Diatribe in D Major!

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ~ Plato.

I can feel a rant coming on. I’ll try not to go overboard, but I’m already on top of my soapbox and it’s a subject very close to my heart – music.

I don’t think I could live without music and the arts, life would be so…lacklustre. Yet a narrow education policy and lack of funding is depriving thousands of youngsters the opportunity to benefit from learning music and thereby develop their innate creativity; which can only improve their lives.

john-lennon-happy quote

My eldest daughter is now showing a great interest in singing and learning to play the violin, and we are so lucky that the High Wycombe Music Centre is just down the road. They do great work. It’s a major centre for brass and woodwinds, but they also do guitar and strings tuition. Emily plays the violin in their ‘sizzler’ group, which gives the children a chance to try all sorts of different instruments before deciding what, if any, they want to take further.

Emily has an hour of this, then a short break and an hour of singing in the junior choir on a Saturday morning. They are such a friendly, welcoming group, and Emily really loves going. It’s a pleasure to hear her singing their latest songs around the house, and it’s done wonders for her confidence. Although the music centre doesn’t charge exorbitant fees, every activity that is extra-curricular soon adds up, at a time when many families are struggling financially.

On Saturday 27th June Emily and her fellow students at the High Wycombe Music Centre will have the chance to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in the BLTM (Bucks Learning Trust Music) Gala. They do this every four years, and as Emily has been attending for only six months or so she’s fortunate to have the chance to take part.


“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” ~ Victor Hugo

Earlier this year when Sir Simon Rattle returned to the UK after 12 years as the principle conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, he promptly suggested that London was in dire need of a brand new state-of-the-art music performance venue. Whilst I agree with him, as a leading city in the world, London should have a modern arts facility. The media really got behind it, even the chancellor and the Mayor of London are on-side. But not everyone agrees.

“Great art and music is created by people, not buildings.” ~ Ivan Hewett

Of course, London already has some fantastic historical and iconic venues: the Royal Albert Hall, the Wigmore Hall, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the Southbank Centre, the Barbican and Cadogan Hall to name but a few.

It’s all wonderful that so much investment will be made in the possible construction of a new hall above the Barbican (current home of the London Symphony Orchestra), but there is one major point everyone is missing…

Where will the future British musicians, soloists, conductors and vocal artists come from to perform in this shiny new hall, if we don’t invest now in grassroots music education for all children, regardless of their socio-economic status?

And it’s not just the future of our nation’s artistic community that’s at stake; the very future of our society is in question. Ahem! Sorry about that, I just had a drama queen moment. Government ministers should be thinking outside the box when it comes to reducing poverty and its associated behavioural manifestations.

I firmly believe that music and the arts (along with education and a loving family environment) will help to protect against emotional, mental and physical vulnerability.

It’s that old computer analogy: garbage in = garbage out.

It starts with prevention. Prevention is easier than cure.  With overwhelming scientific evidence of how learning music affects brain development and impacts on a child’s life in so many positive ways, it defies belief to read about yet more cuts in the arts sector and in education.

Classical Music Magazine outlines cuts by several local authorities earlier this year.

A great visual presentation about how playing an instrument benefits your brain by Anita Collins:

I mentioned the #DontStopTheMusic campaign in a previous blog (The Importance of a Musical Education), and James Rhodes has done a great job galvanising the arts sector and government in improving this dire situation.

However, as someone who signed this petition on change.org last time, I recently had a message from them that made my heart sink: the government are still not giving music the same priority as other academic subjects.

A brilliant discussion about music and the mind that all parents, health and teaching professionals should study:

As the effects of our ‘age of austerity’ seep into our everyday lives there’s even more reason to protect music and the arts, by making sure that all children have access to the very thing that can stimulate a deep emotional response in their brains, that impacts their neurological health on many fundamental levels: memory, learning and plasticity, attention, motor control, language, pattern perception, imagery and other areas. Those early years are so important.

These 11 month old twin sisters demonstrate this point perfectly when they have a delightful reaction to daddy’s guitar playing:

My mother played Beethoven piano sonatas when she was pregnant with me, and I’m sure that’s why I love his music so much, and why music has played an integral part in my life. I grew up with it. We all have stories of how music has influenced us like that.

There would be no such thing as movie soundtracks if music didn’t play such a vital role in our emotional perception. Filmmakers understand how it can add that defining emotional hook in our minds. I wonder if Star Wars would have been such a hit without the majestic interplanetary sound track written by film composer John Williams. The two are inseparable.

Tufts University neuroscientist, Aniruddh Patel, explains how scientists study your brain’s response to music and what parts of your brain are activated by different attributes of music:

Music and the arts are not just some fluffy dispensable activity that stimulates creativity; they are scientifically proven to be beneficial to the human family across the world, no matter the culture. Human beings inherently respond to rhythm and music, it’s a natural and fun way to produce dopamine, the so called ‘feel good’ hormone.

And that concludes my diatribe. If I wasn’t sneezing, coughing and streaming with a summer cold I’d go and pick up my violin for a practice. I’ll just have to listen to this jazz/baroque fusion instead!

Music for a while.

Shall all your cares beguile.

Wond’ring how your pains were eas’d

And disdaining to be pleas’d.

~ Lyrics by John Dryden set to music by Henry Purcell

My call to action this week is to please sign the #DontStopTheMusic petition. The children will thank you.

The Importance of a Musical Education

“Music…can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

As a child, opening up the music cupboard at school should be a magical moment, but for many primary school children it’s a case of no instruments and no budget; a stark reality that threatens our social and cultural heritage for years to come.

Hendrikus van den Sande Bakhuyzen - family_heirloomI became an amateur violinist thanks to the good fortune of being given free (yes, you read that correctly), free violin lessons at the age of eleven. I was only interested in playing the violin because my best friend at the time was learning it. After about three lessons she dropped out, but I stuck at it. When I left primary school, I continued to have private lessons (thanks to my parents) with Lillian Ing, (a virtuoso in her heyday) for the next five years until she sadly passed away.

In those hours of mostly forced practice, of scraping away at scales and etudes, studying for grades, and being told rather facetiously, “Can’t you play over the hills and far away?” I reached a point of competency.  I took pride in mastering each new piece.

I didn’t understand back then quite how much I would come to love and appreciate my moments on the violin; not just in terms of taking me outside of my ordinary life, but in the satisfaction of applying myself to an instrument that constantly stretches my mind and physical ability.

When I started college and later after I moved to London, I joined two amateur orchestras: the Aylesbury Orchestral Society and the Wandsworth Symphony Orchestra respectively. This was a wonderful experience for my development as a musician as well as a fun social interaction.

Quotation-Luciano-Pavarotti-age-music-children-Meetville-Quotes-4969Music runs in our family. My mother was a pianist and sang as a soprano in a choir, and she told me that she played Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata and Chopin nocturnes when she was pregnant with me.  I’m sure that’s why the Moonlight sonata in particular always evokes such peace in me, as well as my adoration of Beethoven’s and Chopin’s music full stop.

peter burges conductingMy daughters’ paternal great grandfather was a pianist, composer and conductor. He was conductor of the Ipswich Orchestral Society from 1948 until 1953, and his successor was none other than Colin Davis, who wasn’t yet a Sir, and who later became principle conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1995 until 2006, when he was then made president. After leaving Ipswich Peter went on tour for a few years to countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Africa, New Zealand and Jamaica, (where he lived with his family from 1961-63, and founded the Jamaican School of Music). His life was so interesting and inspirational it’s worthy of a separate post.

I played my violin regularly when I was pregnant with three of my children.  I don’t know if it’s had an effect, but they all seem to like classical music.  Emily briefly had piano lessons but she appeared to lose interest (and I ran out of funds), while more recently Ruby has been observing me practising and asked if she can learn the violin.

I’m delighted by this, but also slightly concerned about the cost of buying an instrument and tuition.  I considered teaching her myself, but that would be doing her a disservice as I’ve almost certainly fallen into bad habits in the many years since I last had lessons.

It’s a national disgrace that my children’s generation do not have the same musical opportunities that I did, the result being, according to the Making Music report published by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, that there has been a 35 percent decrease over the last 15 years in the number of children aged 5-14 who know how to play a musical instrument.

Music-NoteMusic is not a priority in primary school education, despite conclusive research that indicates its positive impact on self-esteem, focus, literacy, numeracy and overall wellbeing. Even primary schools with good or outstanding OFSTED reports may not have funding for any type of musical education. Clearly the government pledge to tackle the ‘musical divide’ is showing no evidence of implementation at grassroots level.

The starting point should be for all primary schools to have a decent selection of musical instruments for children to try, and access to basic lessons where they can discover if they have an aptitude and love of music making.

At present, the study of music in a child’s formative years is an elitist undertaking. Parents want the best for their children, but those living in poverty are being discriminated against. Who knows what talent lies dormant in deprived areas of our inner cities? Perhaps music will prove to be the medium that keeps some youngsters out of gangs?

Plato music quote

We cannot afford to neglect this most beautiful, skilled and uplifting pursuit, which can improve the lives of the students as well as the numerous souls their vocation will affect; whether it be in composing, performing or teaching.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. Richard Gill in his TEDX Sydney presentation talks about the value of music education:

I admire musicians like violinist Nicola Benedetti who has spoken out about the state of music teaching in Britain, and also pianist James Rhodes for his Don’t Stop The Music campaign.

You can see how he got on with St. Teresa’s Primary School in the Channel 4 two-part documentary.

Why should the arts be the first thing to suffer in a climate of austerity? Why is it considered dispensable? Nourishment for the soul is what sustains us all.

Closer to home it looks like my daughters will be getting a half size guitar and three-quarter size violin for Christmas!