Building blocks

In the summer of 1998, at around this time, my Dad and I drove to my school with our brand new puppy (who promptly tried chewing the deputy head when she tried to pet him) to collect my GCSE results. I was completely high on adrenalin by the time we got there, left Dad to tend to the deputy head and the teething dog, and marched through the main building to the corridor where the results were posted. It takes a minute when you’re terrified to process what you’re then reading… and after a lot of panicky misreading of charts, I eventually figured out how I’d done. Six A*s, four As and a B, as I recall. Not bad at all.

I’ll be honest: I don’t remember much about my GCSE years. I remember having to play the piano for seemingly endless rehearsals of HMS Pinafore. I remember being brave enough to audition for a solo role in Anything Goes, in the term of the exams themselves, and being over the moon to get it. I remember an amazing choir tour, and Grade 7 piano, and my friend and I sorting an, er, ‘division of labour’ over German and French vocab learning since I preferred the former and she the latter, and we always sat next to each other in class. I think we went to see Return to the Forbidden Planet, too. And I was asked to write music for a school play, which made it much easier to fulfil the GCSE music composition requirements, though it did also involve having to direct my two music teachers for the recording, which I found extremely weird. I liked Maths. I’ll probably never be able to read Of Mice and Men again. I discovered J.B. Priestley and how great he was. That about covers it.

I was at a good school, an excellent school which had absolutely no interest in creaming off top result students for its cohort. It was mixed ability, small class sizes, supportive, full of excellent teachers… and no, it wasn’t a specialist music school. Teachers identified pupils’ strengths and weaknesses, encouraged the former and helped support the latter. When I chose my A-level subjects – Maths, Physics, Music and German A/S – it was not a problem that my Maths and Physics grades had been A not A*. I was bright and interested, and loved doing extra-curricular things. That was enough.

Apple on school books

But how striking that, of those two years – and indeed, the years either side of them as well – the memories that stick with me the most strongly are to do with music, drama and exciting theatre trips. I didn’t study Drama to GCSE, let alone beyond, but as I grew more confident I enjoyed acting and was sometimes asked to fill in for shows where they needed extra cast members. I never had singing lessons, but was in the chamber choir and spent a lot of my time playing the piano for school events and for friends. I was curious about all kinds of music, but I wouldn’t have considered myself immersed in concert culture and classical repertoire in the way that some children can be (whether at specialist music schools or not).

So the falling number of students taking GCSEs in creative, artistic and technical subjects worries me for all kinds of reasons. And rather than taking it forward, rather than imagining the kind of future we might have without art and drama and music and design/technology playing a substantial role in the curriculum, I have decided to look backwards instead, to figure out how I was able to get here, to this level, in music, and see just what those building blocks were and how (un)attainable they might now be.

My parents are not musicians. Dad sang in a choir and some amateur musical/operetta productions when I was extremely little. There was seldom recorded music playing in our house, let alone live music.

Brilliantly, they decided to get me some piano lessons when I was five, because I’d quite enjoyed poking at the ancient electric organ in my gran’s house (which I never saw her play).

My first piano teacher was not the grand-pupil of Clara Schumann; she hadn’t had coaching with Horowitz; she wasn’t best mates with Vladimir Ashkenazy. She was a kind, and very forgiving, lady who gave lessons in her front room to anyone who wanted them.

I played the recorder at school like everyone else. I too had that Care Bears notebook with the note names for Match of the Day in it. The primary music teacher I had was good, supported those of us interested in music, taught everyone in school some basic notation, and expected us to have a go at singing. I never heard anyone being told they were tone-deaf. And when it turned out that one of her children was going to a magical place called Chetham’s, it sounded pretty terrifying and a bit over-focused, to be honest.

So I’m now ten. My advantages: parents with enough money to offer me private lessons in piano and, later, violin (at which I really sucked). A good primary school with a dedicated teacher – but no particularly flashy resources. The classroom was in a portakabin, and there was a piano in it. I don’t remember percussion trolleys or a pile of keyboards. Just the recorders.

The quality of my secondary school, as previously mentioned, was extremely good, and it was a private school which exempted it from many of the worries that state secondaries have to deal with. It had a very nice, quite new music department with practice rooms and a big teaching space, instruments that children could borrow, a small cohort of peripatetic teachers to offer lessons, and a head of music who composed, played the piano extremely well, and was keen to put on good concerts and fun musicals.

Of course, that was a massive advantage. Of course it was. Still, we were all expected to sing in a choir every week for our first year of senior school, every last child in my year. We all learned musical notation in classes. We all had to listen to Till Eulenspiegel and try to follow the story, and we all raided the percussion trolley to set up in groups and concoct totally ridiculous soundtrack segments to a Tom and Jerry cartoon. We also wrote pop songs in groups, which our teacher then painstakingly produced on an Atari ST. I still have the CD somewhere. Musical and theatre trips were sociable and great fun (particularly for us boarders), and everyone supported each other. I remember being asked to play a Bach Prelude and Fugue in assembly one morning, and spending most of the Prelude fretting at how boring everyone must be finding it. (Apparently by this time I’d figured out that ‘classical music’ wasn’t for everyone.) But not a bit of it – back-slapping and congratulations ensued from the most unlikely quarters.

I’m not for a moment trying to downplay the very privileged school experience I had. My point is simply that the fundamental building blocks that got me a good deal of the way into music are not, in fact, so time or resource heavy as to be impossible to implement. And it was these basic skills – the recorder, notation, the egalitarian treatment of multiple musical styles – that made extra-curricular activity appealing and possible. You can’t sing relatively complicated chamber choir music if you can’t read notation. You can’t put together a musical if you don’t have a cohort of people who are capable of at least having a go at everything from Stephen Oliver to Cole Porter, and who are prepared to engage with a range of musical styles that includes G&S and Leonard Bernstein. You can’t have the big experiences without the basic tools. It’s the big experiences that we remember. And it’s the tools that are so essential in getting us there, regardless of our future career paths, and turn us into theatre-goers, choral singers, amateur painters and professional architects. So come on, DfE. Stop treating children only as aspiring employees. Remember they are humans. Do something.

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