Hitting the wrong note

Talent shows and funding cuts have undermined meaningful music education in the state sector, says principal Sue Freestone

“Where words leave off, music begins” – Heine

“Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul” – Goethe

“Without music, life would be a mistake” – Nietzsche

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything” – Plato

I could go on. So could you, I have no doubt. But one has to wonder whether such poetic flights would have been inspired by the renditions of James Arthur, Sam Bailey or Collabro.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m no musical snob and during my years as a director of music I was happy to use music of any genre or style, as long as it was good, to engage the young people with whom I was privileged to work in the process and joy of making music.

We have to accept the part that talent shows play in the psychology of the nation. Success in a talent show is one step more achievable than winning the lottery and the attraction is self-evident. Pop music is like football. It offers young people an escape route out of their humdrum, intractable daily realities into a world of vast wealth and glittering stardom that requires no homework, no diligent practice, no qualifications – just raw, powerful talent.

An unintended consequence of this is the migration, on the part of children with an instinct for music and their parents, from the traditional engagement with recorder, violin, flute and piano towards the perceived vehicle that will carry them to celebrity – the electric guitar and, to a lesser extent, drum kit and keyboard.

To take this state of affairs as tolerable is equivalent to accepting that the canon of Shakespeare be abandoned in favour of Mills and Boon. There’s nothing wrong with a little light entertainment that is accessible, titivating and mood enhancing, but we are not fulfilling our duty as educators, or even as human beings, if we fail to expose children to the glories of the width and breadth of art music over the centuries and to offer them the opportunity to be equipped to experience music making for themselves.

In years not-so-distant past, music education in this country was the envy of the world. Local Authority Music Services paid for individual instrumental lessons; every major city had a fully funded youth orchestra and at least one youth choir. Young people could swim in the beauty of Bach and brush shoulders with the genius of Beethoven or Rachmaninov; they could feel the surge of synergy born of impeccable team-work under the leadership of professionals and they could see, hear and feel the power of living role models. That is no longer the case, and whilst instruments languish in local authority hubs and James Rhodes calls for an instrument amnesty, where will the funding come from that will provide children with teachers? The failure of successive governments to prioritise spending on arts education has resulted in a distressing but inevitable dependence on the media to determine the musical experience of our children. Little wonder then that electric guitar it is.

We are concerned about the elitism of independent education, yet nowhere is that felt more keenly than in the deprivation imposed on children in state schools, starved of the wealth of benefits born of meaningful music education. But for as long as primary schools are judged on English and maths scores, the liberty to enrich the lives of our children through arts education will remain the privileged province of independent schools.

Sue Freestone is principal of King’s Ely School W: www.kingsely.org

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