Classical: The future starts here

Sight Readings; If we don't get a new national music teaching network, the profiteers will rush in
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On Tuesday night at the Albert Hall, I heard a band whose verve and accomplishment suggested that Glenn Miller had risen from the dead. But the players delivering the big sound were strikingly small: Turnfurlong Jazz from Aylesbury consists of children aged between eight and 12. In that same concert I heard two professional-standard string orchestras, a Liverpool choir singing Byrd with polyphonic perfection, a jazz trio led by a latter-day Dave Brubeck, and a string quintet playing Schubert with immaculate grace and gravity. This was a typical Schools Prom.

It was also a reminder of the extent to which we underestimate children's abilities. The stock media image of the teenager is a self-fulfilling prophecy: we now expect them to be zombies, rotting their brains with the aid of fashion accessories, drugs, and televisual junk. Yet the young musicians at the Albert Hall were not prodigies: they had simply been encouraged to discover what they could do. And once children make that discovery, there is no holding them back.

When I helped to plan the first of these events 26 years ago, I had serious doubts about its viability. It's wonderful to be proved so wrong. And it has been exhilarating to watch the growth of the National Festival of Music for Youth, of which these Proms are a distillation. A mere 437 children played in the first festival: last year a staggering 40,000 participated. This year has been the first to see a slight downturn, which director Larry Westland attributes to the spiralling costs of travelling to perform, and to the schools' descent into penury. Yet these events carry a torch for that necessary amateurism without which professional music in Britain would slowly but surely founder. Ask the players of any orchestra and you will find they almost all cut their teeth here.

"Where music education goes, we go," says Westland. "The health of one reflects the health of the other." And if you look at the provenance of players at the Prom, two sobering facts become apparent. The first is the regularity with which certain groups crop up, and the second concerns the high number of groups from rural areas. Here is the great inequality: while some children get superb musical opportunities, others get none at all. And as Westland points out, this inequality is growing starker.

His response, published last month, takes the form of a sensible proposal that music teaching should be run by a new national network, operating in partnership with local authorities. If this doesn't happen, he says, a vacuum will develop into which profiteers will rush, first selling instrumental tuition and then - when the market is nicely softened up - selling the instruments which bring in the bucks. I have every sympathy with the piano- makers currently going to the wall, but I don't think the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, had their interests in mind when he expressed the pious wish that every child should learn an instrument.

BUT WHERE is the Government in all this? While the Tories' national curriculum gave music new status as a "foundation subject", Blunkett's insistence on the three Rs is driving music out to the margin again. To remind myself of the realities, and to see what had changed since my own days as a music teacher, I eavesdropped this week on lessons at a Haringey school.

The teacher in question was a former concert pianist with a charismatic manner and a very clear idea of what she wanted to achieve: her lessons were exemplary. But the equipment at her disposal was exactly the same as mine - a piano and a record player. Sometimes, she said, she simply used her voice and a tambourine. Instruments, in other words, are not the only means by which a child learns music. But as this same teacher pointed out, they offer a splendid discipline for hand and mind, and a unique satisfaction when mastered. In this school only one pupil in five is learning an instrument, and even that is well above the local average. Moreover, despite this school's strong musical bias, 40 minutes music per week is all that can be fitted into each child's crowded timetable. What, Mr Blunkett, is your comment on this?

I HAVE JUST been reading a rather grim letter. "Dear Colleague" it begins, and goes on to announce that "we are enormously saddened" that the merger of BBC Arts with BBC Classical Music will result in 18 redundancies among Radio 3's music producers. Redeployment and retraining are discussed at length, as well as "career counselling with the BBC Jobshop". The distinguished recipients of this missive from Roger Wright (controller of Radio 3) and John Evans (head of radio classical music) have spent the past few days in increasingly angry meetings. On Wednesday it was also announced that 32 studio managers are to be made redundant.

All this makes what the BBC calls "good business sense". Better to have bigger and fewer departments, it says, adding that the classical music section has, in any case, "lost a lot of business" over the past 12 months, with increasing numbers of programmes farmed out to the regions or to independent producers. This may be good Birtism, but it does reinforce the impression that Radio 3's superb music department is being progressively dismantled.

When music programmes are produced by "generalist" arts departments - increasingly the trend - you get middle-brow results such as In Tune and On Air. Is Roger Wright a fighter? Or will he connive in this process, and allow his station to become a mere commissioning house? Watch this space.

AT THE South Bank Centre, which is desperately seeking a chief executive, things are getting a little tense. Its gung-ho chairman, Elliott Bernerd, is determined to appoint someone in his own image - ie a commercial bod rather than an arts one. Let us pray he doesn't get his way - otherwise we will be watching yet another square peg trying to force itself into a round hole. Examples? Mary Allen at Covent Garden; Colin Southgate at ditto; Gerry Robinson at the Arts Council; and David Drewry, who finally abdicated his British Council throne this week.