Issue 206
Winter 2018/19


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Mar 19, 2019

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Music in our schools - a scandal

Academic and practising musician, Roger Williams, sounds a note of alarm at the catastrophic decline in the role of music teaching in our schools. Society will, he says, pay a high price.

BARELY DOES a week goes by without some new threat to music in our schools. It might be the much heralded E BACC which has no space for the performing arts, or it might be the threat to learning instruments with large and disproportionate fee increases by many local authorities.

This is a terrible double whammy: one officially sanctioned by successive governments in both Westminster and Holyrood, and the other stimulated indirectly by local government officers, who have little knowledge of what they are proposing. It is sad to learn that a local authority is to be challenged over the increased charges for instrumental lessons, on the grounds that an adequate and balanced state education should make provision for special talents such as music.

The question has to be asked why is music of any importance in a school? There is obviously a vital need for young pupils to gain the skills necessary for life – for literacy in both words, and numbers – the substantial understanding of how the world works, of the essential need to look after and foster our natural environment, and to train young minds in how to think. Also it is important to encourage the development of bodies through good nutrition, and to develop physical awareness with work in the gym and the sportsfield.

All these are commonly seen as essential parts of a school curriculum. Some of them of greater importance than we have been willing to recognize, as, for example, the widespread practice of selling schools sports-fields – a practice that is still goIng on.

But as young people grow, emotional maturity is increasingly seen as essential for a balanced human being. Music has to fight its corner with these and many other demands – something that is proving very difficult when the level of ignorance of the value of music education amongst politicians, local authority officers and others in authority is so profound.

Recent research in America is showing how enhanced brain connectivity can result from contact with classical music, the same part of the brain that copes with the learning of languages. This is of inestimable importance in the development of young brains – especially in the 4-9 year group.

At the same time, we read weekly of the benefits that contact with music can have on people suffering from degenerative conditions in later years. Only last week a quartet player was telling me about a woman who, confined to a home with dementia, after contact with just a few minutes of listening to music, started talking – something that had not happened for many years.

Some years ago I recall reading a list of seven qualities which a head hunter would look for in recruiting management talent for multinational companies. I was struck by how many were exactly the same as those that a good music graduate would have. Team-work, working under pressure, presentation through performance and explaining both by spoken and written word, were four of the most important.

The so-called music industry in the UK brings in many millions of pounds to the country every year. Our symphony orchestras, both in London and in several provincial cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff and Glasgow, are, on their day, amongst the best in the world.

Our choral tradition is second to none. The enormous range of choirs, ranging from large choral societies, such as Huddersfield, the Bach Choir and the Philharmonia Chorus, to many expert cathedral and chamber choirs, are of world wide renown.

The National Orchestra of Great Britain is an enviously talented organization. There are enormous numbers of other non-professional orchestras and choirs throughout the length and breadth of UK, involving many thousands of people in the activity of music-making on a regular, often weekly basis.

This is however the tip of the proverbial iceberg and all this activity has not happened by accident. We should not be complacent, however, as this has not always been the case. The great seedbed of all this is music in schools, which has benefited from an enormous growth and development in the twentieth century – particularly in the second half of the century. The availability of weekly instrumental lessons and of instruments (often loaned while the student was at school), have been taken up children of those whose parents could afford them and those who could not.

Musical talent, like other gifts, knows no boundaries of financial viability. Music was available to many, not only through the widespread practice of singing at schools, but also through instrumental provision. Further, although the regular 'schools concerts' by major orchestras might easily be parodied, they inspired generations of young people who had contact with masterworks of the Western European tradition, and introduced many to some of the finest minds of our culture.

The paucity of these compared with the situation 25 years ago, is much to be regretted and represents a diminution of accessibility. The frequent and often deliberate misuse of the word 'elite' applied to the circumstances of the creation of much of our western culture, has taken away the confidence in the sharing of the deeper experiences of mind and heart as a basis of human experience. The abuse of 'elite' in place of 'expert' has been allowed to skew many away from provision of something considered specialist.

Music in schools ought to be fostered therefore, not only because of the benefits it confers on the development of minds, both young and old, for enhanced preparation for the many transferable life-skills which our young people increasingly need – that part of education which enables flexibility of achievement and approach – but also for the ability to think feelingly – or to feel thinkingly – whichever way round you prefer.

To have the capacity to balance the discipline of performance of music, while experiencing emotions of greater depth than words can convey, are two qualities which no other subject gives in quite the same way. To share special emotionally mature experiences with outstanding minds such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, is an important part of the Western cultural heritage. We have absolutely no right to deprive our youngsters of the benefits which a good musical education will provide for those who are at school.

It was only in the mid nineteenth century that Mendelssohn dubbed Britain The Land without Music, a statement that, though only partly true, led to a new respect for professional music training. We are still reaping the benefits of a huge explosion of effort and resource into music provision, but if this is starved at the level of the state schools, for how much longer will the UK's high standing and high earning music profession last?

There is little time to stop the march of the musical wreckers. Let us hope it is not too late to rescue music in schools – the seedbed of the flourishing musical life we have enjoyed in Britain over the last half century and more.

Dr. Roger B.Williams, MBE, is a former Head of the Music Department at the University of Aberdeen and Chorus Master to the SNO Chorus.

He is currently Music Director and Organist to the Cathedral Church of St. Machar and is Music Adviser to the National Trust for Scotland.

An active organ recitalist, giving recent recitals in King's College, Cambridge and St. Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna, later this year he will play at Paisley Abbey and Bolton Priory, in Yorkshire


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