Instrumental tuition in the UK is a postcode lottery

Roger ClarksonFri 2nd August 2013

Auditioning statistics for the National Children’s Orchestras of Great Britain reveal areas of the country where certain instruments simply aren’t taught

After auditioning over 1,200 children for the National Children’s Orchestras of Great Britain, surely there is more than one oboist between Watford and Newcastle? And where are the double bassists in the South West, Lincolnshire and the Midlands? The geographical breakdown showed startling statistics and begs the question, are there no teachers of particular instruments other than from the South East?
 
Taking the oboe as an example: apart from one auditionee in Scotland, there were no applicants north of the Trent and not one from Wales. In contrast, we had clarinetists apply from throughout Britain. Without question, violas are a rare breed. And double bassists too. Last year we had good numbers of bassists applying in the home counties, Lancashire and West Yorkshire, but does no one teach the double bass in the South West or Lincolnshire and the Midlands?
 
The 41-page report written by our orchestral manager (from which I am referring) provides a rare insight into the instrumental demographic of the UK. Overall, independent schools had more children applying, followed very closely by state schools, with specialist schools and home educated children in the minority. Why is this? Our courses at first glance might seem expensive but we have a very fair yet strong bursary committee who distribute funds to the children who come from families with incomes under £56,000, on a sliding scale. Or is the shortage of players due to something else? Is it the lack of teaching in our state schools? Have the recent reduction of funds wiped off music from the curriculum in certain areas? We need to be giving all children the opportunity to play in a good orchestra wherever they live and it needs to be a good experience - they need it.
 
I have had the pleasure of being the principal director of music of the NCO for over 13 years. Our recent concert at the Barbican was part of our celebrations for the NCO’s 35th anniversary; 35 years since our wonderful founder, Vivienne Price, took her first rehearsal. Since then we have been on tours of China and Italy, and last year performed at Westminster Hall for Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee lunch and we have now grown from one single orchestra to 11 orchestras - six national and five regional. Watching children grow in confidence on each course is rewarding for everyone concerned. It’s inspiring to see the amount of work the children put into their auditions and during the residential courses. We greatly look forward to seeing all the national orchestras, from the training orchestras all the way through to the alumni ensemble, perform at Symphony Hall, Birmingham for our Gala concert on August 31.
 
From the old music services to the new music hubs, the NCO is here to work with local authorities and support both the children and the music teachers within them. Our experience has shown that when children attend NCO courses they return to their teachers inspired, more advanced and with an eagerness to learn more. We edify their teachers, intending to help the instrumental teachers make more progress with their students.  Performing together is what music is all about. Earlier this year we were delighted to receive the Music Teacher Award for Best Classical Education Initiative for the hard work all the NCO team play in supporting children.
 
And yet from the results of our auditions report, we know that we need to be working even closer with individual music hubs and teachers to be able to find an oboist north of the Trent. And then they too can join us in our aspiration to perform at the Proms.

Roger Clarkson's picture

Roger Clarkson

Roger Clarkson has been the principal music director of the National Children's Orchestras of Great Britain since 2000. He is in charge of adjudicating the audition process, selecting repertoire and conducting the Orchestras. He is a dedicated musician and has made his career in music through performing and teaching, working in a variety of settings from the RAF Music Services to specialist music schools.

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