Where has the British classical music talent gone?

There are no homegrown soloists at this year's Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition. Jessica Duchen on a worrying trend

The Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition in Austin, Texas, is about to reach its grand finale. It was founded in 1983 by Menuhin himself, is held every two years in a different city, and for three decades has helped to launch exciting soloists onto the international scene. One of the greatest violinists of his day, Menuhin lived for years in Britain. But this time not a single UK contestant treads his competition's boards.

Where has the British talent gone? The issue is complex and emotive, according to the competition's artistic director, the Welsh pianist Gordon Back, who was formerly Menuhin's accompanist. "In the UK we specialise less at a young age," he says. "Perhaps there's a lack of dedication and parental support - you have to start very young on the violin. By 18 it's too late to change; it's the early teaching that is vital. The kids from Asia are incredibly well set up technically in their early years."

The reason is not hard to trace: "Musicians who studied in America with some of the world's best professors go back to Asia to teach because the fees are good and they're respected," says Back.

But other cultural matters come into play, too: "Is it in the British character to stand out and be a soloist?" Back asks. "We have the same issues in sport. I'm not sure there's the desire to be the best, to go out and win."

Even if the desire does exist, our systems often crush the joy out of music-making. Graded exams, for instance, can actually lower youngsters' aspirations. "Everything has to fit into a box, so it narrows you completely and squashes creativity," Back suggests.

Meanwhile, many parents in the UK fail to grasp how much work it takes to become a fine musician; pushing children to practise an instrument for several hours every day has become unfashionable here. Elsewhere, "tiger moms" take the opposite view.

The competition's pre-selection jury, listening "blind" to recordings of 275 applicants from 27 countries, selected 42 participants without knowing their identities. The six applicants from the UK did not match the standard of some from America and the Far East. One contestant is at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, but hails from the Far East, one of only two overseas applicants studying in Britain. In 2004, 10 British youngsters applied and two were accepted; 19 non-British applicants were studying in the UK and two got in. 

Today's dwindling statistics are sobering, and the lack of support for young UK musicians goes right to the top. The government has stripped state funding from higher education in the arts and humanities; at school level, many cash-strapped local authorities have cut back on music services, and in some areas instrumental lessons are now only accessible to those who can afford them, though talent is no respecter of bank accounts. The Menuhin Competition caters for very young applicants, so the dearth of UK contestants could signal the deepening malaise in recent years.

In 2016, to mark Menuhin's centenary, the competition comes to London. Will there be any British entrants? It's worth remembering that the UK's superb results in the 2012 Olympics reflected a substantial investment of time, money and effort in the training of British athletes. Music, like sport, is a global market,  but the UK is leaving its young performers woefully ill-equipped to compete. As Back says: "It's as if the rest of the world has moved on and we haven't."

The final of the Yehudi Menuhin Competition takes place in Austin, Texas, on 2 March. menuhincompetition.org

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power