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Opinion: music tuition cuts are madness

Tuesday 3 March, 2020

British Bandsman editor Mark Good reflects on the numerous stories making the headlines in Scotland regarding instrumental music tuition being under threat and looks at the work being undertaken in an attempt to preserve the service for the next generation.

How did you first become involved in playing a musical instrument? Perhaps you were nudged along to the local band by a parent or older sibling who played, handed a battered old instrument and tutored by the veteran third cornet player. Many look back fondly on very similar experiences. For others (the editor included), the first opportunity to learn a musical instrument came via instrumental tuition in school. It is a pathway for which time appears to be running out.

The picture, nationally, is bleak but Scotland appears to be the focal point for some particularly-depressing headlines of late, as one local authority after another seeks to make ends meet by chopping a service which has tranformed the lives of many.

Aberdeen Council has prepared a raft of possible savings as part of its budget proposals for 2020/2021, which include cutting – yes, cutting – instrumental music tuition in schools, with a projected saving of £733000.

In Edinburgh, a campaign was launched after the city council launched a consultation, which includes the idea of cutting instruction by £150000 in 2021/22 and a staggering £350000 in 2022/23. This, in spite of the fact that research carried out by the Musicians’ Union shows that families with a total household income of less than £28000 per year are half as likely to have a child learning an instrument, compared to those with an income of £48000 or more – despite similar levels of interest from both groups of children.

The tale of woe for music tuition in Scotland doesn’t end there. North Lanarkshire, home to a world champion pipe band which was flown to New York last year to perform in Tartan Week, is considering savage cuts to its service which would include the removal of all orchestras, bands and ensembles. Music teachers in the area were recently called to a meeting, where they were told that North Lanarkshire Council will consider two proposals to save cash from the music budget: either cutting the two instrumental teacher managers, a full-time instructor and all local ensembles; or axing the in-school service completely. A petition demanding that the proposals, not the teachers, are scrapped has gained 12000 signatures and counting.

The above examples are the latest in a string of attempts to salami slice or even obliterate instrumental music tuition from the school environment. Ironically, they come around a year after the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party education and skills committee released a report in which it said all schoolchildren should be given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument free of charge.

Titled A Note of Concern, the report had been commissioned after large numbers of children started dropping out of music lessons, with the growing practice of charging for a musical education resulting in many families being priced out. This was of concern to the committee given the pivotal role music has been proven to play in pupil attainment as well as the positive impact learning an instrument and playing in an ensemble has been shown to have.

Campaigner Ralph Riddiough, a lawyer and community musician from Ayrshire, mounted a legal challenge to the Scottish Government’s position that instrumental music lessons are non-core. If successful, the action would place responsibility on the government to fund tuition for children in Scotland.

He told British Bandsman: “These cuts are frightening, and damaging, but the political language surrounding them is contradictory and hypocritical: we are told it is a vitally important education service and so should be provided to all children equally, but the cuts are made and nothing is done about it, year after year after year. If our politicians just came out and said ‘This is not the kind of school education to which all children are entitled therefore it will be cut’ then that would be honest.”

The reasons for cutting music tuition, regardless of the region, are not without merit. Budgets are tight. Councils blame governments for reducing funding and claim they are left with little option; something has to go – why shouldn’t it be music tuition?

Readers of British Bandsman are likely to be well-versed with the advantages of learning to play a musical instrument but it does no harm to shout them from the roof-tops.

Benefits include: 

• Increasing memory skills, helping a child create, store and retrieve memories more effectively
• Teaching perseverance and self-discipline as a child learns the rewards of good preparation
• Improving co-ordination through learning to play an instrument and learning to read music
• Improving maths skills by learning to understand the concept of rhythms and beats
• Creating responsibility by learning to look after instruments and manage one’s time effectively
• Becoming exposed to culture and history while learning about different pieces of music, their composers and their social context
• Improving communication skills by learning to become
• comfortable performing/addressing large groups of people.

Amongst the entire population of school pupils learning an instrument, a small fraction may excel and go on to pursue careers in the profession or a related field. Others may enjoy the social benefits of making music together with friends, learning about new cultures and broadening their horizons. Of those pursuing music at secondary school, it seems baffling that a portion of their musical studies could be cut and regarded as anything other than a vital component of their studies. It would be ludicrous to suggest that a portion of a STEM subject be slashed, wouldn’t it? Perhaps most importantly, learning a musical instrument can be an enjoyable experience. Music for enjoyment’s sake – what is wrong with that?

At a recent meeting, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) Instrumental Music Network called on politicians from all parties, at local and national level, to work together to protect instrumental music provision in Scotland’s schools.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of EIS, said: “The EIS is challenging all of Scotland's politicians, from all parties, to stand up and protect instrumental music provision in the country's schools. Both the Scottish Government and the local authority group CoSLA have been shirking their responsibilities in this area for far too long, while deep cuts have been made to this important aspect of young people's education across Scotland.

“It is now time for the politicians to put party politics aside, and to work together for the good of Scotland's young people and to safeguard Scotland's proud musical heritage.”

Mr Flanagan added: “Instrumental music teaching provides so much for young people – it develops their talents, provides them with greater self-confidence, develops their ability to work independently and also as part of a team, and can have a positive impact on their emotional wellbeing and on their broader academic achievement. It is vitally important that we protect instrumental music for all the benefits that it brings.”

With all this in mind, how will brass bands be affected? Clearly, it won’t help as hordes of potential young players will never have the opportunity to pick up an instrument unless councils can be persuaded to retain instrumental instruction.

As was referenced at the beginning of this article, though, instrumental instruction – vital though it is – shouldn’t be relied upon as the only pathway by which the next generation of players come through. As is already the case in many areas, community bands, out of necessity, are taking matters into their own hands by nurturing players, offering tuition and instruments for little or no charge. If it means young people are given an opportunity otherwise unavailable to them, surely that should be welcomed? In some cases, it may even be possible for authorities and community organisations to work in partnership, for mutual benefit. This is certainly more productive than the alternative, which sees petty, tribal attitudes take precedence, with young brass players ‘prevented’ from taking part because of some local dispute or other. The end result? The disillusionment and ultimately, disenfranchisement, of yet more young musicians.

The path ahead may be an uncertain one but it is not without grounds for optimism. In many of the regions where tuition is under threat, campaigns and petitions are actively trying to change mindsets of the decision makers with the power to make a difference. The weeks and months ahead will bring further stories of despair but for every region seeking to quietly siphon its music tuition into the annals of history, there are plenty of determined souls who are fiercely committed to ensuring that doesn’t happen.

Every young person should be given the opportunity to master a musical instrument, regardless of their postcode or ability to pay. The results could be life-changing.