Music to the ears of all parents

Sound advice and financial aid is there to help your child find their perfect place

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The Independent Online

There are few harder decisions than choosing the right school for your child, but for those with musical offspring, the considerations are even more complex. Will the style of teaching suit your child? Will they cater for your child's other interests and academic capabilities? How many hours a week music tuition are available? And often most importantly, can you afford it?

"It's a minefield, not least because so many independent schools have such excellent music departments," says Scott Price, president of the Music Masters Association (MMA) and director of music at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, London. "Parents often don't know where to start."

The first port of call should undoubtedly be the MMA's annual Music Directory, the 2013 version of which has just been published. Not only does it offer complete profiles of the music departments at most of the UK's leading schools – including facilities, ensembles and groups, tuition and fees and scholarship details – it provides information and advice on issues ranging from scholarship procedures to dealing with nerves in auditions.

Boarding versus non-residential schooling is usually a major issue for parents of talented young musicians, says Price. "Boarding opens up more opportunities, because of the time available, but it's more expensive and some children can't bear the thought of living away from home," he says.

Parents should think about areas of specialism too, he adds. "Rugby School, for example, has focused heavily on musicals in the past, while contemporary music is a particular focus for Bedford School."

Once parents have compiled their shortlist and visited each school, including the music department to meet staff and see the facilities, many will invite your child for a "pre-audition," enabling a dialogue with the director of music about whether your child is at the right standard. "The best thing of all about a personal visit is the opportunity to get a feel for the culture and whether it fits with your child," says Price. "A warning though – don't go too much on looks of the music department itself. Very often, where music is firmly established in an independent school, the music department was built a long time ago and now looks a bit tatty, but that doesn't mean it's not world-class in terms of teaching and opportunities."

Look at the children at the top of the school and ask yourself, "Would I aspire for my child to be like that at the end of their education?" suggests Ian Wicks, director of music and assistant head at Salisbury Cathedral School. "If you feel comfortable with that, you're on to a winner. If possible, parents should attend a school concert as well, just to see if you can picture your child there."

Dorothy Nancekievill, director of music at Wells Cathedral School, says parents often underestimate how much practical advice schools themselves are able to give. "Just today, I met parents of a child who is very good at improvising and composing, so we have talked about encouraging the creativity but balancing that with theory and understanding of computer programming. We always try to work with parents to find the best solution for their child."

You may wish to consider one of the highly renowned music and dance schools, such as St Mary's Music School, Edinburgh. "It's important to point out that music isn't the be-all-and-end-all here, though," says a spokesperson. "We're at the top of the academic league tables and many of our pupils go on to non-musical careers, such as doctors, lawyers and engineers. But if music is a strong hobby or interest, then it's reassuring for families to know that we have music at our core and therefore have wonderful opportunities. And because we're a small school, timetables can be tweaked to individual musical needs. Those pupils that do go on to a career in music have gone on to some very impressive roles."

Like many music schools, there's financial assistance available for up to 100 per cent of fees, based on parental income. Indeed, one of the biggest advantages of having a musically gifted child is the possibility of a music scholarship, bursary or government-led financial assistance scheme. "It is very important to us that nobody gets turned away if at all possible and in fact, 32 of our pupils come from homes where the family income is less than £36,000," says the spokesperson.

Even the Yehudi Menuhin School boasts a good balance between music and academia. "If a student decides that a career in music is not for them, we do not consider this to be a failure," says headmaster Dr Richard Hillier.

The Purcell School in Bushey, near Watford, agrees. "Pupils spend 25-50 per cent of their curricular time on musical activities and most of our pupils are aiming for a career in music, progressing on to a conservatoire or university to read music," says concerts manager Jane Hunt. "Indeed, we are very proud of our alumni, many of whom have achieved distinction, like Nicholas Daniel, 1980 winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year. But this path is never taken for granted. Sixth formers have taken up places at top universities to study subjects such as English, history and modern languages."

Hunt adds that almost all pupils receive funding from the government's music and dance scheme. "There is a general misunderstanding that a specialist education such as ours is prohibitively expensive, but it is available to everyone."

Biky Wan, marketing manager for Manchester's Chetham's School of Music, says the same is true there. "The one big myth is that we are a school for rich people," she says. "But in fact, in terms of household income, our families are very much on par with the national average."

Independent schools which aren't music schools, but nonetheless boast a strong music department, could also be able to offer some financial assistance to help alleviate the burden, although the details of such help can often be complicated. As Tony Henwood, director of music at Latymer Upper School in London, says: "We offer a number of music scholarships at 11+ entry ranging from 10-40 per cent of fees.

"In addition, we offer music awards, which consist of free tuition at school in two instruments and at 13+ and 16+, and we offer music scholarships and awards of up to 25 per cent of fees."

Wicks' advice is always to be upfront with any school you're considering regarding your financial situation. "Yes, financial assistance is harder to come by than in the past," he says. "But it's still more easily available than many people think."