EVERY child must have the chance to learn to play an instrument for free, purely for the love of music.
When the BBC broadcast the Young Musician of the Year contest in May, which cello player Laura van der Heijde, 15, won, there was little fanfare and even less fuss. Compared with X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice, there was no well-promoted, prime-time programme on a mainstream channel (it was on BBC4), and no endless strings of adverts or emotive cajoling to get people to phone and vote for their favourite. Few know her name like they do One Direction, created by X Factor.
Instant if temporary fame for carrying a tune and strutting on stage, it would seem, is considered more important than hard work and craft, knowing and understanding a composition and being able to make an instrument sing. Today, it is more important to fit into conventional formulas geared towards making a profit and play the cameras, than excel in musicality. The dream is a spread in Heat magazine, rather than a commitment to melody and harmonic structures.
Which it is why it is so refreshing to hear Nicola Benedetti, the world-renowned violinist from Ayrshire, attack the reduction in funding of music tuition in schools. In a provocative and passionate magazine interview, Benedetti warned that the diminishing provision of music education creates a vacuum, and young people will be left with only celebrity culture to believe in.
She said: “So many people up and down the country are trying to create a better foundation for musical education. But decisions have been made, especially in the light of funding cuts, that are, I think, catastrophic to our future as a nation.”
In its place, the young will “end up accepting what’s shoved in their face” she warned, “which is celebrity culture and this obsessive chasing to become famous. But famous for what?”
Nicola Benedetti is famous herself, but for an ability that she has nurtured with sustained hard work. In 2004, she secured a £2 million, six-album record contract after winning BBC Young Musician of the Year at 16, and has continued to shine ever since. Benedetti is far more than a pretty face, she is a talent to be reckoned with.
She is also drawing attention to a serious problem. The reality is that fewer children have the opportunity to learn an instrument today than five years ago. Many that do play – whether it’s a violin, flute or tuba – have to pay for it. This means that only the well-off (who can afford it), or the really badly off (who still qualify for subsidies, although these are being reduced) can learn. The average child whose family is neither rich enough nor poor enough loses out.
A recent survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland, Scotland’s largest teaching union, showed a number of local authorities are now making parents pay for their child’s tuition as part of their studies for Standard Grade and Higher music qualifications.
And details obtained by Conservative MSP Liz Smith, via Freedom of Information laws, revealed a number of authorities charge, or are about to, including Aberdeen, Highland, Dumfries and Galloway, and Renfrewshire, which recently began charging for additional tuition.
Shockingly, only eight – East Lothian, Edinburgh, Glasgow, West Lothian, South Ayrshire, West Dunbartonshire, Orkney and Western Isles – of Scotland’s 32 local authorities provide free instrument tuition to pupils.
Overall, there has been a gradual decline of free instrument tuition provision, but this has sped up with the financial crisis.
Dundee City Council, for example, cut £47,000 from music tuition this year by removing three full-time equivalent music instructors’ posts. This means music lessons now start in Primary 5, when they used to start in Primary 4. Benedetti started in Primary 1.
It should not be this way. Every child should have the chance to play an instrument for free. It is the essential building block to understanding and appreciating music. It is the way to master the language of music – yes, that means scales and the discipline of repetitive practice – and it is important to get to grips with an instrument before going on to create any new tunes.
None of this necessarily means the pupil will be famous, or a success. Nor does it even mean they will get a music-related job. What is does mean is they could learn to love music.
In response to Benedetti, the Scottish Government said it recognised her commitment to helping young people enjoy making music, which is very nice of them, I am sure.
Shifting responsibility somewhat, the spokesman added that the detail of what is taught in schools is decided by local authorities and schools. He is right – but local authorities should be put under pressure not to cut music provision, and criticised loudly when they do.
The spokesman went on to praise the status quo and the Curriculum for Excellence, which claims to provide widespread opportunities for pupils to learn and experience music at school. But there is no mandated musical instrument tuition. And despite reading the glossy promotional papers, it is difficult to tell what the students actually learn as part of the curriculum. There is mention of using one’s voice, instruments and music technology, but how and why this should be provided is unclear and unfocused.
The state of music provision is poor. Instead of facing up to this problem and doing something about it, too many want to gloss over it and pretend everything is OK.
But it is not OK. An appreciation and understanding of music starts in schools. The cuts to provision that are unfolding are a threat to musicality. We are heading in the wrong direction.
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