Jayne Dowle: Don’t let money cause discord in the music room

THE other day Lizzie came home from school with a euphonium. It’s almost as big as she is. When she picks it up, she looks like Lisa Simpson with a Barnsley accent. When she attempts to play it, she looks surprisingly adept. I’m hoping that this week she might even begin to learn a tune. I’ve shown her a picture of Tara Fitzgerald as Gloria in Brassed Off. It’s something to aim for.

Oddly, I can’t see euphonium on the latest list of the most popular instruments children are choosing to take up. Perhaps it’s only a Yorkshire thing. If so, I’m proud. However, it does say that the violin is falling out of favour. This staple of school orchestras is losing out to the electric guitar, which now tops the pops with youngsters, according a poll for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

My grandad would have applauded this. When my father came home from school with a violin about 60 years ago, it made such a cringing sound he sent him out of the house to the top rec to practise. Needless to say, dad never made it to any orchestra.

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However, some people are getting exercised about this violin business, bemoaning a perceived lack of interest in classical music and generally predicting the end of civilisation as we know it. I don’t care which instrument either of my children picks up as long as they take an interest in music. Arguments like this are reductive and hopelessly out-of-date. If anyone tries it on you, point them in the direction of rock band Metallica’s collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Your child might, like my son, find that actually playing is not for them. He brought home a classical guitar some years back and never got round to taking it out of its case. However, he’s discovering something of a talent for mixing and editing music. I’d like to think that being surrounded by musical influences has helped to foster this interest.

In our house you see, I’m the only one who is both tone-deaf and technically rubbish. I live with a guitarist (and, at the last count, six guitars). We’ve been “babysitting” an upright piano for the last seven years for a friend who moved house and didn’t have enough room for it. And we’ve also amassed tambourines, bongos and even a harmonica. Not a day goes by when someone isn’t making a racket somewhere. Lizzie’s euphonium just adds to the clamour.

Both of my two are also lucky enough to benefit from the excellent provision from Barnsley Music Service, which gives primary school children early experience of learning to play an instrument. Not all children are as fortunate though. Almost half of those surveyed in this recent poll said they had no access to musical instruments in their school.

What a terrible shame. One of the most crucial things about music is that it cuts across class lines and social backgrounds. You can be the most privileged child in the world, and your parents can spend thousands upon thousands of pounds on lessons, but it won’t necessarily make you a talented musician.

Yet a child from a modest background can pick up a guitar or sit down at a keyboard and just play with raw talent, talent which simply requires polishing and guidance. I know a girl like that. She’s 14 and is being brought up by a single mother who works as a secretary. When she starts playing pop songs – Adele, Oasis, the Beatles – on our borrowed piano she silences the room. And all she has had are music lessons at school. Who knows whether she will take this further, or where her musical ability could take her one day?

Unfortunately, for now, her mother can’t afford to pay for the extra tuition she would require to study music at GCSE. Forget the divide between violin and guitar; this is a chasm which goes much deeper. Almost one third of the children who have never had music lessons said that it is because they are too expensive.

This is the problem. There must be so many talented children out there who enjoy music in school when it is provided free or for a nominal charge. However, when it gets more serious and must be paid for, their parents simply can’t afford it. No research could possibly quantify how many youngsters fall by the wayside like this. And it’s not just the cost of lessons. It’s the ability to buy the instruments, organise transport and provide money for exams. It’s just beyond the reach of so many families.

I’m not sure what can be done to solve this. The ABRSM is calling for funding for music provision to be targeted more effectively towards disadvantaged learners and for more collaboration between private and state sectors. It also wants to “readdress regional imbalances”. I hope they make progress. Perhaps it will mean that more children will end up 
as lucky as my two. And you never know. We might even see the euphonium taking on the electric guitar.