Education: Practice makes perfect, if you get the chance: Playing a musical instrument offers many benefits, but Diana Hinds asks: are there enough opportunities to learn?

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The Independent Online
Employers interviewing job applicants will often smile on those with some degree of musical accomplishment - not because they have the least interest in music, but because of the high value they attach to the skills that learning an instrument fosters.

To become reasonably proficient on a flute or trumpet means, for instance, that the candidate has demonstrated commitment to that instrument over a period of years. It also means very often that he or she has benefited from the discipline and teamwork of playing in bands or orchestras.

Added to this, recent research by John Sloboda, professor of psychology at Keele University, has emphasised that playing an instrument need not be an elitist activity confined only to those with musical 'talent'. Everyone should be able to enjoy playing an instrument, he argues, provided they are willing to practise it. To become a competent amateur, capable of playing in a local symphony orchestra, requires, he estimates, 2,000-3,000 hours of practice over 10 years - or an average of half an hour a day.

But if musical training offers so many benefits, are we doing the best we can to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn an instrument? And how can parents, together with schools, help to provide the conditions in which children can develop musically, and prevent them from becoming discouraged when facing difficulties with their chosen instrument?

Since the advent of local management of schools, funding allocations for instrumental tuition have been delegated from local authorities to schools, giving schools the choice of what music services, if any, they buy, and allowing them for the first time to charge parents for lessons. Many schools continue to buy services back from the local authority, or from private charitable trusts that employ their own instrumental teachers.

But music-education specialists have expressed concern about the quality and uneven distribution of instrumental teaching under the new system. Coopers & Lybrand, the accountancy and management consultancy firm, is currently undertaking a large survey of music provision, commissioned by the Common Purposes Group (which includes the Association of British Orchestras, the Music Advisers National Association - Mana - and Music for Youth), with support from the Arts Council.

John Stephens, head of music education at Trinity College of Music in London and a member of the Common Purposes Group, believes the general picture is less gloomy than some have feared. Despite the changes, music services have survived and in certain areas, such as East Sussex, the demand for lessons has even increased, he says. But the key difference is that many parents are now having to pay for them.

'I am concerned about opportunities for first-generation instrumentalists - those whose parents can't afford lessons, or do not understand what is required in learning an instrument.'

He is also worried that, without the local authority to monitor provision, many areas will no longer offer tuition in the full range of orchestral instruments. Private teaching agencies tend to opt for popular and cheaper instruments, which could mean local youth orchestras brimming over with flutes and clarinets, but lacking bassoons, trombones and cellos.

Brian Ley, music adviser for Devon and secretary of Mana, agrees that the chance to play in an orchestra or band is an essential, motivating part of learning an instrument. 'Children cannot learn in isolation,' he says.

County music services have had a vigorous tradition of providing these opportunities, in the form of Saturday morning music schools, youth orchestras and holiday courses. But Mr Ley fears these could be undermined if more schools employ freelance music teachers, thereby further reducing the funds available to the county music service.

Sheila Nelson, a violin teacher, used to run large string classes at schools in Tower Hamlets, east London, but since the cut-backs following delegation of music budgets to schools, now teaches only private pupils. 'The difference is that the children who are learning now - and they tend to be middle-class children - are those who can pay.'

Learning the violin, she says, is 'a very educational skill', because it makes the greatest number of demands on the player at one time. She likes to start her pupils at the age of four, 'because their movements are more coaxable at that age, and they can turn into the violin shape more easily'.

Other specialists maintain that six or seven is a good age to start an instrument, but all agree on the importance of regular practice - even if it is only 10 minutes a day to begin with. Most children, of course, are notoriously reluctant to practise; having learnt the piano and violin myself, I still sometimes have alarming dreams that I arrive at a lesson having done none at all. Too much nagging is likely to put them off altogether, although Ms Nelson says a 'gentle nag' or a bribe can be beneficial. Siblings learning instruments can also be useful motivators.

Parental interest and encouragement is crucial. Parents can help by sitting in on the practice, until the child is about 10, but they can also hinder it if they are too critical or too insistent. Mr Stephens believes parents do not need to play instruments themselves to be able to help their children - indeed, such parents can sometimes be a better influence than professional musicians with too high expectations - but he says it is important for the teacher, or school, to keep them well informed about lessons.

'They need to understand the purpose - which is to improve what needs to be improved, rather than repeating what can be done already. They need to realise that learning an instrument is not only about playing a piece.'

Parents also need to be patient, according to Professor Sloboda, who suggests that musical ability may not emerge for four or five years after starting an instrument. Mr Stephens believes enthusiasm and commitment in the child are the vital ingredients for success, followed by a good ear - which takes longer to develop in some than others.

'Musicians have often created a mystique about music,' he says. 'But the reality is that playing an instrument is not especially mysterious; it's plain hard work.'