Put the right child – boy soprano – in the right church, preferably ancient and candlelit, at the right time, as close to Christmas as possible, and even strong men may weep. There is something about a frosty December night, the silence and stillness of a packed congregation, and the fragile purity of the young soloist piping the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City before leading the choir to their stalls to the accompaniment of organ and congregation. Such a moment will be one of the best of the entire Christmas season. The setting, the voice, the music, the imminence of the celebration of the birth of Christ in a stable – not a dry eye in the house.
School carol services are often a long way from Christmas Eve – term dates being what they are – but the occasions are just as powerful, laced a little with parental pride, “That’s my boy!” or, “Did you hear, he’s won a music scholarship to…”. Music matters in schools in all manner of ways – as an academic discipline in its own right, as an avenue for teamwork without risk of physical harm as in team sports, as an outlet for talent and as a source of sheer joy to performers and audiences alike. And, of course, as a qualifier for a scholarship which will probably include financial assistance with fees.
Increasingly, independent schools are becoming the last outposts for teaching music. A recent New Statesman article tells us that 50% of independent school pupils ‘receive sustained music tuition’, while the figure in state schools is 15%. The EBacc excludes creative subjects and nationally the number of students taking GCSE music in the last two years has declined by 7.4% and 8%, standing last August at 39,358. One fifth of state schools are not offering GCSE music, with 11% of those offering the subject outside curriculum time.
Dire reports of funding cuts and hard times ahead make it increasingly likely that independent schools will assume a mantle of guardianship for music both in the curriculum and in performance
I was lucky then to attend a grammar school a very long time ago and have my mother opt on my behalf for the free violin lessons available at lunchtime every week. I achieved Grade 4 and played for about 10 minutes in the North Wales Youth Orchestra, an opening I did not pursue because they rehearsed about 20 miles away, entailing two buses home at about 8.00pm, on a school night!
Candidly, I have not one happy memory of playing the violin. Remember it vividly, yes; happy, not so much. Practising in ‘the front room’ (I know they no longer exist, but they were quite the thing in the ’60s) which was unheated, and I would stop when my fingers froze. Losing my lunch hours to the weekly lesson, where my teacher did a lot more demonstrating how a piece should be played, often with many trills, than listening to my scratchy contributions. And don’t even mention the violin case and the bus – “You can’t bring that on here!” – and walking the two miles home from the bus stop carrying the wretched thing plus heavy leather satchel, remember those? There is irony in all this; as a child, my mother was taught the piano and wanted to learn the violin. I was taught the violin and wanted to be a pianist. Preferably a jazz pianist, able to take a seat at any handy piano (St Pancras, anyone?) and improvise with genius, and be loosely compared to Stan Getz. Music? Don’t get me started.
More seriously, I will confess – and perhaps on reflection it’s not surprising – to long having a problem with GCSE music. In my experience both at that grammar school in the Dark Ages, and in state and independent schools thereafter, pupils were literally enabled to take a GCE/GCSE in music by virtue of having had years of private tuition on an instrument, the playing of which formed an important part of the examination. Music would sit in one of the option boxes when Year 9 pupils made their GCSE choices and pupils with a healthy Grade 6 in any instrument would cheerfully sign up for what would be, for them, an absolute doddle. Pupils who might well have loved music but had not had the benefit of early instrument learning, knew before they started that the subject was not for them.
Inter-house competitions are great showcases where loyalty to your house trumps total conviction that you have a lousy voice
I always thought it elitist and unfair and, candidly, I could not understand why the powers that be had created an exam which was completely unapproachable by 80%, at least, of the pupil population. There is a certain poetic justice in the subject’s decline if you keep the bar that high and tie admission to serious financial investment on behalf of parents over a prolonged period, not to mention years of effort and application from the pupil, possibly in a freezing front room. You don’t take a GCSE in geography because you’ve already studied it for eight or nine years with a private tutor.
I never understood why there could not be a course entitled History of Music or Music Appreciation that is accessible to anyone with a listening ear – not even necessarily finely tuned – and an interest in music.
You know, the whole damn thing; the history and development of what we handily call music. Where, when, how, why and who. How can you tell a Bach from a Beethoven, a Beatle from a Brahms? After all, people study History of Art without lifting a brush and it has university departments who welcome those who are interested in art and know themselves to be not remotely talented in art. Why must GCSE music be tied to your capacity to produce music? It’s a requirement, I fear, not unlike a millstone round the subject’s neck, and in today’s hard-nosed, budget conscious world, it’s one which may sink the subject.
There is something about a frosty December night, the silence and stillness of a packed congregation, and the fragile purity of the young soloist piping the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City
Meanwhile, more cheerfully, and surely in all schools one way or another, music will survive in performance as a marker for the talent, interest and even joy of the young performers. TV’s Gareth Malone has galvanised us all to realise the magic of singing together, no instrument required. A democratic dimension in music, removed from – but sometimes featuring – the elitist glory of the soloist. In many schools which may have small music classes, there are increasingly occasions to get pupils on stage demonstrating the talent they’ve ‘got’. Inter-house competitions are great showcases where loyalty to your house trumps total conviction that you have a lousy voice, and puts you on stage, possibly sheltering in the back row, but absolutely belonging to the house and giving it a whole lot of welly in the last verse. Don’t Stop Me Now? A positive anthem. What is often called ‘The House Shout’, seldom quite the equivalent of a chorus at Covent Garden, usually brings the metaphorical house down. Another example, like Sheku Kanneh-Masonon with his cello at Prince Harry’s wedding, of music’s capacity to move you to tears.
Dire reports of funding cuts and hard times ahead make it increasingly likely that independent schools will assume a mantle of guardianship for music both in the curriculum and in performance. It’s quite a responsibility. God speed.
Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of The Boarding Schools’ Association