Music makes us socially mobile

Scottish nationalists seem out to destroy a precious musical heritage built up over many generations

James MacMillan

For some reason I fell in love with music as a little boy in Cumnock, Ayrshire, in the late 1960s. There wasn’t a lot of money around — a lot of people were genuinely poor. My grandfather was a coal miner, but he loved music — he played euphonium in colliery bands and sang in his church choir. He got me my first cornet and took me to band practices in nearby Dalmellington. This was the beginning of a magical life in music for me. It’s a familiar path for many working-class Scottish kids who got the opportunity of free music lessons and involvement in school orchestras, bands and choirs back then in the Sixties and Seventies, when our teachers knew how to nurture our talents and enthusiasms into lifelong vocations and careers.

This is now under threat in Scotland with the creep, creep of additional fees for hard-pressed parents, as music education budgets are being slashed by councils around the country. The effect of this is to discourage youngsters from less well-off homes from entering the world of music.  Nowadays, British orchestras are much more populated by musicians from affluent backgrounds (many of them privately educated) compared to even a generation ago, when sons of miners made up the brass sections of the great orchestras of the land.

Some left-wing politicians believe that complex, discursive music like classical and jazz isn’t what ordinary working-class kids should be doing. If someone had told me and my parents this back in the day, we would have laughed in their faces. I remember Cumnock as a very musical place, where ordinary men and women from humble homes would make music together in choirs, amateur operatic groups, bands and orchestras. Recently I established the Cumnock Tryst festival to bring the world’s great musicians, like Nicola Benedetti, to play in East Ayrshire and to encourage local people, young and old, to get involved in music-making. (This year’s Cumnock Tryst will be held from October 4-7.)

This music-making at an early age can transform lives — it certainly changed mine. Cuts to instrumental tuition in Scottish schools amount to cultural and social vandalism and that’s why I’m involved in the campaign to fight against them. Scotland must not be allowed to become an international laughing stock because of our education system, and I don’t think the Scottish government would want to see that either. But eyes have been taken off balls — we need to keep pressure on local and national authorities, not just to save our music education but to build it into something we can all take pride in.
What needs to be said is that a discursive music, which is complicated and requires focus and concentrated skill (like learning to play an instrument or singing), can take a lifetime’s commitment for listeners and performers, as well as composers, of course. But it is a lifetime that is full of rewards, artistically, emotionally, socially and intellectually.

Active engagement with music brings benefits throughout people’s lives. Even very young children’s perceptual development is enhanced by musical engagement, affecting language development, improving literacy and rhythmic co-ordination, while fine motor coordination is improved by learning to play an instrument.

Participation in music also seems to improve spatial reasoning, one aspect of general intelligence which is related to some of the skills required in mathematics. While general attainment is clearly affected by literacy and numeracy skills, involvement in music appears to improve self-esteem, self-efficacy and aspiration — all important factors in improving young people’s commitment to studying and perseverance in other subjects.

Why would politicians wish to see poorer children miss out on such a vital ingredient of their education? It’s as if their sanctimonious mantras about inclusion, access and diversity get thrown straight out of the window as soon as they are asked to do something about it. They are all talk.

 A large number of those children, especially from low-income families, receive free instrumental tuition. During a period when Scotland’s government has increased spending on education and culture it seems perverse to cut back on such an important subject for the development of the whole child, and which can narrow the attainment gap, as instrumental music education.

Great Scottish musicians are the evidence for the effectiveness of Scotland’s music education, and they include many who may not have succeeded without an effective music tuition service, open to all regardless of ability to pay. John Wallace, trumpeter and former Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, says: “I came from the wrong side of the tracks to the other side because of music. Music is incredibly beneficial to social mobility.” It would be a severely retrograde step to deny the young people of today the opportunities of fulfilling the potential that their parents and grandparents once enjoyed.

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