When I was nine, I stopped playing the piano. I’d like to say that it was because my research into quantum chromodynamics gave me no spare time to perfect my technique, but the truth is a tad more prosaic.
The day came when I hadn’t practised in weeks and I was planning to flunk another lesson and go swimming instead. I remember my mum saying to me: “If you go swimming, that’s it. No more piano lessons – ever.” And I whooped with joy as I skipped off down the baths.
When you’re nine, you never dream what it might be like to be the person who slides on to the piano stool with apparent idleness, then suddenly stuns the room by knocking off Kaikhosru Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum like it was Chopsticks. Or, even better, get everyone joining in with some classic Chas and Dave.
When I was nine, I didn’t know that I wanted to be that person. Now I do, it’s way too late, which is why I am the Mother from Hell when it comes to my nine-year-old’s music practice.
Like millions of other children, my son is forced to play an instrument. In his case, it happens to be the guitar. He says he hates it, and he says he hates me for making him play it, but play it he will because – and I know, it’s the cliché of clichés – one day, he will thank me.
Perhaps forcing kids into music isn’t the ideal way to get them interested, but I honestly believe that however a child may be encouraged, led, coerced, or whipped into experiencing music, then the end will eventually justify the means. However, sometimes the means are unexpected. The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has just conducted a study of several thousand music pupils aged five to 17 years old and found that more children than ever are citing shows like The X Factor as the reason they have chosen (yes, actually chosen) to start playing.
This surprises me, as I’ve never thought of The X Factor as a hotbed of musicianship. I hadn’t associated the ability to belt out something by Rihanna, followed by a tearful, blow-by-blow account of your nan’s hysterectomy, with being a proper musician.
In fact, I always assumed that Simon Cowell would try to weed out the genuinely talented, instrument-playing performers, because they might actually understand what’s going on and have strong opinions of their own about it.
You may have noticed that the sort of people who do best out of competitions like The X Factor tend to be straightforward warblers. The more multi-talented the winner, the less time they tend to stick with Simon.
Nevertheless, I am so absolutely convinced that music is one of the greatest gifts that humanity possesses, and that life would be unthinkable without it. I might even let my boy watch Simon, Cheryl and their little friends this year. In fact, I’ll try anything.
I don’t care where his inspiration comes from, as long as it arrives in time to stop him smashing his guitar over my head. (For this very reason, I haven’t let him watch any old film of Pete Townshend in action.) If television talent shows are genuinely causing a new generation of kids to willingly pick up instruments, then that’s one reason – in fact, it’s the only reason I can think of – for letting them continue to blight the schedules.
Besides, if you want to be famous, there are easier ways of achieving that particular dream than taking lessons and diligently applying yourself to learning to play. The fact that the children who are being inspired are working hard, and not simply hollering into hairbrushes in their bedrooms, makes me very happy indeed.
The ABRSM survey also highlights another effect of The X Factor on our children’s musical ambitions. While the upper (A and B) social classes are still mostly guiding their offspring towards classical orchestral instruments like strings and woodwind, the Cs, Ds and Es are becoming increasingly attracted to the sort of instruments that clinch you a record deal.
In the 15 years since ABRSM last studied our children’s musical preferences, interest in both drums and electric guitars has risen more than 10 per cent, and now a respectable 5 per cent of students are learning to play bass, as opposed to absolutely nobody in 1999. It’s no surprise that so many kids are being drawn to these instruments – working-class heroes don’t usually play the oboe.
However, what’s especially reassuring about this study is that it shows that children from less privileged families are getting the opportunity to learn and to love music.
I like the idea of a world that’s got even more music in it than we have now, even if some of it is filtered through the dubious personal taste membrane of Cowell, Cole and company.
We might not be living through popular music’s finest hour, but come on, it survived disco and hip-hop, so it can survive anything.
My little ingrate doesn’t realise how good I am to him. I haven’t insisted that he dedicate his life to the cello, or forced him to walk through the mean streets of Leith carrying a cor anglais.
If he wanted to play the piano, I wouldn’t care if he wanted to emulate Rachmaninov, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Liberace. If he really wants to watch The X Factor , I promise I’ll do no worse than roll my eyes behind his back.
All I have ever asked of him is that he get to grips with just one instrument and I deliberately chose the one that’s most useful. If he’s ever stuck for cash, his guitar will be all he needs to busk his way to a couple of quid.
He’ll always be popular at parties and, when the time comes, it’ll help him get girls. I told you he’d thank me in the end.