If you are looking to study music in a UK school in 2018, your timing is not great.
A recent article in The Economist (March 2018) analysed the impact of cuts to services in an area of North Wales where music has been a way of life for decades. Musical opportunities are now so rare that the famous choirs of the area are in peril. Peripetetic services exist on life support. A brief internet search will highlight a host of famous musicans and arts’ leaders who have serious concerns about the reductions. Ofsted are concerned at its diminishing influence within a narrowed curriculum.
The Economist’s article highlighted immense cuts (71% to the council’s commitment for its music service) but also referred to the accountability culture which has left Music lying cold and naked outside the core subjects – many pupils terminating their studies at the same time they enter the ‘Kevin years’ at 13. This seems rather counter-productive; I can’t think of anything better for a teenager than to be kept under the seductive influence of music before they re-emerge as human beings some years later.
There are parallel problems in primary schools where teachers come out in a cold sweat when children are taken out of their lessons for music tuition.
‘But they’ll miss out on test preparation?!’ they cry. That’s in the schools that still provide music tuition.
In other blogs, I refer to the changing attitudes towards participatory sport; my perception that sport is only seen as a benefit for youngsters if it associated with winning, or as contributing to a personal statement or to a rounded CV. To some extent, this is also the case with music, where learning ‘for music’s sake’ is seldom contemplated in schools.
I will nail my colours to the mast. Music is the most important subject in the school curriculum. It is one of our country’s biggest success stories, and a defining characteristic of our culture.
At the weekend, I was with the son of one of our closest friends. Aged seven, Joe had the fortune to have a small part in the most underrated and stirring musical of our time, ‘The Magical Millennium Clock’, written by my brother and I (the show-stopper ‘High-Sea Piracy’ is a modern classic). Despite a lack of musical opportunities at school, Joe has learnt the guitar thanks to his own curiosity, his Dad’s help and by playing with, and in, the community. Though now a successful professional in the legal world, he finds great fulfilment through playing in the crack Irish Band, ‘Beware of the Pig’ (all top musicians themselves) each weekend. Joe’s experience is similar to thousands of people up and down the country where the repetitive nature of a day job is offset by the thrill and joy of music-making during downtime.
Music sits rather uncomfortably in an acquisitive culture. She is not an economic product to be marketed. Stressed parents, who enrol their children in musical tuition because of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), are demeaning its beauty. Schools that reduce its influence because of music’s lack of importance in Progress 8 measures are behaving like short-term philistines. Governments who fail to invest in school music are equally myopic.
Music brings joy, emotion and heightens our senses. Like in the Welsh communities cited above, music unites people and cements a commonality of purpose. It should be the right of all pupils and students.
So a call to arms (or bows, reeds and plectrums).
We need an ‘El Sistema’ for the UK – community music-making for all. This is where Mrs May’s desired interventionist approach could work, alongside our arts and educational institutions, for the ‘common good’ of society.
For if learning is the bridge to fulfilment, then music is its keystone.