BBC Ten Pieces and music education in the UK


When the BBC Philharmonic’s General Manager Simon Webb invited me to conduct for the second Ten Pieces film, I jumped at the chance. The first year of Ten Pieces, aimed at primary school children, was an unequivocal success, exposing these children to 10 pieces of ‘classical’ music from across many genres and centuries. The BBC enabled free audio recordings, DVDs and a plethora of teaching materials, all easily available from its website. This second project has done the same for secondary school students. It answers a very real need in this country to expose our younger citizens to music of all genres, in an exciting and inspiring way. 

British culture suffers if we forget about appealing to young people’s creative and emotional minds in addition to providing the bare-bones of the so-called ‘core’ subjects (since when did culture and humanities not make up our very cores?). The point here is not to force children to play an instrument, or to insist they listen to a certain quota of classical music for the rest of their lives, but to avoid limiting minds. Focus only on the ‘core’ subjects, and what will happen to those creative minds? 

When I was at primary school (about 20 years ago) classical music was played as we walked in and out of assembly, and we were introduced to music across different disciplines - music and literature, music and art, music and movement… Now out of the 30 children in my class, not all of them would go on to play a ‘classical’ musical instrument or even enjoy classical music. However, I am from a lucky generation exposed to a large variety of music, empowered to listen critically to different genres. The BBC has taken a proactive and much needed step to give this new generation free exposure to music on a conscious level - not just hoping that they will become inspired by classical music that exists in the background of their everyday lives, such as on television or in lifts.

There is also a lack of ethnic audiences at classical concerts and I am often asked if I think classical music is a language too removed for people of, for example, Indian heritage like me. I strongly believe that this, again, is just about a lack of exposure. Not many people would make an impulse decision to go to a symphonic concert if they knew nothing of the classical music world and had never consciously listened to the genre. Allowing children of all cultures and backgrounds to experience it, for free, is crucial to changing this situation. 

Aged six, I saw a cello teacher playing in a school assembly. That same day I went home with a ‘chello’, as I thought it was called. I continued with the cello, playing in youth orchestras in Birmingham, completing undergraduate and masters degrees in performance and conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music – and now I’m finishing three years at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, where I’ve been Conducting Fellow and then Assistant Conductor. Next month I will be conducting the CBSO in a concert including Shostakovich’s final symphony and, very specially, the UK premiere of Golijov’s cello concerto Azul, the soloist for which is my old teacher Eduardo Vassallo! Who knew all this would be part of my journey, all because my primary school had an assembly in which I was ‘allowed’ to be inspired by music.

I hope always to be involved with young musicians (I am currently still one of them, aged 25!). All those involved in Ten Pieces understand that within the music industry we have a duty to inspire younger listeners and concertgoers and thereby cultivate our future live classical music audiences.

Alpesh conducts the CBSO in Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, Shostakovich's Symphony No 15 and the UK premiere of Osvaldo Golijov's cello concerto Azul featuring Eduardo Vassallo on Wednesday, March 9, at Symphony Hall, Birmingham (visit cbso.co.uk for information). He also conducts the Ten Pieces Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on July 23 and 24.

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