First published by The Herald on 19 February 2019
NOT so long ago we cared a lot about the transformative effect learning a musical instrument can have on our kids’ lives. Hell, we cared so much that in 2012 a world famous conductor flew into one of the most deprived parts of our country to work with an orchestra made up of that area’s talented, motivated, music-loving kids.
That conductor was Gustavo Dudamel of Venezuela’s visionary Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar and the orchestra was Big Noise. Their performance, televised as part of a UK-wide extravaganza held to coincide with the London Olympics, was electric.
Like the Venezuelan orchestra it is modelled on, Big Noise’s mission has always been about “equipping children with resilience and confidence to reach their potential” and its grand ambition is to bring about social change. Better still, by giving youngsters the tools to transform their communities from within, that change is intended to be far more encompassing than the social mobilisation of a chosen few.
No wonder Big Noise has found so many cheerleaders, with culture secretary Fiona Hyslop chief among them. When upping the Scottish Government’s backing for the organisation from £1.5 million to £4m in 2016, Ms Hyslop hailed the impact Big Noise has had not just on those who take part in it but on their families and wider communities too. Those sentiments have been repeated many times, with Big Noise securing the kind words and financial backing of local politicians each time it has expanded, with its original programme in Stirling’s Raploch district now being replicated in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee.
Yet eleven years on from the launch of the first Big Noise project and seven since it and Gustavo Dudamel took Stirling by storm, our public servants appear to be changing their tune about the benefits of learning a musical instrument. Though Big Noise, which was only ever going to be able to reach a fraction of youngsters, is still going strong, music tuition in schools is under threat, with local authorities seemingly taking the view it is an added extra while national politicians turn a blind eye.
Under the guise of balancing their books, more than a third of Scotland’s 32 councils have either introduced or increased charges for instrumental tuition this school year, with some families’ inability to meet that cost meaning hundreds of pupils have had to give up their lessons as a result. The situation is so bad that inspirational teachers are quitting in disgust, with Moray Council’s head of music John Mustard resigning this month after councillors approved an 85 per cent hike that will bring the cost of learning an instrument in the region to £699 a year. “This will have the effect of depriving many young people of a valuable skill and pleasure for life,” Mr Mustard said, adding that he could not be part of “a decision that will do so much damage to a service I’ve built up to national acclaim over the last 30 years”.
Such a loss is devastating, yet still no action is being taken to reverse the tide. Though Holyrood’s education and skills committee said last month that it backs the principle of free music tuition in schools, by stressing that it “recognises the right of local authorities to take decisions about local expenditure” it has effectively abdicated responsibility for ensuring it is provided. This, despite the government’s own guidance stating in 2016 how vital music is to the Curriculum for Excellence, with then minister for learning Alasdair Allan noting that the “many wider benefits of music education” include “increasing attainment, improving levels of literacy and numeracy and the emotional, social and physical wellbeing of our young people”.
Perhaps if First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was as avid a pianist as she is a reader of books her government’s guidance would hold more sway. As it is, local authorities are refusing to budge on fees, with umbrella organisation Cosla last week pointing the finger back at Holyrood by noting that “the financial situation facing local authorities” means many feel that “some level of charging” for instrumental tuition is required. As the standoff continues swathes of school children will suffer, with only those whose parents can afford to subsidise their education being able to enrich their learning in this way.
Against this backdrop something has got to give. Letting go of the erroneous notion that music is some kind of add-on that only those with pre-existing and demonstrable musicality should benefit from – something that favours the wealthiest right from the off – would be a start. Viewing musical tuition as a fundamental part of learning and making it available to every child, without charge, would show the real value we place on our children and their education.
A lot has changed since Gustavo Dudamel conducted the kids of Raploch in the summer of 2012. With the world now a lot less friendly, a lot less tolerant, a lot less optimistic, and the future being faced by all our kids looking decidedly uncertain, surely now is the time to be ploughing cash into musical education, not cutting it off.