference to the musical work. Emotion, technique and interpretation can significantly alter a piece. We can be part of it.
I was in Orkney for a conference, recently, at which there was a programme of evening entertainment. Groups of young musicians from Orkney and Shetland took their turn on stage to perform whilst we were wined and dined. Despite their youth, two in particular – Hadhirgaan and Harvey Johnston & Three of Bu – were of a high standard. They stood out from ordinary concerts I have seen recently in that the players are evidently talented, but there was more to it than that. Talking with local people that evening, it became clear that the whole community takes music seriously, that local shops and bars are places where people play live, a lot. And by people I mean the cool kids, as well as their parents. Crucially, primary and secondary schools are committed to music and there is travelling instrument service that goes around all the islands, which has a healthy take up, and which is free. This support shows. Hadhirgaan are from Kirkwall Grammar School. The music they played was traditional – which did not sound stale – and new work that they composed themselves. These students are the link between our musical past and its future.
Music lessons are not essential for the survival of music, but they help it flourish. We need to do more than listen, we must develop a new culture of playing instruments ourselves.