Tag Archives: Music


Gimme a soap box, and I will happily rant for 10 minutes about music.  Specifically, music in schools.

I owe my glancing acquaintance with playing the violin to the free instrumental lessons which were available in my grammar school in North Wales.

They took me to Grade 4 and a rather short-lived place in the county Youth Orchestra. I did not take my violin to university, and after leaving school I never played again. Occasionally friends will still say very brightly, “Oh, we made up a kind of informal quartet – you ought to join us – it’s just for fun!” And I want to run for cover. The grade and the official youth orchestra record hide a multitude of sins, in particular, the fact that I was never very good then and would not expect to be even half-way passable for any kind of musical ensemble now.

Dig a little deeper into why I considered myself useless with a fiddle and it’s a funny old story. If I wanted to play any instrument, it was  the piano. My mother was a fine pianist, in part because she spent much of her childhood ‘banished’ to a cold ‘front room’, such as houses had in her youth before the through-room revolution, and actually locked in while she practised.  Flying fingers, Grade 8, gold medals, appearances on the stage at the Guildhall in Londonderry where she grew up – the whole nine yards. And all the while hating the piano, and yearning to play the violin.

You wouldn’t credit it today, would you?  In some ways, I repeated my mother’s story: not the medals and guest appearances, but the instrument and I, alone in the front room which, in my case, was freezing.

You are not likely to study music in school, unless you are already half-way expert

The kitchen/living room heart of the house was warm and comfortable. The front room – a fire seldom lit, a room hardly used. Except for the violin practice. And that does not go well with fingers stiff with cold.

The county youth orchestra was fun – a whole new set of people – but very scary, because they could all actually play, while I felt I had just been having lessons, somewhat under duress. And why did I not persevere with the happy business of making music together instead of in the isolation of the front room? Because the county sessions were almost impossible to get to from my country home. Think Cider with Rosie but in North Wales. Getting to the county orchestra meant two buses after school – and if you could not contrive a lift home, you’d have to stay in Colwyn Bay overnight. Like that was going to happen.

All of the above may account for my lifelong resentment of the fact that music was then and remains still an elitist business. In my day, the county provided free lessons for would-be violinists, which did give access to the instrument to youngsters otherwise unable to afford instrumental tuition. But few of us grabbed the opportunity – perhaps half a dozen in a 400-strong grammar school.

Anyone taking music at (then) GCE had been having instrumental or voice lessons for years, and they were a select band (no pun intended) of musicians whose grades would have very little to do with the school, and owe a great deal to their private teachers. And they ain’t cheap – as I learned when my own children learned to play the piano and flute respectively.

For years and years. Come to think of it, it makes no sense for a school to include A-level or GCSE grades in music in its exam totals, because the school is barely responsible for the teaching. The only people likely to choose the subject are the ones who could pass the exam with hardly a school lesson at all.

There is surely no other subject in the secondary school curriculum which requires a pupil to have – literally – years of expensive private tuition before the subject can be studied to any examination level? Can you think of a greater guarantee of elitism? I am told that the powers that be in the music world wanted to keep performance as a requirement for GCSE and A-level, and they got their way. You are not likely to study music in school, unless you are already half-way expert.

One cannot help but reflect that they may have improved the chances of some people growing up to be performers on the worldwide stage, but at the same time they surely reduced the number of people ever likely to turn up at a concert to hear them. No wonder concert audiences are both dwindling and – candidly – old.

From the soap box, I’d be arguing for a whole new subject in schools: History of Music. Learn about music – how it grew, changed, developed – you know, the history of it. And learn to tell Mozart from Beethoven, and what the heck happened to 20th-century music, and what makes great film music? If the History of Art is a respectable enough subject for the future queen, why can’t we have degrees in the History of Music? In the one, you never have to lift a paint brush – you’re not an artist, you are a student of art. In the other, you wouldn’t have to be a musician, you would just appreciate music in a well-informed and educated way.

If national funding for schools reduces the number of subjects which can be taught and the numbers of staff to teach them, then music is likely to be in the firing line

My own musical education, such as it is, came entirely courtesy of Classic FM and 12 years of driving two hours a day to work. The journeys really did feel like small tutorials, and I developed an ear for composers, and even some conductors and soloists. And it felt like an education. The day my teenage son and I got in the car, turned on the radio, heard a trumpeter and I said, “Oh – you must listen to this, it’s Alison Balsom!” he was satisfyingly gob-smacked.

Meanwhile, in these stringent times, it is perhaps no wonder that music is dying on its curricular feet in state schools.

If national funding for schools reduces the number of subjects which can be taught and the numbers of staff to teach them, then music is likely to be in the firing line. STEM subjects are considered essential, the arts – of all kinds – less so in today’s hard-nosed world.

Let us hope that independent schools will keep the flame burning. You only had to watch the combined orchestras and choirs of the five Haberdashers’ schools in Monmouth, celebrating the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Haberdashers’ Monmouth School for Girls with a concert in St David’s Hall, Cardiff, to realise what a joy and a delight it can be to make great big, drum-banging, voices-soaring music together.

And am I sorry I did not persevere in the freezing front room? Of course I am.

Doing time

For the last six weeks, I’ve had a hard working left hand.    I am right handed, but with a nod to my Latin A level, I might note that the left hand has become quite dextrous, that it’s even quite sinister how dextrous it has become (ho ho ho).  While my right hand has been rendered useless by the plaster cast on my broken wrist, it’s as if my left hand has come into its own.

‘See,’ I imagine it murmuring, ‘I can do anything Clever Clogs over there can do, but you never give me a chance.  I could be just as fast, and just as useful, but you never gave me the practice!’

Now that pressing the right hand back into service hurts so much that I seem to spend my time wincing and whimpering, I realise how I have come to depend on the left hand, and you know what, it really has risen to the occasion.  I now reach automatically for the kettle with the left hand, and the pouring is just as efficient as it was when the right hand was fit.  It’s quite possible I will continue to make more use of the left hand even when all is healed and lifting a kettle with the right hand no longer makes me howl and drop it.

I realise that all of us develop a dominant hand, and I do know that something between 70 and 90% of humanity is right-handed.  But the little glimpse of what the left hand can do for me when it gets the chance has been revelatory.  And one of the things it confirms is the currently developing theory that talent is less important than hard work and effort.  Perhaps my hands started out equal, but one has had a lifetime of working harder – hence its dexterity.

The first time I came across the notion that geniuses – in many diverse fields – may be more a product of perseverance and application than of innate talent, was in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘Outliers’.  He is a very persuasive exponent of the need for anyone who would like to be good at anything putting in about ten years of practice to make it happen.

He is in fact quite clear about ten thousand hours, probably taking ten years, being an almost magical length of time to achieve excellence and mastery in whatever has appealed to us enough for us to think it’s worth the time and commitment.  He quotes research in which musicians in the Berlin Academy of Music in the early 1990s were divided into three groups – the stars with the potential to become world-class soloists, the ‘merely good’, and those unlikely to play professionally but likely to teach (and I’m not going to stop to discuss what that says about people who can going on to do, and people who can’t becoming teachers – let’s just not go there).

When they asked the students how much time they put into practice, they discovered that when very young, aged about 5 – 7, they all practised about the same length of time.  But by the age of 8, the ‘stars’ were putting in more hours a week, and the hours built up as they grew older – 8 hours a week by age 12, 16 hours a week by age 14.  By the age of 20, they were putting in 30 hours a week of serious practice.

Total hours done by each of the groups by the time they came to the academy? The stars had clocked up ten thousand hours of practice; the good students had done eight thousand hours; and the probably-going-to-teach students, had accomplished just four thousand hours.

Even more interesting was that the researchers found no ‘naturals’, musicians who, as Gladwell puts it, ‘floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.’  And the people at the top did not work just harder or even much harder than their peers, ‘They work much, much harder.’

The theory of effort and application being probably more important than innate ability, a gift from the fairy godmother at the cradle, a talent inherited from a gene pool the way you might have your mother’s cheek bones or your father’s height, is hugely important in schools.  It is, if you like, the greatest message of hope.

I can imagine that it might also be a depressing message – ‘What? How many hours? To be really good? But if I’m playing the violin thirty hours a week, or diving or chasing a tennis ball, when  will I have time to – lie in bed, play on the computer, date girls – just live??!!  No way!’

For many youngsters, such a possibly monastic existence might hold little appeal.  But the up-side of this theory is that it’s your choice.  If you would rather lie in bed, or become a whole different person in your computer-gaming world, fine.  Do that.  And the world won’t come to an end and your life will pan out in whatever way it does.

But if you would really like to sing like Catherine Jenkins, or play tennis like Venus and Serena Williams, or race like Lewis Hamilton or play golf like Tiger Woods (who was given a golf club five days before his first birthday – his first! – and played his first round of golf at the age of 2) then start putting in the hours.  Because whatever your talent, you’re going to need time, and commitment, and perseverance, and a willingness to find the time somehow – as swimmers do, who clock up miles in the pool while the rest of us are having a  lie-in, or just thinking about breakfast.

Making sportsmen professional, as Britain has in recent times, will surely allow them to put in the hours to bring home the medals in 2012.  Listening to speakers from the cycling team, you would recognise their messianic pursuit of excellence via a rigorous training regime which you could not follow while holding down a job and earning a living. So if the athletes have the inclination, and the latent talent or physique, we pay them to put in the time.  It’s a far cry from Torville and Dean and ‘Bolero’,  for which they won gold while working as a policeman and a secretary, as I recall, and only able to use an ice rink without the public getting in their way so long as they trained in the small hours of the morning.

There’s a romance about that story – putting in the hours whatever the obstacles – but it’s not a model for today’s stars. But boarding schools might well be part of the mix for the future – diver Tom Daley boards, and look at the hours in the pool or on the diving board that gives him.  When the medals are counted for 2012, many of them will be held by athletes who grabbed the chance of a boarding place and facilities on site, and expert coaches and supporters, so that the hours you and I might squander – travelling, socialising, making phone calls, drinking coffee, watching ‘Dr Who’ – could be put to really good use:  getting from ‘good’ to ‘world class’.

It is, as you might say, just a matter of time.