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Music at the heart of society

In the highest levels of musical training, there is inspirational thinking and artistic excellence – but, for many of those deprived of early opportunities to achieve musically, access to this level, where a new sense of music education should come from, is near impossible – a conflict and tension is ever present for those seeking to mobilise and make steps towards change.

The tension, which can be so clearly identified, to maintain true excellence while addressing the enormous imbalance in opportunity and accessibility, is troubling and energising at the same time. 

How can we address what seem to be very extreme ends of a performance education spectrum while continuing to deliver everything that must go in between to enable a path from one end to the other?

Endless cuts to music service provision make not only conservatoire entry out of the question, they also result in making access to the right level of teaching near impossible, short of serendipity for fortunate individuals.    Outsourcing of services, simply supply-demand allocation of lessons, lack of relationships with a pupil’s family and context turn the process into any other service industry;  use of generic instrumental teachers:  keyboard/s; woodwind; brass; upper/lower strings, not to mention the lack of early musicianship and theory tuition serve to divide the can-haves from the can’t-haves more and more.   Enough of the negative.

Where can we go now?   My thoughts may be free-flowing, and some would say naïve, but it’s not a matter of tweaking.   It’s only new thought that can help to address this.   Outreach was a new concept a long time ago now, and it’s now an overused, and crudely imperfect one.   It’s superficial, dealing only with access points on a journey and sets of criteria of eligibility applied too late.   It doesn’t, in most of its guises, go much further than financially or materially helping a child, or a teenager, over the start line – if they are already standing close.   The under-represented parts of communities can’t get close, and some of those who do well, and do get close, stumble when the reality of the fierce and international competition that they have been shielded from becomes clear.   Outreach is not a concert; although that may be very inspiring.   It is not a year of generalised, one size fits all, violin/drumming/choir; although that may be enjoyable and have holistic benefits.  It’s not a great workshop delivered by talented students to children who can never aspire to the levels they themselves were taught at as children; although that is, indeed, inspiring and fun.  Why not?  It can only inspire, or show what is possible – but it can’t offer an honest and full pathway from one-off, or short-term intervention to quality, high-level teaching that genuinely offers a child the same opportunities that a wealthier peer may have through private, specialised lessons.   

Even those who do get past these barriers may well lack the context, personal history and depth to avoid the now well-recognised “imposter syndrome”.   A long and happy association with the world of performance needs self-confidence and self-knowledge more than academic, scientific and technical careers.  It’s fragile, and needs self-belief. 

A new way can only come from those who begin their professional musical lives equipped with a vital new mindset far away from the divisive nature of the systems from which many reached conservatoire.  Students need ongoing conversations, insight into their musical selves, support to gain the resilience needed to face the psychological difficulties of high-level performance, an ability to be more than a concert biography.  With a sense of themselves, they can both tackle the highest demands of conservatoire teaching and remain in touch their original, musical roots.   It would be disingenuous to believe that, because we ourselves (in a different era and society) reached elite conservatoires and universities through free or highly subsidised routes, from working class backgrounds, can tell our stories and believe that today’s young people can access the same opportunities.   All of this, as we know, applies to all elite higher education, not just the musical world with which we concern ourselves.  Can we offer them one-to-one weekly conversations, a kind of supervision, that enables them to talk fully about their experience and address these issues? 

Students need to connect with their own cultural history – it’s a bigger concept than the place they grew up in, or the school they went to.  Our cultural identity starts with where our parents grew up, that is what they gave us.  We need to explore their cultural worlds to understand their aspirations for us, and how we fulfilled them.  We need to start further back, put our own history into context, and choose how to go forwards with insight.  If, by using our fuller understanding of our own experience, we can empathise with the lived experience of Bach or Beethoven (just to cite a couple of examples), we can then perform with an “authentic voice” rather than imitating a “studio perfect” idealised performance.  Music gives us all a voice, not an aspirational value.  Only then do we maybe have our musical equivalent of a biometric passport, and our Artistic Citizenship.   There lies the start of course of workshops!

Music is, as you so rightly say, a complex language, that holds within it personal context and universal concepts – history, politics and culture.   We can’t just “play the notes”, any more than we just “read the words” of Shakespeare.   And we start to read the moment we enter school.  By looking the best concepts in early musical education – that are often regarded as niche and exclusive in the UK – Dalcroze, Kodaly and Suzuki give clues to the most obvious – we could devise education that does enable access to meaningful understanding of music as a language, and by ensuring that some of our best future students are equipped to teach those who are least privileged, we may, just may, have a chance at starting from the ground up.   The best concepts should not, really, be locked into neat, branded boxes, but be assimilated into whole system learning.  Of course, they probably already are in some areas, but nothing can ever enable all those who would like or need this to access it.   Can ensuring that all students learn to educate well be a key part of their training?   Even the most successful of concert artists educate through their communication in performance.

We can begin to define our own lives as 21st Century Artists in Society when we understand society:   society seems to me to be a generation offset – the one we inherited, from our grandparents; the one we ourselves grew up in, from our parents, and the one we are working towards must be informed by our present reality, not what we may have been lucky enough to experience as children.   To engage intelligently with the current dialogue, we must understand how music is absolutely core to communication, well-being and social cohesion in all human societies, for all time. 

October 2020

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