Striking a chord: The Sage's education projects are testament to the transformative power of music
The Government has promised to give all pupils access to music.
What will the future of music education in England look like? Anyone seeking an answer should perhaps journey down to the south bank of the River Tyne. There, shimmering in the occasional North East sunshine, resides The Sage.
On one hand this extraordinary glass bubble represents a monument to the optimism of a previous age when, before the trauma of economic meltdown, policy makers and the National Lottery were prepared to put their tens of millions of pounds where their mouth was in backing the theory of culture-led regeneration.
Seven years after it opened its doors to the public, establishing itself as one of Europe's leading concert venues and helping Gateshead to escape the shadow of its more glamorous neighbour, The Sage again finds itself striking a chord with the new, less financially flush, spirit of the times.
"I feel as if the rest of the country is catching up with what we are doing here," says Katherine Zeserson, director of learning and participation, but also a singer and music educator who came to the North-east in the 1980s to work with miners wives' groups.
It might surprise some concert goers, but 50 per cent of everything that happens in Norman Foster's landmark building is to do with learning and participation. With a little bit of help from locally born megastar Sting and drawing on the rich classical and folk tradition of the region, its educational outreach programme is now the biggest in Britain, if not the world.
But The Sage, with its twin auditoriums and roll call of internationally renowned visiting artists, is just the visible symbol of that effort, with 70 per cent of all work taking place across the region's 10,000 square miles.
Since the participation programme was founded in 2001, more than a million people have taken part in a music-making session at more than 1,000 locations from the Tees to the Tweed.
"It was not difficult to invent the Sage Gateshead. This was a world-class venue with state-of-the-art facilities. What artist would not want to come here? But the building was a tool for what we did, not the object of it," explains Ms Zeserson. While the endeavours of the past decade have been impressive – rebuilding a music infrastructure decimated by the closure of shipyards and mines and the devastation of their communities; creating a workforce of music educators and nurturing talent so that its stays in the region – the future seems equally upbeat. Under the Government's generally well-received National Music Plan, school music education in this country will be delivered through a series of new "hubs" aimed at honouring Education Secretary Michael Gove's promise of offering all pupils the opportunity to hear and play music. The hubs are expected to work strategically in alliance with local authorities and existing music services to make this vision a reality. Last month, The Sage, working with its eight partner local authorities, submitted a plan to be a strategic centre for the North-east.
Applications will be audited by the Arts Council, which is enraptured at the way education and arts ministers have begun working together.
The bleak mood that surrounded the first of the local-authority cuts in 2010 seems to be tempered by the Government's real commitment to music, although critics say the subject was razed under previous Tory administrations. However, its centrality to the school experience is expected to be reinforced during this year's review of the National Curriculum.
And despite understandable gripes over reduction in funding – from £77m this year, falling to £60m in three years' time – the decision to ringfence cash makes it unique among school subjects.
The Sage has high hopes of success in its application to be a hub,believing it already operates the model successfully, not just across school music-making but with community music groups, the Northern Sinfonia which it hosts, and the honours degrees it offers in jazz and folk through local universities.
It was singled out in Classic FM managing director Darren Henley's influential review of music education for its ability to deliver the Sing Up project, which has now reached 96 per cent of schools in England.
But it has not all been good news. The Sage suffered a 20 per cent real-terms hit in Arts Council funding last year, although the breadth of its work meant it has been able to adapt.
"I am not one of those people who says: 'How terrible that the funding has been cut'. The cuts we are seeing are no greater than any other area in the public sector. I don't think we should be whingeing about it, but using our best business and creative skills just like anyone else in the public sector," says Ms Zeserson.
The outbreak of consensus on the benefits of music-making to young people is demonstrated by a small project out the back of The Sage. Jenning's Yard Arches were once a place where coal was stored to power locomotives. Today it is in the midst of a £1.5m makeover. Last month Sage patron Sting, who grew up just down the river at Wallsend, took time out from his concert in the main auditorium to visit the project.
The arches are home to CoMusica, which provides music-making activities for young people, many of them without qualifications, in an effort to get them back into education, training or work. Local DJ Sandy Duff, who leads the urban arts courses, mixing records, writing lyrics and producing graffiti artworks, said the embedded learning can teach young people valuable maths and English skills and that 50 per cent go on to further study or training. "Some are living in horrendous situations. They are looked-after kids, they don't have foster homes and are living in B&Bs. For any 15-year-old, there are so many reasons to feel insecure, but these have the added problem of not having any support network behind them and there is an ever increasing number of them," he says.
"Teenage years are for developing a sense of your identity and who you are as an individual.
"But the majority of these young people, they are not used to anything they do ever being received positively. Everyone keeps them at arm's length and they feel like misfits," he adds.
Connor Wiseman, 18, took a summer course last year to upgrade his qualifications in maths and English and is now studying at Gateshead College, as well as DJing and running his own club night. "I loved it. You get to use different music-production software and go on the decks and get a lot of information. I even got to know a bit about street art," he says.
Ms Zeserson is in little doubt about the transformative power of music.
"In music you can realise yourself through a really unique variety of modalities – emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically. Whatever the balance of your personality you can contribute to music and benefit. It is not necessarily better but it is different in a way that is profound," she says.
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