Revitalising orchestral music in our schools

Before I start, this is all @redorgreenpen’s fault.  Everybody else I meet accepts my reasons/excuses for not starting a blog: not enough time, would get bored quickly, only agree with others, can’t think of anything original.  But she called me out, so here we are.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Problem

The Western Classical tradition in Britain is in trouble.  And it’s hard to see.  Concerts regularly fill out the Barbican and RFH in London, Symphony Hall in Birmingham, Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and elsewhere.  The standard of orchestral playing by professionals is as good as it has ever been. So where’s the problem?

I went to see the National Youth Orchestra at the Proms this year.  They were fantastic, as ever but I wondered how many attended comprehensive schools. Very few, it turns out.  Top rate orchestral playing is now almost exclusively the preserve of independent and grammar schools.  And that is a tragedy. Laura van der Heijden, the current holder of BBC Young Musician of the Year, was a comprehensive school pupil but never took her ‘cello to school with her.  And how many pupils on free school meals attend the top music colleges? Well, the last time someone asked, it was none.  Do we think there has been a dramatic change recently?

So what is to be done? How do we introduce everyone to the finest musical tradition in the world?

Step 1: Instrumental Lessons for All

Of itself this is not controversial and in many schools, with money from national schemes or pupil premium, all do have access to lessons.  However, it is far from well spent.  So this needs refining, perhaps to orchestral instrumental lessons, taught by competent teachers, learned at the right time, for all.  Given a choice, most children will pick piano, guitar or drums for their instrument.  There is nothing wrong with this of course but these are not ensemble instruments, except drums – and you only need one of those.  Ensemble playing really is the most enjoyable, fulfilling and worthwhile activity in music.  Almost all the educational reasons for learning an instrument can be achieved in ensemble playing and it does matter what instruments children pick.

If I were in charge, every child would learn a string instrument from the age of six.  Strings form the foundation of the orchestra – you usually only need two flutes but a full symphony orchestra has 30 violins.  String instruments come in all sizes to fit small hands and arms (apparently there’s a 1/64 size Stentor violin!) and are very good for teaching pitch – a distance along a string rather than different fingers pressed down.  Posture and high levels of concentration are vital.  They also take years and years to get good; it’s a rare outstanding string player who started their instrument after the age of 10.  Woodwind and Brass instruments could be left until later – 11 is probably fine for most, although instruments like French Horn and Oboe need a bit longer.  But, and here’s the trick, don’t have all the girls playing flutes and clarinets (if, when I die I hear a clarinet choir I’ll know I’ve led a bad life) and all the boys playing saxophones and trumpets.  Spread it out a bit.

My Clarinet and Saxophone teacher at KEGS has one wish: to teach beginners at 11 and not have them at grade 2 or 3, having picked up all kinds of bad habits.  Several pupils arrive, having played the clarinet for two or three years, but have never been taught how to tongue.  That’s like having driving lessons with the instructor working the pedals for you. It takes far longer to correct those errors than to start someone afresh.  Competent teachers are so vital.  In all this recent argument about QTS most have forgotten that there are a group of teachers in nearly every school who are almost all unqualified and who are rarely, if ever observed by someone competent to do it: the peripatetic music staff.  I’m extremely lucky to have a superb bunch of teachers but there are many who are dreadful.  And who knows?  What success criteria do they have?  Who really cares, as long as we can put a tick in the box and have a big concert at the end of term?  Everyone knows that young musicians sound awful, right?

We need to involve two groups – the professional orchestras and the music colleges.  Not to do occasional school days, where all the children shake cabasas or hit xylophones, accompanied by a professional trombonist, but in qualifying and training the instrumental teachers and working with school ensembles.  It would be more fulfilling for everyone concerned, I’m sure.

To illustrate, earlier this week I attended a concert at the Barbican, given by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.  Before the concert, in the Barbican foyer, performers from the orchestra joined together with primary school musicians from schools in East London to perform music based on Brahms’ 4th Symphony, the major work of the concert.  I was inspired as they performed without music for nearly ten minutes.  It was all in tune, the tone was good, the parts were challenging but appropriate and all were concentrating properly.  At the end the conductor informed those listening that it had been put together in just two days and the children had all learned their parts in that time.  Two days?  What could be accomplished with 190 school days?


7 thoughts on “Revitalising orchestral music in our schools

  1. “CBSO centre in Birmingham”

    I assume you mean Symphony Hall. CBSO Centre is the rehearsal hall sometimes used for specialist concerts by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group where 200 people is a big audience. The CBSO play in Symphony Hall, which has a capacity of 2000-ish.

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