Don’t stop the music

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the Don’t Stop the Music documentary for a while amongst other topics but haven’t felt that committed to writing about them, like there’s been no drive to write a good blog post. After hearing some local youth music related news this week, I have felt compelled to write about the concept of the programme and the reality of youth music in Britain. I’ve touched upon some of the issues in my previous blog post ‘Thank you for the (youth) music!’ which I wrote following my last youth concert.

I have to make a confession. I haven’t actually watched the documentary. I knew of its concept and have seen the adverts countless times but avoided watching it because I knew I would get angry. James Rhodes, a classical pianist is on a mission to change music education across England and has enlisted the help of many famous musicians to get behind his campaign. Additionally, the plan is funded by sponsors and has gained exposure from the documentary on channel 4.

James Rhodes plan is based on a document published by the British government in 2011. It is a plan for music education called The Importance of Music. The document includes statements like “It is important that music education of high quality is available to as many of them as possible: it must not become the preserve of those children whose families can afford to pay for music tuition”, “The Department for Education will continue to fund music education at significant levels during difficult economic times” and “Our vision is to enable children from all backgrounds….to have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument.”

Rhodes has set up an “instrumental amnesty” which asks people to donate old, unused instruments to combat a shortage of instruments and to give every child the chance to learn an instrument. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Pretty reasonable?!

However, both Rhodes and the government’s plans are for England only which means unfortnately that local Welsh governments do not have the same intentions to maintain music education and youth music. Even within England, I doubt that there is equality in music provision. The documentary focuses on a school in Essex. If the instrument amnesty does receive instruments I wonder how many actually would be sent to schools outside of London and the South East of England… As much as all music teachers, musicians and young learners would love equality in music education ( equal provision across the country, equal opporunities for all children who wish to learn) it will take a LONG time to achieve.

It’s amazing (and so ironic) that so much publicity has been given to this programme, the instrumental amnesty and the campaign yet local governments recently have been cutting the arts and youth music in particular. I mentioned in my last blog post about youth music that as a student representative last year I was made aware of all the funding issues that affect youth music. During my time as student rep, we had major issues regarding Bridgend’s funding. Some of these issues have been addressed and some still remain. I am impressed by the young people of the county and other supporters who have helped keep Bridgend’s music service going this past year. This week, I have heard the grim news that Rhondda Cynon Taff’s music service is the target of cuts. Although this has been brushed over in news articles, the full extent of the proposed cuts is that the music service will be cut completely, staff will be made redundant and other youth ensembles will cease to exist. Not only are these cuts unfair to the young people of the county who will not have any opportunity to learn music, it affects a wider network of musicians. The councils do not recognise the larger infrastructure that their cuts will impact on.

I am not here to slag off councillors. I am often a spectator on social media of the “public”  bashing councillors/politicians and claiming that they want to run themselves so that there are honest people with the community’s best interests at heart. I don’t doubt that most councillors have started their careers with good political intentions but the structure of government will cause people to make decisions that will upset large sections of the community. You can’t please everyone and I think to be a politician on any level you need to have a thick skin because ultimately you will make decisions that will make you public enemy no 1. However, I do get angry at councillors who make decisions without having listened to their constituents or made any effort to understand the effect of their plans. At the meetings I attended, a councillor’s presence (from any of the four counties that the orchestra covered) was sporadic or non-existent. In my last meeting, no councillors were present and didn’t even have the courtesy to send apologies or a deputy in their place. This demonstrated that the local government had no interest in youth music or did not want to offer any support for our funding issues (this may be the reason why they avoided the meetings!).

Youth music and the arts in general are quick to be cut because they are non-statutory. They may not be a legal requirement but these services are essential especially for young people in areas of Wales which are working class where many people wouldn’t be able to afford private music tuition. It will limit the opportunities for musicians to attend local ensembles and reduce the number of talented young people who wish to apply for national ensembles. Young people should be encouraged in language lessons to say “I play an instrument” or “I play in an orchestra/band” instead of the common phrase “There is nothing for young people to do in my area” (unfortunately a favourite of my GCSE Welsh class). All people concerned in this decision should actually consider what is best for the young people in the area: reducing opportunities or allowing young people to learn new skills – musical and social.

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