As I write this, I’m listening to yet another of those pointless radio debates on the so-called ‘death’ of Classical Music. This spur this time appears to be the series currently showing on Channel 4, ‘Orchestra United’. Manchester’s Halle Orchestra – having failed to get funding to run one of the 3 English ‘El Sistema’ pilot schemes which were based around Venezuela’s groundbreaking education project – decided they were going to go ahead anyway, and create a youth orchestra with a mix of classically- trained and non-trained musicians. So began one of the most misguided music education initiatives for a long, long time. However noble its aspirations (and you can make your own mind up on whether its desire to turn young working-class kids on to classical music is noble or patronising), having cameras following the every move of young adolescents completely corrupts any kind of value the exercise may have had.
Let’s deal with the educational aspects first: yesterday’s episode put 75 strangers together for a week’s residential, at the end of which they were going to perform pieces which were clearly too much of a stretch for them. Why? So their conductor could do lots of shouting at them; so that they would inevitably do the things adolescents do on residentials (cue more shouting) – and of course, because the TV company wanted something to end the hour-long episode with. Several young lads were asked why they were being ‘naughty’ in rehearsals: ‘because when we’re playing in brass bands, we’re busy all the time, but with this music, we have ages where we’re not doing anything’ was their perfectly sensible response.
The kids, of course, had no say in what music they would play, nor given any opportunity to express themselves, nor, apparently, given any reason why the pieces had been chosen for them. It’s impossible to learn anything when you’re terrified, as these kids clearly were for most of the time – the polar opposite of engaged learning .
Discussions like the one I’m currently listening to are always shot-full of myths, and this one is no different:
Myth: a symphony orchestra is a fantastic vehicle for learning. No, it’s not – it’s one of the most didactic, even dictatorial, modes of learning, where you have lots and lots of nothing to do, but become bored
Myth: young people are ‘missing out’ on classical music, and classical music will be dead unless we get them to concerts. No, it won’t. Concert halls have always been full of older people, it’s something that some of us grow to love, like gardening. And they’re not missing out on anything – they’ve heard it, they just don’t like it (at the moment).
Myth: if you get your Dad to take you, when you’re a kid, you’ll be hooked for life – it’s just like football. No, it’s not. If your Dad takes you to the football, you can pretty much do what you like. If you applaud in between movements at a classical concert, you’ll be made to feel like an uneducated oik (trust me, I was that uneducated oik).
Myth: if music education in school introduced kids to classical music early enough, we’d create younger audiences for the future. No, you won’t. Orchestras have been doing outreach work for decades, and the demographic mix at concerts remains the same as it always was.
The Sunday Times TV critic, A.A. Gill, went to the heart of the matter, yesterday. Speaking of the fact that most of the kids in the programme who passed the audition were actually quite skilled guitarists, accordionists, beat-boxers and bass players, he wrote:
‘”Instead of making of making the leap and saying ‘ Let’s make an orchestra with steel drums and the instruments and sounds that these enthusiastic kids already make’ he (James Lowe, conductor) wanted to turn them into a mini-me version of a 19th century orchestra…..there is a continuo of cultural charity about this show , a snobbish sense of handing down high culture to low classes…..I’d rather have heard a cacophony of Manchester kids belting out a noise that was theirs, than some cultural hand-me-down.”
Gill probably doesn’t know it, but such orchestras already exist. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama have been running their Connect ensembles for years, taking whatever instruments turn up (no auditions here) helping kids compose their own pieces, and working as equals with young people of all social and racial backgrounds, and making a glorious, confident musical noise at the end of it all. Of course, kids behaving maturely, supporting one another, and feeling comfortable and safe as they’re learning doesn’t make very good TV, does it?
But it makes for great music education. The Halle should pay them a visit.