The Telegraph: “Music will die in Britain unless we get it on everyone’s syllabus”

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This article written by Jack Pepper and published in The Telegraph is a hard-hitting round-up of the state of music education in our country, but also explores how ‘in a Brexit-focused climate, music is a powerful ambassador for this country’s talent and potential.’ Read on for some important facts and figures, and also some thoughts on what the UK needs to support future musicians… 

Here is the original article by The Telegraph

Wind back a few centuries and Britain was derided abroad as the “land without music”. Since then Britain brought The Beatles, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Adele. Who will be next?

It would be a national tragedy to say no one, but that is increasingly possible.

The death of music?

Music has been drained from our state schools. Slashed budgets, fewer specialist teachers and a growing focus on STEM subjects have relegated music education to the sideline. Research by the University of Sussex in 2018 found that there were 15.4 per cent fewer centres offering A-level music compared to 2016; it found that many schools were abandoning music as a curriculum subject altogether.

The English Baccalaureate did not help; it’s a combination of subjects – English, maths, sciences, history or geography and a language – designed by the Department for Education to “future proof” young people. The Department’s aim is for 90 per cent of students to be taking EBacc subjects for GCSE by 2025. But by ghettoising the arts from other subjects, the EBacc reinforces the perception of music as an optional extra: an unnecessary luxury.

Signs of interest in music

Yet, in many ways, this is also a boom time for music. This year saw the launch of a new national classical stationScala Radio, fronted by Simon Mayo and Angellica Bell (and on which I’m lucky to present); 20 year-old cellist and former academy school pupil Sheku Kanneh-Mason seized a global audience at last year’s royal wedding; young composers like Dani Howard are writing for ensembles like the London Symphony Orchestra; university students used their final year of studies to write a musical about Henry VIII’s wives that’s now headed to America.

Why does this matter?

Music-making is the ultimate health boost. Seriously. Musicians work the body in the same way an athlete trains a muscle. There are social benefits, meeting new people through the universality of music: the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Cake Concerts, for example, take professional players into care homes. Music improves emotional intelligence, a vital point at a time of growing awareness of mental health. Music is communication, expression and emotion in sound: what would humanity be without these?

It is also an economic and political powerhouse for this country. UK Music estimates that the industry’s overall export revenues amount to around £2.5 billion; in 2017, UK artists represented 13 per cent of global music consumption. In a Brexit-focused climate, music is a powerful ambassador for this country’s talent and potential.

Do you have to be rich to study music?

Too often, it can seem so.

In the professional world, young people are leading the charge in a musical boom, and so it seems odd that this energy isn’t being matched within our schools. The onus is on the student to pursue their music beyond school hours, reinforcing the belief that the sole way to get a quality music education is to pay – and be able to pay.

This is not, strictly, true. Education doesn’t take place solely within a school. Orchestras For All organise a free-to-enter non-auditioned national youth orchestra; the group pay for participants’ travel fares, eliminating financial barriers, while the absence of minimum entry standards ensures that all young people can play an instrument regardless of whether they have played before. Music For Youth offers performance opportunities for under-21s at venues including the Royal Albert Hall. The Philharmonia Orchestra’s free interactive digital installation, Universe of Sound, brought a huge marquee to the south-west, allowing visitors to walk among a digital orchestra. With these pockets of ingenuity, music isn’t a distant bubble, but a real and interactive experience: a conversation, not a monologue.

In some areas, teachers are taking matters into their own hands. Truda White was a headteacher in London who gave musical instruments to her pupils; following the scheme’s success, she set up the Music In Secondary Schools Trust with Andrew Lloyd Webber as a sidekick. They work with 13 schools to fund instruments and tuition. In this case, the money stemmed from one teacher’s entrepreneurialism, networking and initiative.

The problem is that these are isolated pockets of creativity that all too often rely on an enterprising individual. Too many people are left out.

What we need next:

Great examples as they are, they provide a starting point, showing an ambition and initiative that we must build on:

  • More money is required to fund specialist teachers, but schools can bolster extra government funding. Private and state schools could pool music resources. The chain of private schools at which Prince George and Princess Charlotte study has initiated joint arts workshops at one of its prep schools; this is a promising start, but currently on far too small a scale.
  • We need sustained investment and not a one-off cash injection. To complement government funding, a musical equivalent to the RHS could unite music-lovers and musicians (an idea raised by the Royal Philharmonic Society), with annual membership creating a fund distributed evenly among state schools.
  • The high cost of purchasing equipment means many schools suffer a lack of musical instruments. An amnesty across local communities could see homes donating underused instruments to their local schools. Too many old instruments go to scrap when they could have a second life in our schools.
  • Music is ghettoised in our curriculum, often relegated to out-of-school hours. Let’s include music in teaching other subjects; instead of an English lesson followed by music, why not have an English and music lesson once a week, where content from one subject helps teach the other? Use song to revise vocabulary; explore how a musical presents the key themes of a classic text. The Britten-Pears Foundation in Suffolk works with a local primary school to do this, but it must be more than an isolated example. School subjects are a Venn diagram, not a pie chart; the overlap is an opportunity.

We cannot leave musical education to chance; we need a robust curriculum and equal opportunities for children all over Britain. If we keep kicking the can, soon we’ll run out of road; if not a Land Without Music, it would certainly be a Land With Less. For a composer, there is nothing more painful than the notes we failed to write down.