Pianist tackles ‘shocking state’ of school music lessons | Janet Murray
“Imagine if this was a PE class and instead of using footballs and rugby balls they made their own equipment. It just wouldn’t happen in a million years,” says the classical pianist and TV presenter James Rhodes in his new series Don’t Stop the Music. He’s standing in the hall at Roysia middle school in Hertfordshire watching pupils perform a number from the musical Stomp on improvised instruments which include laundry baskets, dustbin lids, margarine tubs and tin cans.
But as music teacher Amanda Mitchell points out, as she shows him the school instrument cupboard — which contains a broken cello, a trumpet, a few recorders and a set of tubular bells made out of copper piping — with a budget of only £2.20 per child for music, she just has to manage.
In the Channel 4 series, which starts next week, Rhodes explores the “shocking state” of music education in schools in England and launches a campaign to reverse what he sees as “years of neglect”. While he visited “30 or 40” schools as part of his research, the programme focuses primarily on St Teresa’s, a Catholic primary in Essex which, prior to Rhodes’s arrival, had no instruments and no budget for music. “There were no general music lessons — music lessons would entail having another lesson, maybe history or geography, and having a CD on in the background … so nothing about composers or how to read music,” he recalls.
The two-part programme, filmed over a nine-month period, follows Rhodes as he works with 22 year 5 children who are given instruments, free tuition and opportunities to hear live music — with apparently impressive results.
In the first episode, the children go into the school hall for assembly and find the Southbank Sinfonia sitting there.”You see their faces, literally hands to their mouths, just stood there being assaulted by this music — and they sit down, some of them are crying, their mouths open,” says Rhodes recalling the programme.
“I remember thinking, ‘Within a couple of weeks, you guys will be doing the same thing — you will be playing in assembly, in an orchestra.’ And they didn’t believe it, the teachers didn’t believe it, the parents didn’t believe it … 17 days later, they played Beethoven in assembly.”
With his trainers, skinny jeans and trendy glasses, Rhodes, 39, is not your typical classical pianist. He refuses to perform in a suit, plays at unconventional venues, such as London’s Roundhouse and the 100 Club, chats to the audience about the repertoire in between pieces, and refers to Rachmaninov, Chopin and Liszt as “the original rock stars”. For him, learning an instrument is not just about acquiring technical skills — it can be transformative, he says.
After a troubled childhood, struggles with addiction, time spent in psychiatric institutions and several suicide attempts, his own life was “turned around” by playing the piano, and he would like to see music changing more children’s lives for the better.
“Study after study shows [music’s] impact on self-esteem, confidence, discipline, behavioural problems and teamwork. I can guarantee you, if you get instruments into the hands of kids who want to learn it, and you provide a place for them and the means for them to learn it, you will see an undeniable impact in every other area of their lives,” says Rhodes.
While keen to point out that music is delivered well in some state schools, in the vast majority “where [music education] is existing, it’s not existing with any degree of certainty or consistency”, he says.
The national music plan — launched in 2011 following the Henley review of music education, which found the quality of provision in England to be “patchy” — has not delivered on its aspiration to give all children the chance to learn an instrument, he adds.
And the new music hubs (groups made up of local music services, voluntary groups and private firms, which work to deliver music education opportunities for children and young people), set up in 2012 as part of the national plan, are not working either. Because each hub is organised and run in a different way, provision is still not consistent, according to Rhodes.
His claims are backed up by an Ofsted report, published last year, which found that the new £171m music hubs had made “little discernible difference” to music in more than two-thirds of schools inspected.
Rhodes is critical of the First Access programme — which aims to introduce primary school-aged children to a range of musical instruments — being delivered by many hubs. In a lot of cases, children learn instruments in small groups for a just a short period of time. “So in theory, your entire music education from the age of five to 18 could comprise a total of five hours of shared instruments … but banging an African drum for 30 minutes, once a week for 10 weeks, is not a music education,” he says.
He also criticises the Arts Council, which has responsibility for distributing funding for music hubs for not collecting enough information about what the money is being spent on. The Arts Council says it has an annual survey about the range of musical activities on offer in hubs, but Rhodes claims there isn’t enough relevant data on the number of children who are learning instruments and what they are playing.
While Rhodes acknowledges that there are “brilliant things” going on in music education, like In Harmony — the government-backed scheme that gets children from some of the most deprived parts of England playing in orchestras — they are only available to a fraction of the children who might benefit. What is needed, he says, is greater investment in the overall infrastructure of music education.
But, as with most of the public sector, music education has had to weather significant cuts in recent years, with budgets down by up to 25% in some areas. The government recently announced an additional £18m funding for music hubs, but this is not guaranteed beyond 2016. Rhodes is yet to secure a meeting with ministers to discuss the issue — despite repeated requests for one.
And even when schools can get their hands on extra cash that could be used for music — through the pupil premium, for example — the pressure of league tables and targets means it isn’t always a priority, says Rhodes. “The resounding phrase, again and again and again, from all the schools I went to, was ‘literacy and numeracy’ … even if I gave, out of my own pocket, enough money to finance music education for three or four years, that’s what they would spend it on.”
His long-term aspiration is for every primary school to have a specialist music teacher and for every child to get the chance to learn an instrument. He is also launching an instrument “amnesty” in partnership with the charity Oxfam, courier company Yodel, and the Big Yellow Storage Company, which will make it possible for the public to donate their unwanted instruments and get them into schools. Primary schools will be able to apply for the instruments they need via a dedicated website: www.dontstopthemusic.co.uk
“I figured there must be a lot of people whose grandparents played, or whose children or grandchildren played, and there were instruments just gathering dust in the attic or under the bed,” says Rhodes. “So many people I spoke to said, ‘Oh, I’ve still got my old flute’ … I was so shocked at the response. [The instruments] would often come with notes inside, like, ‘My grandfather played this trumpet in a marching band in the 50s, I’m so happy to hand this on and I hope it gives you pleasure as well for many years’ — so that’s what gave me the idea to launch the scheme across the country.”
Does he think there’s a danger that the project — which has many similarities to Jamie Oliver’s school dinners campaign — will be seen as a gimmick?
Rhodes says: “I don’t know — I don’t even care. The point is, if we want to get music to as many people as possible, I am very happy for people to say, ‘Oh, well, it’s a gimmick.’ I couldn’t care less. As long as the message is getting out there that we need instruments, and there needs to be a change … then my job’s done.”
• This article was amended on 5 September 2014. An earlier version said that St Teresa’s primary school is in Surrey. It is in Basildon, Essex.
Originally published at www.theguardian.com on September 2, 2014.