Music education today and yesterday part 1

What is music education in the 21st Century?

Hefty tuition fees at universities and conservatoires, government cutbacks in funding for the Arts, lack of specialist teachers in state schools, dwindling numbers of pupils entering GCSE and A Level music, ever-escalating costs for instruments and instrument repair/ maintenance, travel and sheet music, courses, grade exam entry fees and concert tickets ….

Provision and support continues to be a deep concern. Questions, doubts, shifting certainties, instability: How deeply do we care about the Arts? Why does music continue to be one of the first casualties when local authority budgets have to be squeezed?

Though it varies from area to area in the postcode lottery that is state education in England and Wales, there is no question that the overriding flavour of our era as far as the arts are concerned is far from sweet. We live in times of continued uncertainty, instability, and concern.

In a society where money and materialism speak volumes it is hardly surprising that many parents appear to encourage their children to move away from the arts and develop interests in IT, engineering, administration, and science. Money talks.

What hope for the musically promising child whose parents cannot afford private tuition and all of the other substantial add-ons that every young musician has? Are the arts only for the affluent?

Of course not. American novelist Douglas Kennedy recently reminded us of the heady idealism that swept magnificently through all education on an international level after 1945:
‘The entire post-war world in Western Europe and the US embraced education and culture as a way of rebuilding and strengthening democratic engagement and the belief that to educate was the greatest gift a society could give its citizenry. We now live in various forms of Trump-ist populism where culture is denounced as elitism, and so many people just don’t read anymore. And where the price of two cruise missiles could fund all orchestras in the UK for many years to come.’

Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee: patron saints of the arts?

In the UK, back in the 1960s and ’70s, music thrived. The Aberdeen model was far from unique. Through educational budgets, the buoyant optimism and support for the arts reflected government attitudes. In the 1960s, for leading politicians, music was treated as something approaching a moral crusade. The new 1964 labour government under Harold Wilson was unquestionably responsible for much of the artistic buoyancy of the time.

Today in many ways, Wilson remains the forgotten man of British Politics, despite winning four election victories and opening up a liberal revolution in terms of new rights and privileges that changed society forever. Video >

Wilson’s charisma was never in question, but perhaps his heady pre-Prime Ministerial ambitions were too naively idealistic and wildly ambitious ever to stand a chance of success in a country moving irrevocably into post-Empirical decline (Denis Healey once famously referred to Wilson as a ‘Walter Mitty’ character’).
With Britain’s post-war demise as a world power, Wilson could never hope to be another Winston Churchill, but his ‘white heat of technological revolution’ 1963 speech was extraordinarily charismatic and inspirational: read the speech >

When Wilson’s enormous ambitions and aspirations failed (today, we realise this was inevitable, no matter who would have been in office), the universal sense of disappointment and frustration in the Labour movement and much of the country was considerable. Feared by conservatives (it is hard to find any instance throughout his long career of ever losing a political argument) and rejected by idealistic socialists for pragmatism, his later years were dogged by cancer and dementia.

In subsidised-busting, cost-cutting Thatcherite Britain, where free music lessons declined, Wilson became an extremely unfashionable, isolated, and somewhat tragic figure. Perhaps the Labour party never forgave him for failing to live up to the expectations he created pre-1964.

Music education in the 1960s and 70s

A sense of universal support, community, and opportunity. Everything is always available. Finances are never an issue of concern…. As a musically promising young child growing up in Aberdeen in the late 1970s, I most certainly benefited from the post-war cultural embrace of the times. When I mention to parents and children today just how good things were back then, reactions range from a sense of disbelief to incredulous.

Surely this could not have happened! How on earth was there enough money to do what was done? In 2022 it seems improbable that a relatively small region such as Aberdeen and the surrounds (Grampian) would have not one but four music advisors in the 1970s. And that was but the tip of a magnificent musical pyramid in state school provision.

At a grassroots level, music thrived. My local primary school had upright pianos in the ‘regular’ classrooms as a matter of course. My one-to-one piano lessons took place at school and were free, as indeed were lessons in all other instruments and voice. We had specialist music teachers who came in and ‘did the rounds from classroom to classroom, school to school, allowing everyone to sing, read music, play the recorder, and listen to the basic repertoire.

All students, not just those interested in music, were given the chance to watch the Scottish National Orchestra perform in children’s concerts. I well remember our class teacher when I was ten years old marching all 33 of us- his year six class- up the road to the Music Hall (Aberdeen’s main concert venue) to watch the SNO, conducted by John McLeod, perform one of a series of specially arranged concerts for primary school children. Sadly, today there are many children in UK schools who have never even seen an orchestra play live…

In education, those who chose to learn an instrument had what can, in retrospect, be seen as genuinely generous, wonderfully kind opportunities. I was presented with a free Regent B flat Clarinet in excellent working order when I started to learn the instrument through school. Soon I was playing in wind band ensembles every Saturday morning- needless to say, for no charge whatsoever.

Indeed, the Aberdeen Schools Saturday morning orchestras and wind ensembles thrived. We had annual concerts in the Music Hall (where the Scottish National Orchestra performed). I could go on and on, but in sum, the state-led, fully subsidised opportunities offered to me and thousands of other comprehensive school kids back then were truly astonishing.

Aim for the moon and hit the stars

But if we consider the arts and education as fundamental to our civilisation, as essential to our existence and development as spiritual, emotional, and physical beings, then Wilson and his arts minister Jenny Lee were far from failures. On the contrary, I consider them remarkably successful heroes of the post-war era. The 1964-70 Labour Government’s influence and successes become much clearer if we value the arts as crucial for society.

Every time I walk through Huddersfield, I pause at the square near the station and reflect next to the somewhat mischievous statue of Wilson on display. It is undoubtedly the least he deserves: if you aim for the moon and miss, you have a good chance of hitting a star. With music, this was unquestionably what Wilson managed to do.

Indeed, there is no question that between 1964 and 1970, Wilson and Lee (widow of Aneurin Bevin, founder of the NHS) hit far more than just a few stars when it came to transforming the arts and educational opportunities in the UK.

During this period of two labour governments, funding for the arts more than doubled, the film industry was strengthened, theatre censorship by the lord chamberlain was abolished, and the Open University was founded. It was ironic that when Ted Heath, with his considerable interest and talent as a conductor and pianist, came to power in 1970, his conservative government were much less supportive of music and the arts than Wilson had been.

Though we should certainly remember the Wilson years with far more gratitude and affection than we perhaps currently do, it would be wrong to take a pessimistic, defeatist attitude to the current state of affairs in 2022.

We still have the music and dance scheme for exceptional young musicians and dancers; read more >, there is still a tremendous amount of outstanding work being done by individuals, schools, hubs, and organisations nationally. And this year, under Sir Nicholas Kenyon, the Music Manifesto presented an incredibly inspiring, convincing and powerful vision of the importance of music and what should be done by the government and indeed all stakeholders to shake things dramatically and positively: read the article >

In part two, we shall look at ways in which the best intentions and idealism from the 1960s can be updated, revised, and synthesised with 21st-century challenges, bringing all the needs for support, diversity, encouragement, and opportunity to everyone.

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