Opinion

Let's celebrate the value of music

Are we now making all music performance limited by parents’ income?

One of the most interesting UK political pledges in recent weeks came just days ago, in Scotland. It was not linked to the Budget or the Salmond affair or the Indy question. It was entirely different. And so passed largely unnoticed.

It came from Monica Lennon, the MSP for Central Scotland. Lennon is a good politician. She was the leading force for the Scottish Period Products Act, a world first, making it mandatory for public places to offer free sanitary products. She had been running for leader of the Scottish Labour Party but lost out to Anas Sarwar. He has his work cut out regaining ground for his party.

Lennon’s pledge was simple – to make music teaching free in all secondary schools. She wanted to make it a core part of the curriculum, to help bridge the attainment gap. It’s really hard to argue with this. And the sad thing is that nothing is likely to be done now. In Scotland, it can cost over £520 a year per pupil in some areas for these classes. That is staggering and clearly prohibitive.

Music playing is in danger of becoming the preserve of the rich

The lockout is not only in Scotland. A recent survey by the Musicians’ Union looking at English schools found that free teaching provision was being lost. There was a cost for it all. And that cost prevented access. Low-income families, those earning under £28,000 as a household, were half as likely to have kids studying music as those with a family income of £40,000 and over.

Music playing is in danger of becoming the preserve of the rich.  This is as disgraceful as it is understandable. As budgets tighten, classes that are seen as less useful are going to be stripped out. And how do you quantify the value of music?

There is a musician called Patrick Dexter who plays the cello on Twitter. Frequently he posts brief performances, always in front of his idyllic whitewashed Irish cottage, snug below the Mayo hills. His performances move from Bach to Raglan Road. It’s a joy to listen to.

I have no idea if Patrick Dexter received free music tuition at school. But it’s certain that if he came from a poor family in Britain now, the chances of free lessons, or the loan of a cello, are close to nil.

And what then? Are orchestras to be filled with people with the same life experience; talented poor kids are nowhere. Will certain kinds of music be seen as the preserve of the elite? Class war over Mahler symphonies.

What of other great music? What if a potentially brilliant sax player felt a fire lit one day through a chance listen to John Coltrane, but money stops them taking it anywhere? Are we now making all music performance limited by parents’ income?

And leaving aside virtuosity, or even competent performance, what about the joy of it? The sheer, heart-pumping, emotion-pimping, tear-prickling, fist-firing, leg-jiving, life-affirming joy of music. Or music that makes you cry and wallow and hits the spot that nothing – NOTHING – else can reach. Obviously, lessons aren’t essential to listen. But we all need direction. Imagine there is a teacher who can bring you to Gershwin and Little Richard and Arvo Pärt and Abba and Eno and, well, you get the picture. 

But you’re not going near them because that door is locked because of money. There’s a really easy solution to this. And just because it’s not a high-profile issue doesn’t mean it’s not important.

In the same week that Monica Lennon had her good plan, her fellow Scots Mogwai went to number one in the UK album charts. You know Mogwai, dynamic, at times brooding, other times exultant, built on heavy guitars, and barely any vocals; music that is always transportative. 

They’ve been around for many years and on their 10th album (as well as the numerous soundtrack albums) they reached the top of the pops. The outpouring of happiness, a lot from people who now find the charts a foreign country, was something to behold. It was a celebration of something that means something. Music.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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