Violin the favourite as more pupils learn instruments

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The Independent Online

In the hands of the novice it provokes comparisons with mating cats or fingernails down blackboards.

But while they may be a long way from mastering Bach's Chaconne in D Minor, the number of young people learning the violin is soaring. New research says the violin is now the most commonly used instrument in state schools.

The survey, carried out by London University's Institute of Education, also revealed that music tuition has picked up from the decline it witnessed four years ago.

Researchers also paint a rosy picture for the future - with more seven to 11-year-olds learning a musical instrument than has been the case for many years.

The research, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, concluded that the violin was the most popular choice.

The trumpet, flute and clarinet came next, followed by cello, guitar and trombone, researchers Sue Hallam and Lynne Rogers said.

Ms Hallam, herself a violinist, said the violin was a good instrument for children to learn. "While it is a very difficult instrument, what often happens is that children often start on it - although they may ring the changes later," she said. "You start on the violin reading music and developing your aural skills and can then transfer."

Erstwhile favourite was the recorder but research last year showed that one in three children who played it abandoned musical instruments altogether in secondary school. Many said it was a "child's instrument".

The survey also showed around 8 per cent of the country's seven million schoolchildren receive music tuition.

One of the main reasons for this is the Government's decision to set up a national music standards fund - ring-fencing money for local education authorities so it can only be used for music tuition.

However, music teachers are worried that the current crisis over school funding may lead to its being reviewed. At present, funding is guaranteed until 2005 and a government White Paper has pledged to ensure that every primary school pupil will have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument.

The ring-fenced funding has helped a growing number of local education authorities to offer subsidies to less well-off parents, enabling their children to learn a musical instrument.

The research showed that 51 per cent of all local authority music services charged families for provision. However, 76 per cent had introduced a policy of fees' remission for the less well-off.

"In 1999, when we conducted our last survey, quite a few said the service was on the point of collapse," Ms Hallam said.

"The decision to ring-fence the money has made it much easier for authorities to offer free music tuition.

"However, like all money that comes from a political decision, there is no long-term guarantee on funding.

"If that money disappears - and local education authorities are strapped for cash - it would put a strain on the service again.

"Local authorities wouldn't be able to offer subsidies and that would put the opportunity for a lot of children to learn a musical instrument right out the window."

Making an early start

Five-year-old Kaisun Raj had been determined to learn to play the violin ever since he saw a violinist performing with an orchestra in his local park. "I just thought it made a nice noise," he said. "As soon as I was old enough to have lessons I said I wanted to play the violin. I just like it."

Even though his father and his music teacher worried that it might be too difficult an instrument for such a young child to master, Kaisun insisted on starting lessons just after his fourth birthday. He now attends a half-hour one-on-one lesson every Saturday morning at the Blackheath Conservatoire of Music and the Arts in south London.

"I practise nearly every day and I think I am quite good now," Kaisun said. "I can read music now. I just want to keep playing. My arms aren't very long at the moment so I have to play a mini-violin. One day I want to play a big violin and be really good at it."

His father Raj Kulasingam, a solicitor, said that he had been surprised by his son's determination. "It was quite funny. He just got it into his head that he had to learn the violin and would not be persuaded out of it," he said. "Even the head at the music school thought that Kaisun was quite little and suggested he go to their Saturday group sessions where he could play a lot of different instruments and just have a bit of fun. Kaisun said very firmly that it had to be the violin.

"I just want him to enjoy it and don't want him to be under any pressure to get to any particular standard. He's no musical prodigy, but he loves it and has stuck at it amazingly well."

Sarah Cassidy