'Although people are exposed to music nowadays, are we actually really listening better? Are we communicating better?'
The Royal Philharmonic Society has published a report by Sarah Derbyshire, Musical Routes, which assesses the provision of musical education for young people and children in England. And it got me thinking of my own early engagement with music.
I was brought up in a farming community. There were no tape recorders, no computers, we didn’t even have a television – but we did have Scottish traditional music, and so a lot of our social entertainment, and what happened in the home, was a shared experience. Although people are exposed to music nowadays, it is often in a much more isolated way and for all the different ways that we can consume music, I do wonder, are we actually really listening better? Are we communicating better?
For me, the whole experience is of creating sound - I’d go so far as to say that musicians are ‘sound creators’, and when we can get our young people to be curious towards sound, and take the first step of linking one sound to another, low and behold they suddenly become musicians.
It is important that musicians engage with youngsters to allow them to experience the real, raw sounds and how the human hand creates them. It is entirely possible to become a musician or composer without actually playing an instrument; for example, you can orchestrate a very loud timpani roll with a very soft violin harmonic on a computer, but if you have a timpanist and a violinist right in front of you, you will, of course, realise that in reality, you will never hear that violin.
At the age of 12, as a new pupil in a big secondary school, I was exposed to the school orchestra, and THAT was my turning point. I thought, ‘I WANT to be part of that’. (If I’m looking at a computer, do I want to be part of that?) I had the good fortune of having a percussion teacher who instilled in me the fact that curiosity will jet you into a world, whatever that world will be. Faced with a 12-year-old wearing hearing aids, he thought outside the box and asked me to remove them to see if I would hear more without them. What he discovered was that a drum resonates; there’s a journey of a sound after the drum is struck, and the body also resonates. By taking my hearing aids off, listening to that drum, I realised that suddenly my body became a huge ear. My teacher planted a seed of not just listening to a drum, but listening to the body and how that connects with the sound. I became a totally different person, because not only did that affect the connection with sound, it helped me then to connect with people, to have the patience to see what people were saying rather than reacting immediately to a message.
Music is all about giving our youngsters that journey and we need to take the time for the journey to develop, and to enjoy it together. It’s like learning a new piece of music: we can very easily say ‘I like that’, ‘I don’t like that’, but it’s through the journey of being with a piece of music and the experience of performing that piece many times, that we’re in a position to say ‘ah-ha! This is interesting’. And in the music profession - not just musicians but the administrators and the people who beaver away so incredibly behind the scenes – we need to re-think and re-wire ourselves so that everyday, in all that we do, we are seeking to engage children and young people in music.
I know that tiny things can make a big difference because I’ve been in that position as a youngster, and I’ve been in that position where you can connect with those people. It may be that the way we answer an email, or engage with someone on twitter might make that difference. What can we do to bring our youngsters into rehearsals, not just for them to sit there, but to feel what it’s like to stand on the stage, which is such a different experience? How can we just say hello to a youngster, or their parents, or whoever, at the end of a concert? What have we done today towards music education and to make a difference for the next generation?
Evelyn Glennie is an Honorary Member of the Royal Philharmonic Society. This is an edited extract of a speech she gave to launch the Musical Routes report. Read the report at philharmonicsociety.org.uk