'Withdrawing support for music education cuts off music-making at its roots'
Isn’t culture about how we value things?10:17, 8th January 2019
In last month’s issue, Camilla Seale told the stories of two musicians whose experiences of freelancing were split between great freedom and great insecurity. Now, she asks, what if we widen the lens to explore the mechanics which produce this picture of inequality?
When Karl Marx was trying to do just that in 1867, he looked at industrial factories and saw that inequality flourished because one group of people was exploiting another. More recently, in 2013 to be exact, the French economist Thomas Piketty published a doorstep of a book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which argues that the gap between rich and poor isn’t widening because of exploitation, but because of what happens to financial assets when you sit and wait: they accumulate. And who has the time to sit and wait? The middle classes.
But to succeed as a musician, money is only the soil for that kernel of talent. ‘I’ve had music as quite a large part of my identity almost as long as I can remember’, composer Laura tells me. ‘I went to a pretty good private school and I stayed with one music teacher for my entire school career. That was quite influential I think; that continual, unbroken thing of being part of the music community, having continual opportunities to perform. I was very fortunate.’
What Laura was describing wasn’t sitting and waiting for a pot of money to grow but something more like an ecosystem. Continual, unbroken connections between teachers, mentors and peers, learning gradually, by osmosis, how to make the most out of their instruments. It takes time to hone a sense of rhythm, to get your fingers round the keys, to learn how to improvise, how to practice. It’s an active process of teaching your body and mind how to do something.
For that to work, you need a large quantity of time (which money can buy), but you also get further much faster with good guiding examples. Mentors who can show you the best routes through the forest: when to follow which path or a leg up over a boulder. Teachers who can show you how to practise, how to harness the passing of time, conductors on extra-curricular courses who know how to get the most out of a short rehearsal period.
‘My method right now involves really living it, all hours. On the train I read my score, I sing the words to myself, it’s very active,’ says 25-year-old accompanist Matthew, ‘but I’m concerned that it’s not long-term sustainable if I got really busy, say, with three concerts a week’. Unlike a salaried job, musicians are never paid for the hours of practice and preparation they spend maintaining and increasing the quality of their work. To weather the storms, ‘sustainability’, as Matthew puts it, has to come from strong foundations. The time you invested at the age of six, twelve and twenty. By the time you’re launching a career, it’s probably too late.
Marx’s factory workers were subject to a particular culture of time also, but it was much closer to the ‘time is money’ maxim. An hour on the clock translated to a quantity of money, and it didn’t matter whether that was the third hour worked that month, or the hundredth, they would pay the same. This model works when you’re producing shoes, less so when you’re producing music, where, at the end of the day, the sum of all your years of development is you, the product.
A few weeks ago, I met a trumpeter, Dominic, whose journey into the top UK orchestras came via the rich tradition of brass bands in the north of England. Having led education workshops in schools across the country, he described to me some of the pain points in British music education: ‘How do you get kids excited about music when they don’t even have access to instruments?’ he pointed out.
Indeed, a report published this autumn by the Musicians’ Union found that the biggest barriers to access for lower income families were that instruments, and lessons, were prohibitively expensive – not a lack of interest.
Withdrawing support for music education – removing that soil – cuts off music-making at its roots: the connections, the relationships and the time to experiment that someone like Laura experienced so richly. How far could music-making across the country change in ten, twenty years? We would have far fewer Dominics playing in orchestras, that’s for sure. ‘It seems almost impossible for young musicians to get anywhere now without financial backing. I accompanied auditions for two whole days at [a top youth orchestra]. One student came from a state school’, says pianist Lucy, who herself received a full scholarship for musical training in the 1980s.
Recent government policies for the arts are fascinatingly contradictory. While support is withdrawn from local authorities’ budgets, £2.4 million is being spent launching twelve already successful music acts into the ‘international market’. Elsewhere, new policy research is discovering the effectiveness of prescribing arts activities to a wide range of NHS patients.
So, there is some awareness that making ‘culture’ isn’t just about making profit… Isn’t culture really about how we do things? How we value things? Make relationships? Learn from each other? Wouldn’t it be exciting if music-making was diverse and varied, flourishing in vibrant ecosystems throughout the country, not just in carefully protected botanical gardens in London, or Manchester?
Making music has many values beyond generating an income. This is obvious to anyone who has ever enjoyed the experience of listening or playing music, but it’s also a reality that is forced to the peripheries of the daily lives of many musicians.
Across all the musicians I interviewed, the conflict they always came back to was about freedom: the freedom to choose what music they made, to start their own projects, to plan their lives, to decide how to spend their time. And, of course, it was those who had the resources and the time over many years of development – with better contacts, a more secure technique, more money – who got the chance to invest time in the activities they found valuable.