Saturday, March 26, 2011

26 March: A few thoughts about cuts


This afternoon, London sees the March for the Alternative - the biggest mass protest to hit the capital's streets since the Stop the War Coalition March in 2003. Various newspapers are predicting between 100,000 and 300,000 participants and the NUT has chartered trains from around the country in order to join in. Here are thoughts from a cross-section of people planning to march today.

A couple of months ago, after Philip Pullman and other authors spoke out with eloquence and passion against the closure of public libraries, I ran a post on JDCMB calling for star musicians to speak up too. And several promptly got in touch with words to the effect of: "Yes, anytime!" But... everyone was waiting for Darren Henley's report into the state of music education and for the government's response. These arrived very late.

When they turned up, they seemed good. Henley made some excellent recommendations and the response appeared to take them on board. Michael Gove seems to like music, and noises were even made about ringfencing certain bits of money for music education. It seemed, at first glance, that there wasn't all that much to yell about.

But on closer examination, this doesn't reflect what's actually been happening while we waited. There's a dangerous division between the national, centralised government recommendations and the individual responses of local authorities hard hit by budget cuts. At times the two situations bear no relation whatsoever to one another. Local authorities, in charge of their own budgets for everything from refuse collection to care for the elderly to music teaching, could not afford the time to wait for the report, let alone act according to it. Up and down the country, music services have already been slashed by councils desperate to save money wherever they can; and because of the division in national plans and local realities, it seems hard to get the message through about what is really happening.

The same, of course, is true for professional musical organisations: many regional orchestras, for instance, depend on local funding as well as ACE grants and are facing a double whammy of cutbacks in both. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, for instance - a fabulous orchestra and host to Vassily Petrenko, possibly the most exciting young conductor to hold a post in this country - is being rewarded for its runaway success and massive increases in its audience by something resembling a financial brickbat. The CBSO too is facing a serious cut, but seem glad it isn't even bigger.

The lack of clarity about the national and local divisions in these issues has, I think, caused a heap of confusion and made it difficult for the public to recognise what's happening. I am sure there are plenty of conspiracy theorists who could suggest that this sense of muddle might even be deliberately imposed from somewhere high up the tree. Personally I tend to subscribe to 'cock-up' theories rather than 'conspiracy'. I suspect that in the diplodocus of bureaucracy, the head hasn't a clue what the tail is doing, so great is the distance between them.

Yesterday Tom Service reported on his Guardian blog about the response of Bedfordshire: soaring costs for music lessons that far exceed the recommended fees suggested as market rate by the Musicians Union. And a well-known musician in Yorkshire has written to me, forwarding a message from a concerned local about the slashing of music provision to the effect of: "Why isn't anyone saying anything about this?" Music-making in the UK should never be reduced to a pursuit barred to those who cannot afford exorbitant fees for lessons.

If children do not hear music, they will not know that it exists. And they are missing out. In assuming they won't be interested in western classical music because it isn't "cool" (that word is a plague on all our houses), and in failing to teach them to appreciate it, play it and understand it, we are subjecting them to a deprivation of spirit. We're treating our youngsters with patronising assumptions for which they're going to come back to us one day, when we're doddering around taking out our dentures, and say WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL US?

A challenge for you: this week, play a young person some music. Choose it well, answer their questions, offer follow-up suggestions. Last week, as part of a writing workshop, I played a group of eight A and AS level students some Keith Jarrett. One boy in particular was crazy about it. He said he had never heard any jazz before. A month ago I took my niece to see Madam Butterfly at the Albert Hall. She is a bright university student and comes from an academic family full of people who appreciate music, yet she'd never heard a note of this opera before. She loved it.

Young people deserve the chance to find an enthusiasm and make up their own minds about music: how dare we assume they won't like it? If you don't play them music, if you don't show them what is available for them to enjoy, if you do not teach them how it works and equip them with the vocabulary to understand it, explore it and talk about it, you are killing part of our collective soul and theirs.

Perhaps even more worrying is this: as regards the benefits that music brings all round, the case has been made. The points have been proved, the evidence is there and it has been hammered home. EL SISTEMA. Sistema Scotland and the Big Noise. Buskaid, Soweto. What more proof do we need that music-making is a force for good, a shortcut to all-round improvement to spiritual, mental, physical and social health, the provision of it a financial stitch in time? The case has been made, and proven, and unarguably so. But how do we get anyone to listen? What more do we have to do?

Enough hanging around! If we wait any longer, it will be too late. I think we've all been too patient and way too nice. Music teachers, get out there in central London today and do some shouting.

Now, dear musician friends, if you would like to send me any words of protest against the bureaucracy-sponsored suffocation of music lessons, as well as exhortations about the human value of music, I will post them here with the greatest of pleasure.