RONG ON RIGHT PATH - BB shines a light on one of the rising stars of Norwegian banding

Issue 6062

BACK IN BUSINESS - Boost for bands in England as rehearsals resume

STAGE SET FOR CORY CONTEST - Draw made for online championship, with international flavour

Comment: let the children play

Friday 11 September, 2020

Graeme Barclay is a former chair of Heads of Instrumental Teaching Scotland and a former convener of the EIS Music Network. Writing for British Bandsman, Graeme illustrates the pressing issues facing instrumental music education across the UK amid continued uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Graeme highlights the disparate – and often conflicting – approaches emanating from different corners of the country and discusses the importance of resuming the musical activities which, for many, have been unachievable since lockdown began in March.


How encouraging, and really quite emotional, it was to view the first night of the 2020 Proms in August. On first sight the structure appeared normal and relatively unchanged, with presenter Katie Derham providing a warm welcome to viewers and delivering a short preamble prior to the performers taking to the platform. As we are all aware, however, this opening Proms event turned out to be far from normal. Ms Derham and special guest, Stephen Fry, were positioned two metres apart in the commentary box; the BBC Symphony Orchestra was significantly decimated in personnel, with the musicians having vast space between them on stage, and the BBC Singers had even more space between each ensemble member as they performed a mesmerising rendition of Eric Whitacre’s Sleep. There was no audience in the Royal Albert Hall and all stage management personnel were wearing facemasks. If ever proof was required of the colossal impact of COVID-19 on all things musical during 2020, the first night of the Proms cemented just that.

As I watched and enjoyed the varied programme, I was drawn to assimilating the stark similarities apparent within music education during these continuing, challenging times. My assimilations and observations, which I promise were not fuelled by too much sauvignon blanc, have led me to reflect further upon my thoughts in relation to instrumental music education’s current recovery – or perhaps more accurately, lack of. To reference Stephen Fry following the BBC Singers’ performance, it feels that music education’s recovery is “like flowers growing up through concrete”.

'There exists a complete disparity across the educational environment in relation to securing a comprehensive, balanced and informed structure for all music education services'

There exists a complete disparity across the educational environment in relation to securing a comprehensive, balanced and informed structure for all music education services to return and reintegrate with learners. In Scotland, one would struggle to find two local authorities that follow the same model for music service return across schools. Differing numbers of school visits per week; variance in the number of pupils to be taught; discrete guidelines as to instruments that can be taught in schools; different approaches to blended online learning, with strict scrutiny applying as to what platforms can and cannot be used. As a vocational cohort, music educators continue to wait in anticipation for the guideline on the guideline which will likely require further guidelines. At times, it feels as if music teachers and instructors are being depicted as some form of enhanced COVID-19 carriers, who deliver dangerous activities that cause enhanced risks to children and young people merely wishing to continue their much-loved music tuition. Conversely, it is interesting when we stop for a moment to review and consider the various restrictions on music learning activities in tandem with guidelines relating to other more mainstream classroom settings. For example, I am not aware of learners being required to sit back-to-back in class when they are talking or breathing, activities that also generate fine droplets of aerosol. As policy setters grapple with, and attempt to comprehend, what music tuition actually is, it would be beneficial for them to take onboard Michelle Obama’s beliefs on decision making: “Don’t ever make decisions based on fear, make decisions based on hope and possibility. Make decisions based on what should happen, not what shouldn’t.”

I wholeheartedly support guideline setters when they reference the vital need for mitigation within our combined plight to crush COVID-19. As to what actual science is being followed to inform decisions relating to current music education constraints, I am not so clear, and hold growing scepticism. Since schools have returned (Scottish schools went back in August, for example), I have heard and read nothing other than references to low or no actual risks being posed by involvement in
well-structured music-making activities.

'For every additional week that music tuition and education is restricted from returning and flourishing within our schools’ system there carries great worry'

Whilst there are definitely green shoots emerging in the UK’s music education recovery process (services beginning to return to some schools, some pupils returning to lessons, some effective virtual engagements taking place through online learning) there is a colossal road to be travelled to establish musical environments as we knew them, pre-March. For every additional week that music tuition and education is restricted from returning and flourishing within our schools’ system there carries great worry. Worries for younger children who long to participate in fun, creative and inclusive musical activities in primary schools. Worries for beginner and intermediate stage musical learners, many of whom have not received any live interaction with their music instructors for five months and have potentially forgotten how to play their instruments. Worries for older students and advanced musical learners who will be required to sit National Qualifications involving their practical music skills in six months. Worries for school, authority, county and national ensembles unable to return to in-person rehearsals. Worries for the vocational instrumental music education workforce, currently heavily restricted or even excluded in its return to schools.

As I know will be acutely felt across the brass band fraternity, the impact of COVID-19 on community music outlets and environments has been immeasurable. As a past performer with a selection of Scotland’s finest bands I advocate strongly for the many positive and inherent benefits associated to the impact of bandhall and rehearsal room activities. Effective community involvement and engagement, mixed with a real sense of loyalty and purpose, are elements of banding that have impressed me greatly. The same stands true regarding the incredible standard of musician that is nurtured through the educational and learning aspect of brass band involvement. The numerous high-quality virtual performances and collaborations produced by brass bands across the world during lockdown evidenced not only a world-leading standard but also an unwavering support to keeping band activity profiled and active.

It has been super to observe further positive developments, where band associations have devised virtual contest platforms. Whilst these online and virtual initiatives are beneficial as a stopgap measure, few, if any band members will not be racing into the rehearsal room or onto the contest stage when the green light is given – and it simply must be given soon.

In August, I wrote for the Times Educational Supplement and outlined my beliefs on how music will be pivotal in the recovery from COVID-19. Within the article I placed particular emphasis on how children and young people will have undoubtedly experienced incredible challenges during the period of lockdown and the summer holidays. Outcomes such as escapism, resilience, inclusion, raised self-esteem, belief and enjoyment are vital strands within the lives and development of young people, their families and their communities. It is my firm belief that crucial elements of supporting children and young people’s wellbeing through involvement in music can be found and celebrated in bandhalls across the land.

I congratulate you all for everything you do and wish the brass band scene every success for continuing prosperity over many years to come. Let us remember and hold close to our hearts the fact that our various community music settings thankfully remain alive and optimistic, even amidst such restricting times. We need music education, tuition, engagement, rehearsals and performance opportunities to be able to return to their live operational functions as a matter of priority. In closing, I return to the 2020 first night of the Proms, where Stephen Fry emotionally and eloquently shared his thoughts on the power of music on society during such challenging global times: “One hesitates to suggest that music has a power beyond what is achievable in medicine. It is however like a blanket, taking the shape of the person you throw it over.”

Graeme Barclay was music coordinator for one of Scotland’s largest local authorities before founding Beat Buddies Music Education, an independent, inclusive music-making initiative, in January 2020. He is a former chair of Heads of Instrumental Teaching Scotland and former convener of the EIS Music Network. Graeme is a percussionist and has enjoyed a busy freelance career with Scotland’s major orchestras, ensembles and theatre companies.