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Hilary Moriarty asks whether schools are alive with the sound of music

Posted by Alice Savage | May 04, 2017 | Teaching

Gimme a soap box, and I will happily rant for 10 minutes about music.  Specifically, music in schools.

I owe my glancing acquaintance with playing the violin to the free instrumental lessons which were available in my grammar school in North Wales.

They took me to Grade 4 and a rather short-lived place in the county Youth Orchestra. I did not take my violin to university, and after leaving school I never played again. Occasionally friends will still say very brightly, “Oh, we made up a kind of informal quartet – you ought to join us – it’s just for fun!” And I want to run for cover. The grade and the official youth orchestra record hide a multitude of sins, in particular, the fact that I was never very good then and would not expect to be even half-way passable for any kind of musical ensemble now.

Dig a little deeper into why I considered myself useless with a fiddle and it’s a funny old story. If I wanted to play any instrument, it was  the piano. My mother was a fine pianist, in part because she spent much of her childhood ‘banished’ to a cold ‘front room’, such as houses had in her youth before the through-room revolution, and actually locked in while she practised.  Flying fingers, Grade 8, gold medals, appearances on the stage at the Guildhall in Londonderry where she grew up – the whole nine yards. And all the while hating the piano, and yearning to play the violin.

You wouldn’t credit it today, would you?  In some ways, I repeated my mother’s story: not the medals and guest appearances, but the instrument and I, alone in the front room which, in my case, was freezing.

You are not likely to study music in school, unless you are already half-way expert

The kitchen/living room heart of the house was warm and comfortable. The front room – a fire seldom lit, a room hardly used. Except for the violin practice. And that does not go well with fingers stiff with cold.

The county youth orchestra was fun – a whole new set of people – but very scary, because they could all actually play, while I felt I had just been having lessons, somewhat under duress. And why did I not persevere with the happy business of making music together instead of in the isolation of the front room? Because the county sessions were almost impossible to get to from my country home. Think Cider with Rosie but in North Wales. Getting to the county orchestra meant two buses after school – and if you could not contrive a lift home, you’d have to stay in Colwyn Bay overnight. Like that was going to happen.

All of the above may account for my lifelong resentment of the fact that music was then and remains still an elitist business. In my day, the county provided free lessons for would-be violinists, which did give access to the instrument to youngsters otherwise unable to afford instrumental tuition. But few of us grabbed the opportunity – perhaps half a dozen in a 400-strong grammar school. 

Anyone taking music at (then) GCE had been having instrumental or voice lessons for years, and they were a select band (no pun intended) of musicians whose grades would have very little to do with the school, and owe a great deal to their private teachers. And they ain’t cheap – as I learned when my own children learned to play the piano and flute respectively.

For years and years. Come to think of it, it makes no sense for a school to include A-level or GCSE grades in music in its exam totals, because the school is barely responsible for the teaching. The only people likely to choose the subject are the ones who could pass the exam with hardly a school lesson at all. 

There is surely no other subject in the secondary school curriculum which requires a pupil to have – literally – years of expensive private tuition before the subject can be studied to any examination level? Can you think of a greater guarantee of elitism? I am told that the powers that be in the music world wanted to keep performance as a requirement for GCSE and A-level, and they got their way. You are not likely to study music in school, unless you are already half-way expert.

One cannot help but reflect that they may have improved the chances of some people growing up to be performers on the worldwide stage, but at the same time they surely reduced the number of people ever likely to turn up at a concert to hear them. No wonder concert audiences are both dwindling and – candidly – old.

From the soap box, I’d be arguing for a whole new subject in schools: History of Music. Learn about music – how it grew, changed, developed – you know, the history of it. And learn to tell Mozart from Beethoven, and what the heck happened to 20th-century music, and what makes great film music? If the History of Art is a respectable enough subject for the future queen, why can’t we have degrees in the History of Music? In the one, you never have to lift a paint brush – you’re not an artist, you are a student of art. In the other, you wouldn’t have to be a musician, you would just appreciate music in a well-informed and educated way.  

If national funding for schools reduces the number of subjects which can be taught and the numbers of staff to teach them, then music is likely to be in the firing line

My own musical education, such as it is, came entirely courtesy of Classic FM and 12 years of driving two hours a day to work. The journeys really did feel like small tutorials, and I developed an ear for composers, and even some conductors and soloists. And it felt like an education. The day my teenage son and I got in the car, turned on the radio, heard a trumpeter and I said, “Oh – you must listen to this, it’s Alison Balsom!” he was satisfyingly gob-smacked.

Meanwhile, in these stringent times, it is perhaps no wonder that music is dying on its curricular feet in state schools. 

If national funding for schools reduces the number of subjects which can be taught and the numbers of staff to teach them, then music is likely to be in the firing line. STEM subjects are considered essential, the arts – of all kinds – less so in today’s hard-nosed world.  

Let us hope that independent schools will keep the flame burning. You only had to watch the combined orchestras and choirs of the five Haberdashers’ schools in Monmouth, celebrating the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Haberdashers’ Monmouth School for Girls with a concert in St David’s Hall, Cardiff, to realise what a joy and a delight it can be to make great big, drum-banging, voices-soaring music together.

And am I sorry I did not persevere in the freezing front room? Of course I am. 

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