I have been thinking long and hard for a while on the sorry subject of UK music education – a phrase I happen to loathe! Was music in schools more prominent 30 years ago than it is now or are we paranoid about its so-called lack in the 21st century?
When I was at St Hilda’s school in the 1960/70s, we began the day with assembly during which two traditional hymns were sung. And did those Feet was done to death, as was Onward Christian Soldiers. It didn’t matter what faith one belonged to (we lived in North London at the time), we sang them lustily. Before then however, I remember fondly the very early days at Mrs Royal’s nursery school, where incidentally, there lived a tame squirrel called Jiminy whom we loved dearly. We played cymbals, banged drums, shook bells and generally made the most ghastly racket – but it taught us what fun you could have making it!
But back to St Hilda’s and the hymns. We had a Miss Fulger who took us for weekly music lessons. These involved lots of choir singing of traditional folk songs accompanied by her appalling piano playing on a not-very-good brown grand piano. I used to be teased because I had a strong voice and sang out as loudly as I could while the others made couldn’t or didn’t.
The other thing we did was Eurythmics which was enormous fun. We charged around the big hall with the ‘big girls’, one of whom happened to be Charlotte Rampling! These were our regular ration of music lessons, although one could learn a specified instrument in school. Now I think about it, our nativity play incorporated lots of carols which were embarrassingly badly performed since we were more interested in showing off our halos and carrying shoe boxes containing frankincense and myrrh.
Aged ten, we moved and Oakdene in Beaconsfield was where I was sent to school. There was a new music department with supposedly sound-proofed practice rooms. They didn’t work very well as it was quite impossible to play the piano without hearing a screechy violin next door. At this very nice school, again we had daily assembly (more Onwards and Feet), weekly singing lessons as well the opportunity to learn individual instruments with in-house teachers.
My piano teacher was Miss Ruddock who suffered from dreadful asthma and had a puffer that made me giggle while trying to play Bach. There were visiting professional artists who gave termly recitals during which 90 per cent of those listening were bored stiff.
On to Beaconsfield High School where there was much more going on. Firstly, it was a brand new school where even the pianos were squeaky-clean with no sticky grey edges to the ivories. O level music was well taught; we did a cracking production of Noye’s Fludde (my father was ‘God’); oh yes, as well as yet a bigger dose of Christian Soldiers and an army of Feet. For the first time, there was lots going on in the music block and more to the point, the standard was high and it was cool to be part of the musical crowd.
As to musical experiences outside school, I used to go to many Earnest Read children’s concerts, to David Wilcock’s carols at the Albert Hall and I sang in the church choir, did ballet, and if I had wanted it, the county provided opportunities for orchestral playing.
So what was different then to now? Not much, I think. So why is everyone so paranoid about the supposedly current lack of music education in schools?
If you really want something you go and find it. If football is your thing, you badger your parents or your sports teacher to take you to the local football club; the same with Brownies, Girl Guides and Scouts. The opportunities are there and offered in plenty. There are always going to be good schools and those less proactive. There will be good teachers, as well as indifferent. Instruments will still be available on loan. There will be choirs to join, jazz groups, ensembles to enjoy playing with; orchestras offering different standards.
The choice these days is enormous and I reckon that even in the most deprived areas there is something out there that one can grab with open arms – if you want it! The trouble is that everyone these days expects to be spoon-fed. I do realise however, that there are deprived places in inner-city areas in which opportunities are harder to come by
This could – or should – provoke hostile reactions! Readers, do come forward!
Penny Adie, artistic director, Two Moors Festival