Professionals need to provide high-quality live events and education projects to complement school programmes
My first music lessons were held in the school kitchen of West Malling Primary School where I learnt the violin amongst pots and pans. It was the 70s and the Kent Music School had a big presence, offering instrumental tuition and the opportunity to play in a variety of ensembles.
There was a structure in place, with progression through to the county ensembles and beyond with expert staff. Coming from a non-musical background, it enabled me to develop as a musician.
Much has changed since – for a start I doubt that you would be allowed to have lessons in a kitchen! Having worked worldwide as a conductor and violinist, I decided to look into setting up a music festival in my hometown and put something back into the community where I started my musical journey.
Several things struck me. West Malling and its surrounding villages had many fantastic venues but a lack of professional concerts. There was patchy provision of music in primary schools – much of it dependent on a sympathetic head teacher. The musical opportunities available varied from brilliant to nonexistent despite music’s existence within the national curriculum. One school I visited had wider opportunities with ocarinas – a non-instrument that nevertheless ticks a government box. Several did not even have any singing.
One thing that was consistent is the great enthusiasm kids have for music.
Another issue was that many budding musicians were unable to attend local concerts – experiencing concerts provides the link between what is learnt at school and gaining lifelong fulfillment and inspiration from music. It was a lottery as to what the opportunities were and this filters through to the entire community.
Despite only being 33 miles from London, attending top cultural events can be a mission. If you are working in London, attending an event means getting a late train home. For anyone further-afield there is an element of hassle that only a die-hard culture vulture would put up with regularly.
There is much is on offer in London that does not filter out to surrounding areas. I wanted to develop something that offered great music on people’s doorsteps. I’d have to build an audience from scratch and develop an education programme and concerts that would work on many levels to be effective and sustainable.
My passion for contemporary music increased the challenge. It has always seemed to me to exist in an urban ghetto, and I wanted people to hear new music in the context of standard repertoire to see how dynamic this can be with the opportunity for the public to meet the composer and musicians. I had many ideas but these had to join up effectively and an infrastructure had to be created to make it happen.
Then came the Henley Report in 2011, the year of our first festival. Much of this report seemed to apply to West Malling – we were in need of a cultural boost. Along with a dedicated committee we got cracking!
Despite the challenges, what started out as an idea has turned into an annual festival. The support we received from the local area in sponsorship and funding has been brilliant. Local people are involved at every level and this year, we are working with 1,500 school children in a project with English National Ballet. There is an element of the Big Society about Music@Malling which is brilliant.
The problem is that of continuity. When I started out learning the violin next to a vat of ravioli, there was a stable system with opportunities to learn music in and outside of school with a broad-based entry and a route of progression for those interested in continuing. Schools are better resourced than they were in the 70s but the danger that music is becoming marginalised remains. In 2013, we live in a karaoke, celebrity driven ‘fast food’ X-Factor culture. It is too easy for people to be passive consumers of music.
Access to live events and education projects that provide high quality enduring experiences are vital. These need to complement the music in schools. It is crucial that top professional musicians engage with the grass roots particularly in areas less well-served to prevent this decline.
The local SoundHub – an outcome of the Henley report – has been very supportive but only has a three-year funding cycle – an example of short termism that could damage long-term stability of arts provision.
This makes it all the more imperative for professional arts practitioners to be engaged with this reality and, through excellence and imagination, catalyse new audiences and enthusiasm for the arts wherever they can. Music needs to be at the heart of our society but this requires professionals to get stuck in.