Composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen's Music, yesterday joined a chorus that's growing louder every month.
Soon, no doubt, this choir will have enough members to stage a smash-hit musical. I suggest they call it Cuts.
The trenchant musician, who lives in Orkney and never minces his words, is the latest to denounce the reduction in music teaching in Scottish schools. As budgets are squeezed, music specialists' hours are being trimmed, and the cost of instrument tuition is steeply rising. Now, in all but seven of Scotland's 32 local authorities, those learning an instrument other than for Standard Grade or Higher music, have to pay substantial fees.
Describing such decision-making as "philistinism", Maxwell Davies makes an original and irrefutable point: "Everyone has a right to be able to read music, just as they have a right to be able to read." Music, therefore, should be a non-negotiable element in the school timetable. Yet those who wield axes more as if they were Vikings than administrators see it as an easy target. This may be because for the majority, be it at primary or secondary school, music lessons are not in the examinable curriculum.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that those balancing the books are either ignorant of the value of music, or turn a deaf ear to their consciences. As with so many of the finest things in life, the advantages of learning to sing, or play an instrument, or simply enjoy listening to music are incalculable and thus – to bean-counters' minds – inessential. Yet, as any music teacher will attest, the benefits pupils gain from music are extraordinary. In fact, you could argue, as I certainly would, that music is the most important of the arts for pupils to be exposed to, not least because everyone can take part, be it actively or passively. From the day we're born – and even before – we are all programmed to respond to music. The same is not, sadly, true for art, or writing, or dancing. This is not to say they are lesser art forms, but that they are less universally accessible.
The wealth of advantages music lessons brings is indisputable. Unfortunately, though, it is not easily measured by those in charge of the educational Richter scale. For instance, the success of the Big Noise orchestra in the Raploch area of Stirling, copying an idea from Latin America's poorest barrios, has shown that children who previously had little exposure to music, and no family tradition of it, have responded enthusiastically, some showing themselves to be talented musicians and all of them becoming more self-confident and outgoing.
But inspirational as this venture has been, it doesn't take a headline-grabbing project to demonstrate what music can achieve. A simple classroom with a good piano, or a cupboard full of drums and maracas will do. As one teacher told me, perhaps the most revealing and moving feature of ordinary school music lessons is the effect they have on pupils who aren't likely ever to take the subject at exam level.
Sometimes, indeed, these are children who aren't very good at anything else. For them, this is often the only class they enjoy. The pleasure they get from being able to throw themselves into a song, or an orchestra, to take part in a show or a concert, is gradually apparent in every other aspect of their school life. Thanks to music, they become more confident, more sociable, more literate, more numerate and more physically co-ordinated. In other words, happier and healthier. I defy any educationist to name another subject that has such an exponential impact on a pupil's overall performance, improving their emotional and artistic well-being at the same time as their learning skills.
To those whose scalpel is hovering over the school budget, I suggest they leave their desk and take a stroll down town. Look around, and what will they see? Half the populace plugged into an iPod: lips moving, feet tapping, fingers twitching. We are born to think in rhythms and beats, to express ourselves in song and tune. An education system that can't see how essential music is surely needs to go back to the classroom.
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