Archive for March 30th, 2010


Nurturing young talent

One of the highlights of my year are the two or three weeks I spend in February and March serving as a Music Mentor at the Regional Festivals held across the UK as part of Music for Youth. Each day-long Festival involves anything up to 20 groups of school children, either from a single school or from several different schools in a single region, who perform to an audience which includes two mentors. After each half day, the mentors give their impressions on each group and also provide a written commentary with suggestions for improvement. It’s not a competition and in most cases serves as the event for which each group has been practising for weeks, if not months. If there are any particularly distinctive groups (not necessarily the best) we, as mentors, suggest that they be put forward for inclusion in either the Schools’ Proms, held in London’s Albert Hall towards the end of each year or at a National event, usually held in Birmingham in the summer. It’s not only a tremendous barometer on the quality of music-teaching and practice going on in British schools, but also a hugely enjoyable event in its own right; some of these young people have a flair and imagination which puts more seasoned performers to shame. I’m not sure if any other countries do anything similar, but certainly the UK Music for Youth Festivals are the largest of the kind anywhere in the world, involving around 50,000 performers and held in over 70 locations.

The performances cover the whole gamut of musical ensembles from traditional choirs, string quartets and orchestras, to costumed musical theatre and rock and pop groups, and what I have noticed over the years is how the dynamic of musical activity in British schools is shifting. When I started doing this – getting on, I think, for 30 years ago – the norm was small recorder ensembles usually conducted by a very large lady in a tartan skirt (for some reason this bit sticks in the mind – when you’ve sat looking at large tartan-clad arses for hours, it’s not something you can easily erase from the memory) and large choirs, singing in unison with someone hammering out an accompaniment on an upright piano. Then we went through the massed wind-band phase (a dozen clarinets to every flute), the “dancing choirs” phase (when every choir felt it was more a dance troupe than a musical ensemble, and produced a sound to match; a habit which, sad to say, is still current in Singapore), the steel drums phase. (where adolescent girls from wealthy private schools performed Beethoven and Bach on beautifully manicured steel pans in the firm belief that they were doing something “ethnic”) and the heavy metal phase (where groups of carefully unkempt youths did their damndest to imitate the latest rock group, usually with phenomenal success). We still get a mix – in Wrexham, north Wales, for example, I heard two fantastic rock bands as well as some brilliant string ensembles, a wonderful stage presentation from a group comprising disabled children and more than one mighty wind band – but the focus seems to have veered back to very much traditional music-making; which is to say choirs which stand still to sing (and, as a result, produce much more rewarding musical results even if one does wish they could, just occasionally, show a little more visual life), string quartets and traditionally-formed orchestras and big bands.

Why the changes? The dramatic falling off of pop groups I put down to the fact that this is a genre which has now become so video-orientated that it is irrelevant to the performance aspirations of any school group; when you come to think of it, how many successful pop groups exist today in sound only? Indeed, when one big band performed a number from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, very few people in the audience recognised the music, not because the band was poor (far from it, they were very good indeed) but because “Thriller” isn’t about music, it’s about Michael Jackson and dance. Pop music seems to have lost the music tag nowadays and, whether that’s a good thing or not, it’s putting that particular genre out of the reach of normal children in normal schools. The schools can possibly afford instruments and a basic sound system; but polished video production units – a prerequisite of any aspiring pop performer – are not covered by state school budgets. So what do these children do? They go back to the more traditional musical styles and make them their own. I happen to think that it’s a good thing and I am delighted to see British schoolchildren take “ownership” of their performances again and not, American-Idol style, spend all their time copying others. More than that, I see the rise in large ensembles – orchestras and bands – a great sign of the return to the value of team work over the excellence of the individual. When St Cake’s School presented four young girls (and their tartan-arsed teacher) blowing angelically into their recorders, they were really telling us that either the school doesn’t want to risk showing itself up by displaying some of its students who may not be possessed of the ultimate musical talent or that it doesn’t care about music and could only bother to get four of its pupils involved. When Canalview Comprehensive sends 130 children to perform, they are sending a much more positive message about music’s place in their school’s life. The results may not be as polished, but, boy, it’s a lot more enjoyable.

The first Music for Youth Festival I did is memorable for me, because my fellow-mentor (we were called adjudicators in those days) stood up and delivered a diatribe against the then-Prime Minister’s (Mrs Thatcher) education cuts. She had just announced that the policy of providing free musical instruments to children in state schools would be stopped – they would now have to pay a nominal charge. Horror of horrors! It was the end of the world! Civilisation was on its way out! I remember my bemusement, having then recently returned from a trip to Malaysia where NO state school offered free musical training let alone provided free musical instruments, I wondered what all the fuss was about; and the quality of music-making in British schools certainly hasn’t suffered.

But it all raises a question which came up when I was talking last weekend with a man who is poised to set up the first dedicated music school in Cambodia. Asking him how he expected to make money in a country where income levels are so low, he acknowledged that only the rich could afford music and his students would necessarily be drawn from a wealthy elite. This would send shudders of horror down any decent socialist backbone. But wait awhile! If the choice is between a select few receiving musical training or nobody at all, what would be the best course? The latter would sound the death-knell for music. With the former, at least a generation of musicians can be trained to carry musical performance into the future. There was once a belief that music was for all, that every child in the world deserved a chance to show whether or not he or she had musical talent. But that’s idealistic and quite impossible. If music training can only be provided to the rich – the wealthy Cambodians or the generously budgeted British schools – is that such a bad thing, bearing in mind the alternative? Exposing children to music is one thing – and there should be no barriers to that – but giving them a chance to learn to be musical performers is another matter, and perhaps it should be regarded more as a privilege than a right.

In June, I will be chairing a session at the Live!Singapore event on nurturing musical talent. With a high-powered panel of educators and musicians, I intend to look at how we currently identify and nurture talent and whether we can do it any better. Do we, for example, have a mechanism which will ensure that any latent talent in a child, no matter what their background, will be recognised and nurtured? Is it easier for a British child at a fee-paying school to have musical talent realised and nurtured than a Cambodian one from a remote rural area? And, most importantly, does this matter? I’m open to ideas and would very much appreciate your thoughts on the matter. Anyone with some valuable insight would be welcome not only to post your comments here, but to come along in June (details on the link) and add your voice to our debate. And if you have anything really interesting to add to the debate here, I’d like to invite you to the event as my personal guest.

March 2010