Life with a sharp minor

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THERE is something of a boom in popular classical music. One in five compact discs sold by the high-street chains is classical, a new national radio station, Classic FM, aimed at the Benetton generation, starts in September, and when the BBC and the Arts Council last week decided to find ways to spread orchestras more fairly around the country, they received wide news coverage.

But there is another strange sign of the times. More and more children are learning to play ambitious orchestral musical instruments. Parents who have difficulty picking out a middle C on the piano, and think that a G-string is something worn by the heroine in Melvyn Bragg's A Time to Dance, are encouraging ever-smaller children to play music.

I know of children learning the cello, violin, trumpet, oboe, flute and clarinet: none is over 10 years old. It makes one yearn for the innocent days of piano lessons and the simple pleasure of a tinkling triangle.

When I went to the parents' day of my daughter's new school, the headteacher warned us that it might not be possible to fit in every child wishing to learn music. Sitting in the hall surrounded by earnest adult faces, I thought a whole generation of parents had been brainwashed by the extraordinary achievements of the few talented tots schooled in the Suzuki method, which stresses the value of small children playing with confidence but without the drag of learning formal theory.

I have been watching all this aspirational activity with some amazement, even scepticism. I am a competent piano player, but I know it took me nine years of regular practice to reach grade five. Today's approach seems to underestimate the essential and difficult task of learning to read music, which is rather like learning to read a book. First you need to be able to recognise the alphabet - the musical notes on the score - then there is the grammar. The great simplicity of the piano is that a note in a piece of music has a corresponding note on the keyboard. You do not have to purse your lips in a certain way or shorten the string just so.

So when my six-year-old came home demanding to learn the violin, my heart did not exactly leap. What I did not know at the time was that she only wanted to do it because of peer pressure: to copy her best friend (who stuck the lessons for only one term). When I confessed my opposition to some other mothers, they jumped down my throat. If their daughters aged six had come home demanding to learn the violin, they said, they would have been thrilled.

So, chastened, I hired the scaled-down quarter violin. It was like a typical baby. It looked such a sweet, perfect instrument. But, like a baby, it was awkward. The strings quickly went out of tune, the pegs tended to fall out. Above all, it was very hard to produce true notes on its four tiny strings.

I have a great respect for the violin but I do not think it is a beginner's instrument. Indeed, at the end of this summer term my daughter said she wanted to give it up. I suppose I should summon up great reserves of willpower, offer bribes for daily practice and try to keep her at it. However, I am inclined to say that enough is enough.

But where will it all lead? If children are forced by pushy parents to learn to play too early and then give it up in a sulk, little has been achieved. They may even turn against music in all its forms - although, it seems to me, an interest in playing instruments as opposed to merely listening must deepen appreciation of live music.

Britain's orchestras, if they play their marketing cards right, should have a rosy future. You only have to be half competent at playing an instrument to appreciate the huge technical and artistic skills needed by the average professional musician, let alone the star performers. Practical knowledge enriches every visit I make to a concert hall.

Meanwhile, if you are a parent, steel yourself for many future assaults on your eardrums. The growth in music learning will inevitably lead to many more school ensembles being set up and their performances can be gruesomely unmelodic, with everyone playing different notes.

As for my daughter, I am now convinced of the way ahead. Yes, she will be giving up the violin, but she will be starting the piano. Hope springs eternal - or perhaps we want our children to be just like us.