Top musicians unite in call for all pupils to have the right to learn an instrument
As the BBC crowns the Young Musician 2018, previous winners say no primary-aged child should miss out on playing music.
When three musical prodigies take the stage on Sunday night to battle for the prestigious title of BBC Young Musician, the virtuosity on display will leave viewers in no doubt about the musical potential possessed by some of Britain’s schoolchildren.
For all the brilliance that will be on display in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, however, there are growing concerns among those who previously claimed the crown that a lack of musical provision in schools could deprive some children from ever realising their talent – or discovering a lifelong love of music.
In a letter to the Observer, all past winners of the Young Musician prize warn that they are now deeply concerned that instrumental music learning is being “left to decay in many British schools”. They are calling for a universal right to learn an instrument that protects parents from any costs.
“Today, we are launching a campaign for every primary schoolchild to be taught to play an instrument, at no cost to them or their families,” writes the group, which includes oboist and conductor Nicholas Daniel, violinist Nicola Benedetti, and cellist and reigning champion Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
“It is crucial to restore music’s rightful place in children’s lives, not only with all the clear social and educational benefits, but showing them the joy of making and sharing music. We are especially concerned that this should be a universal right. This is an opportunity to show the world that we care about music’s future and its beneficial impact on our children.”
They point to the Every Child A Musician (ECAM) scheme in the London borough of Newham, under which all primary schoolchildren are offered a free musical instrument and taught how to read and play music in weekly lessons. The scheme costs £2m a year to run.
“We believe that every child deserves to enjoy the benefits of ECAM and other excellent schemes,” the past winners write. “There are cost-effective, efficient and inspiring early-level interventions available, and we call upon the governments in Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff to join us in making this happen across the whole country.”
Their pleas comes soon after the director of the Royal College of Music warned of a “steady decline” in state school music provision. Professor Colin Lawson blamed cuts to school budgets and the loss of specialist teachers.
Recent research from the Netherlands has also suggested that lessons in rhythm, melody, and harmony truly have an impact in developing cognitive abilities. Children in the study were given extra music classes for over two years and showed improved language-based reasoning, the ability to plan and complete tasks, as well as better academic results.
Nicola Loud, a British violinist who became BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1990 at the age of 15, said: “I started playing the violin when I was four years old at my local infant school, where I was lucky enough to benefit from a free teaching scheme. This incredible experience kickstarted my musical career and I’ve been grateful for the opportunity ever since.”
Emma Johnson, the clarinettist who won the competition in 1984, said: “As part of an education project for the Bridgewater Hall, I have been into primary schools in Manchester where there is not a keyboard on the premises and where none of the teachers plays an instrument. It seems unfair that musical provision for young people is so patchy in the UK.”
Daniel, who is spearheading the campaign and won the award in 1980, said that being able to read and make music should be “a fundamental right”.
“I’ve been very lucky because music has been the thing for me that has made my life such a fantastic ride and has given me so much,” he said. “But this campaign is not really just for people like me, who become musicians. It is the fact that music is something central and essential to human beings. It’s almost impossible to imagine our lives without music.
“Being able to read music and make music seems to be becoming lost, particularly in our early-years schools. It seems so unfair that it should only be children from private schools or very enlightened state schools that have the chance to play an instrument. The educational and behavioural benefits of it are so absolutely huge. It shouldn’t be a postcode lottery or whether you can afford lessons.”
Former acting Labour leader Harriet Harman is backing the campaign in parliament. She said that austerity should not be prioritised over equality. “The problem is that it’s just a postcode and class lottery, and it shouldn’t be like that,” she said. “We can’t say that, because of austerity, we will just accept inequality.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “All children should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, as set out in the national curriculum.
“We are investing nearly £500m in music and arts education programmes between 2016 and 2020. This includes £300m for a network of music education hubs, whose responsibilities include ensuring that every child aged between five and 18 has the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument through whole-class ensemble teaching.”
“It also includes nearly £120m for the Music and Dance Scheme which supports exceptionally talented young musicians and dancers to attend specialist independent schools like Chetham’s School of Music, the Purcell School, Wells Cathedral School and the Yehudi Menuhin School.”
final will be contested by saxophonist Robert Burton, cellist Maxim Calver and pianist Lauren Zhang.
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