Heidi Johnson: Making the case for music, loud and clear

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AS a parent, you want the best for your children. It’s part of the job. You want to give them every opportunity you can. That, unfortunately, is not as easy in rural parts of North Yorkshire.

I work for NYMAZ – a North Yorkshire youth music charity – and today we are unveiling a report Gone in the Air: Young people, music and rural isolation. The headline finding is that children in rural areas risk further isolation if the benefits of out-of-school music remain undervalued in England.

We’ve found a great deal of evidence to suggest that, despite the numerous benefits of living in a rural area, young people’s life chances can be affected by issues such as poor and expensive transport links, outward migration of young people, limited access to education, employment and training and an increased likelihood of social isolation.

Young people can find it harder to meet and make new friends, they can lack resilience and confidence and can be constrained by lack of exposure to new experiences and different world views.

The good news is that we can address these issues. We don’t have to sit back and accept that a child from a small village will have less opportunity than those in cities and larger towns.

Children and young people’s participation in the arts, in particular music, can enhance social and personal skills that influence future employability.

There’s a marvellous project in Ribblesdale that I often highlight. It’s called Ram Jam and it’s an open-access community jazz group where young participants have the opportunity to devise, improvise and perform new works, with a particular emphasis on jazz and world music.

The ensemble is co-ordinated by community music band Dales Jam, the Victoria Hall and currently supported through NYMAZ’s Musical Inclusion programme for North Yorkshire, funded by the National Foundation for Youth Music. I observed their activities as part of our research project back in November. I listened to some 20 young people practising Away in a Manger for their Christmas concert. It may seem a common enough occurrence for the time of year but the participants were aged between nine and 19, and were playing a wide array of instruments: drum kit, electric guitars, saxophone, clarinet, flutes, keyboards, accordion, violin, trumpet and ukulele. And the well-known carol they were playing had been given a souped-up reggae treatment by their leader, saxophonist Richard Ormrod.

We found evidence of young people acquiring a vast array of new music skills as well as increased confidence and emotional wellbeing. One young female musician said: “Before I would never, ever have sung a solo, but this has given me something to aim for, and hope.”

In 2011, the Government published its National Plan for Music Education, setting out the entitlement of every child in England to a high-quality music education.

Many people associate “music education” with in-school activities as part of the National Curriculum or peripatetic instrumental tuition for those that can afford it.

These elements can and do form a valuable part of a child’s musical journey, but at NYMAZ our focus is on inclusive, non-formal provision. That is, music activities organised outside of school settings, and delivered in a less didactic way than you might expect in formal education, with music leaders facilitating communal music making and learning for all abilities.

More recent analysis of how the National Plan is delivered has said that many disadvantaged children, which includes those who are rurally isolated, are still missing out on their entitlement. This is where the work of organisations such as NYMAZ can help.

However a number of challenges exist in rural areas such as a lack of suitable venues and specialist workforce, high costs of activities and cuts to Youth Services.

Music organisations are being resourceful in finding ways of addressing some of these challenges.

We simply cannot – and should not – accept that children living in rural areas miss out. After all, every child has the right to enjoy and reap the rewards of taking part in music, no matter where they live.

So, for the sake of our children, who’s going to bang the drum with me?

Heidi Johnson is director of North Yorkshire music charity NYMAZ. To read, the NYMAZ report Gone in the Air: Young people, music and rural isolation, visit www.nymaz.org.uk.