‘Music lessons in school are about so much more than how to play’ - Janice Galloway on free music tuition

Janice Galloway is amongst Creative Scotland's critics.  Picture: Robert Perry
Janice Galloway is amongst Creative Scotland's critics. Picture: Robert Perry
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Introducing an extract from her memoirs, author Janice Galloway explains how free instrument tuition unlocked her creativity
and why she’s backing our campaign

STARING wistfully into shop windows is a childhood ­hobby: candy bananas, cheap coloured pencils, toy cats and orange scooter handlebars were one thing: what worried my mother was that I chose Saltcoats’ only music shop in Dockhead Street as my gawp-station of choice. Rose-varnished redwood guitars, clarinets peppered with silver-trimmed rifle holes just behind the glass where my nose touched were unaffordable and I knew it. My mother sang at the local bowling club, my Uncle Alec played accordion at the local pub and we listened a lot to the radio (Mario Lanza and Liberace were calls to turn up the volume) but wanting an instrument of my own was Not On. They cost money. So did lessons. So did music. And the noise, in a flat, could cost neighbours. “So long as it’s just looking,” was her plainchant to my staring. We both knew the score.

I was ten when we acquired the upright by a circuitous route. A chestnut-coloured slightly beat-up full-keyboard Lehmann with castors, and I still remember its arrival. Three men thumped it into the living room from a van, swearing and I realised three things: a) this thing was made of cast iron and trees and could beat a small elephant in a tug-of-war, and b) we would never be able to shift it once the men had gone. That meant it was staying. It was mine, incontrovertibly and forever. I was thrilled to bits. We also knew no teachers. I got ­lessons locally from a retired amateur, but we were too inexperienced to know the lessons were not exactly professional standard, that the teacher was out of her depth with children and that my mother’s optimistic notion that “a few ­lessons” would have me playing Rogers, Hammerstein was sadly misplaced. When the cash ran out and the expected reward did not materialise, it was me and Nursery Ballads on our own. So it was school (thank god for school) that took me in as a creative prospect, and Mr Kenneth Hetherington of the music department who created the learning patterns, the hope and the basic opportunities that would give me My Life as it is Now.

Ken ear-tested each child in the new intake. Yes, I do mean every single one. He ran three orchestras, some smaller bands, quartets and around five choirs, layered in and around other lessons. What that meant is maybe hard to see for someone not as lucky as the happy few at Ardrossan Academy or whose trigger to a richer life was not via this route. So I had a stab at putting a little of its meaning into my last book, All Made Up. It was part of the function of writing the book. These two run-together extracts are my best way to explain...

THIS is the Ardrossan Academy Orchestra. First to sixth-year without fear or favour, all present and correct save those of us who are not, and who is not is Howat. Orchestra leader or not, Howat was playing the piano somewhere. Slight and blond, Roy was going to play the piano for a living one day. He knew it and we knew it. It was not a choice, it was a calling. I used to stare at him from my lowly place in the back row of the second fiddles, easily within touching distance: Howat with his gold-blond hair and his living just up the road meant there was more of a possibility in the world than commonly met the eye. He’s not in the snap, but our confidence in him is. Whatever his background, Howat, merely by being Howat before our very eyes, was worth his weight in ivory inlays, because if he could do something so out of the ordinary, it meant we had permission to at least dream about doing it too. Absent or not, Howat is there. You can see him on our faces: young, freshly peeled and wearing something loosely akin to charm. He is definitely, radiantly, there.

It was reported the music department were in cahoots with PE and between them, or so the rumour ran, they had cooked up a scheme that made the attendance at boys’ choir mandatory for any boy selected for the rugby team. Whether this was true or not, both choir and orchestra had a solid component of square-jawed sorts and they’re there in the back row wearing proper trousers for a change. A third of this row also wear glasses: the rest are growing their hair over their blazer collars.

Over six years of pictures, boys in this back row will model mullets, perms, shoulder-flicks and shaggy-dog fringes, Elvis sideburns, mop-tops, tumbling flick-back curls and one full-blown afro. Beside them stand a small core of red-eared short back and sides lads who, at whatever cost to their chic, are keen to remain conservative and above that kind of thing.

The next two rows are girls in too-short skirts with centre-partings to the fore. Elfin and prematurely matriarchal; Mona-Lisa studious and not-fully-conscious; earnest, prim and full of nonsense , we none of us, not even gorgeous Joy Kirkwood or angel-faced Alison Millar, are wearing make-up. Not at school. We wait till we’re on the bus on the way home. Girls with their legs akimbo around the hefty bodies of cellos are not allowed either, at least face-on into the lens, so the only instruments on show are violins and those holding them in the main are the pixies in knee-socks at the front. I am one of the pixies. Everyone sports a stringy school tie by which we look willing to be led and some of us already have been.

Mr Hetherington, corduroy-clad head of music, has ear-tested every one of us and supplied an instrument to anybody who could hold a tune. Everyone should have a chance to make music, he said, and testing was mandatory for first year with a cupboard full of state-provisioned instruments to put belief into practice if anyone took him up on the offer. The cupboard was full of the glittery metal fixings of clarinets and saxophones, hole-reinforced oboes and pudding basin tympani. It had racks of stringed things housed in matte black coffins and trumpets and cornets with brass open mouths. Narnia be buggered: this was real enchantment. Handfuls of broken strings, dented tuning pegs, ancient rosin-sticky bridges lay where they’d been dropped and loosely arranged in no particular order were the orchestra scores, straining at the spines with use. It was a place for the nervously yet terminally curious, a place to conceal and be concealed while you rummaged and rustled and found buried treasure. It was, at first sight, love.

My violin came like everybody else’s in a compressed cardboard case with red velveteen lining, its wooden body light and shiny with newness. The black-painted fingerboard ran down the neck and over the belly like a canopy, above which the four strings were suspended from pegs to the tailpiece. In the middle, a complicated little wooden gate held the strings away from the wood giving them space to resonate and make the sound. It was clever and simple and every bit of it, including lessons, on the house. It was like winning the star prize on a TV quiz show: the car, petrol, road tax and breakdown cover in one package. Even mum, who had a genius for finding leaden linings, was impressed to the point of tears. She showed the violin to my big sister who said I’m not interested even though her eyes lingered on the velvet interior of the case before she went to run a bath.

Nobody asked me if you could get that thing, she shouted through the door. And don’t think just because you’ve got it now you’re playing it when I’m at home. She turned the taps up fast so they squealed like piglets. I need a rest when I come home.

In the end, I never learned to love the violin, but I loved the orchestra, the sum of which was more than the scraping, honking or quacking of its separate parts. From the back of the fiddles and however cranky a cog I made, I had my place. I’d been a non-starter as a Brownie and thrown out of Rosebuds and pre-fives tap. Now, even if it was basic, it was expected I’d work until I had something to give. Because of my hands were enormous, Mr Lyle gave me a viola after a month or so, the bigger, darker sounding instrument that often filled in the middles of chords. Violins showed off at the top and cellos drove the whole thing forward from beneath. But violas – here he looked at me over the top of his glasses – were the secret ingredient. Without violas, he said, the whole lot fell apart. Why did I think he played one? The viola, he said, was glue.

And so it was. The necessary middle, I learned how to fit and that feeling alone was a revelation. Look. I smiled in the orchestra photo so much my mother bought one and sat it on top of the piano where it scrutinized the TV repair man and anyone else who wandered through the living room. And though I never admitted it, I liked the picture too. This was who we were. An orchestra, who worked together or not at all. You can see it all our monochrome faces, the life-yet-to-live brightness in our eyes. We’re an assembly, a collective, small components of a bigger machine than I’d ever have imagined being part of. Bright as buttons, green as it gets, I belong to an orchestra.

The thing with music lessons in school is, you don’t just learn how to play. Even if he or she never gets as far as fabulous, but learns enough to hold a part, the child gains. An orchestra, a choir, a chamber group is a unit. Pride in your part earns a result for all. Learning an instrument is learning community, learning focus and expectation of contribution. It is learning complex, multi-taxing synaptic connections, learning to take criticism and persist, learning to accept applause and belonging. It’s gaining friends, a subject for conversation, a route into personal study, joint study, how to listen and listen constructively, and an awareness of what it is to learn for sheer pleasure. Which means being able to find reading, languages, history, the entire open world of knowledge ­being meant for you too.

I knew even at the time I was acquiring music from someone, knew it was a way of approaching the world and what it had to offer and I am still grateful every day. Yes, I do mean every day. ­Acquisition of an instrument is hard enough for most: it’s the teaching, method of application, the space to practise, and the encouragement of the school’s culture that make the astonishing difference. Music made learning not only ­desirable but attainable. Music, though it did not make my eventual career, gave me the nerve to choose it. And in that, romantic though it sounds, I know it saved my life. Perhaps this helps to ­explain why I am supporting Scotland on Sunday’s Let The Children Play ­campaign. «

Scotland on Sunday is campaigning to scrap the fees – sometimes in excess of £300 a year – for musical instrument tuition in Scottish schools. Details of our Let The Children Play campaign can be found on its dedicated Twitter feed: twitter.com/LTCPcampaign. If you want to add your voice, email the Cabinet Secretary for Education: Michael.Russell.msp@scottish.parliament.uk and urge him to adopt the campaign’s five-point action plan. All Made Up by Janice Galloway is published by Granta Books, £8.99