Teach the digital generation to listen, says Laura Mvula

The distractions of modern life diminish our musical experience, according to the singer-songwriter. Adam Sherwin reports
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The Independent Culture

Children should be given lessons in listening to music, according to singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, to combat a culture in which young people have lost the ability to concentrate on a piece of work.

Nominated for the Brits, the Mercury Prize and an Ivor Novello award, Mvula graduated in composition from the Birmingham Conservatoire and is one of this year's breakthrough stars. The 28-year-old singer and pianist began writing songs on her laptop while working as a supply teacher in a Birmingham secondary school.

But she fears that the pace of 21st-century life means that the art of listening to music, whether a classical symphony or a contemporary album designed to be heard as a coherent whole, is being lost.

"Learning how to listen is just as important as learning how to sing or play," said Mvula, 28, whose music is informed by jazz, soul and gospel. "It's a discipline to listen, but we don't really do that any more. Half an hour a week set aside just for listening to music in schools would be a good start. It's replenishing just to have that time."

Children might even be taught that volume is not everything. "I used to only play things at maximum volume, but now I understand that to appreciate music you can listen without killing your eardrums," Mvula said.

Tomorrow Mvula releases a rearrangement of her 2013 debut album Sing to the Moon, performed with Dutch jazz orchestra The Metropole Orkest.

"At my album launch I said, 'We're all just going to sit and listen.' My husband [Zambian-born classical baritone Themba] takes time to listen to a complete album on his vinyl. It's like it's booked in his diary.

"I think that's important to have specific listening time, not just having music on in the background while you eat. For me, listening time sounds like heaven.

"Music is like food. It's not good to stand up and eat. If you never sit down to eat and enjoy it, you won't find it nourishing. You need to have that time and space to focus and concentrate on music."

Mvula explained the importance of listening to an audience of 100 music students at a Royal Albert Hall masterclass as she prepared for her performance at a Late Night Prom next week, when she will premiere her orchestral album with The Metropole.

However, she fears that cuts to music provision in schools will prevent the next generation from having the same opportunities she enjoyed. "I had a path into music: from junior school we would sing in assembly, through choirs and to extracurricular activities. Some of it was compulsory.

"At the Conservatoire I had to study a Bach chorale and reharmonise it in a class on polyphonics. I'm so thankful with hindsight, as I didn't realise how important these skills were. I heard so much music that I might never have come across."

'Laura Mvula with The Metropole Orkest' is out on 11 August. Her Late Night Prom on 19 August will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3