For a week in early March, I had the privilege of witnessing 25 young people display their musical talents at Cardiff’s Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. It was the Category Finals and Semi-Final of the 2014 BBC Young Musician competition, and I was the "General Adjudicator" for all these six evenings. For each separate category I was joined by specialist judges, and each night we had to make often hair’s breadth decisions about who would progress to the next stage, and who wouldn’t. There was no revolving red chair or disrespectful buzzer - just the extensive, careful deliberation that such performances deserved, and mostly away from the cameras. (You can catch up with the programmes already aired on BBC4 (the keyboard, strings, percussion and woodwind finals are all on iPlayer until the end of this month, the brass final airs tonight, 16 May, and the competition on Sunday 18 May, on BBC Four and BBC Radio 3.)
The whole experience was hugely refreshing. Here was a bunch of pretty ordinary teenagers from – according to the BBC family portraits – pretty ordinary backgrounds achieving extraordinary things. From my brief encounters with them post-adjudication they all seemed poised, personable, and with their sights set on a long-lasting career rather than the trappings of BGT-type celebrity. It confirmed for me yet again that classical music has the ability to create grounded, wholesome people – even when they are almost unfeasibly gifted for people so young. I have no doubt that classical performance at the highest level in this country is in excellent hands with this next generation.
"At the highest level" are the key words there. Most of these Category Finalists are either students at one of the UK’s four specialist music schools (Chetham’s, Wells Cathedral School, the Yehudi Menuhin and Purcell schools) or they attend the junior wings of our prized music conservatoires every Saturday. Our country has a well-established provision for elite performance study, and just as we expected Olympic medalists to emerge from well-funded elite sporting academies in 2012, it is neither surprising nor wrong that the specialist music establishments do well in BBC Young Musician.
A talent for music, as with sport, has always enabled social mobility, and these specialist music schools, along with cathedral choir schools, are shining examples of this (think of William Walton and his elevation from modest Oldham beginnings, via a chorister scholarship at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford). The assertion above that these BBCYM competitors are often from ordinary backgrounds is not incompatible with the fact that they are, in many cases, privately educated. Chetham’s, for example, is indeed a fee-paying school. But its inspirational Director of Music, Stephen Threlfall, confirmed some remarkable statistics for me: 260 of Chetham’s 300 students receive some kind of means-tested grant, and 25% of those (therefore nearly a quarter of the entire school) are on 100% scholarships. It must be the most socially-diverse independent school in the country, one where privilege is emphatically bestowed upon the talented. Threlfall cited a number of his distinguished alumni, including the London Symphony Orchestra’s remarkable principal flute, Adam Walker whose parents, he told me, are an egg farmer and postman. Much of the four specialist music schools’ finance comes from the Department of Education’s Music and Dance Scheme. There have been, inevitably, real-terms cuts through standstill funding in recent years, but this critically important investment appears to be essentially secure. Not so with funding streams for more grassroots music education in the UK. There is considerable alarm currently at a DfE proposal to cut entirely the "Education Services Grant" to Local Authorities; this could mean millions of pounds being ripped out of local music services. This excellent blog by Jonathan Savage sets out the potentially grim repercussions. Savage also highlights the tapering of funding for the relatively new Music Hubs (£82m in 2010-11 down to £58m in 2014-15). Those are massive cuts for organisations finding their feet, and inevitably the quality of their delivery appears, so far, to be patchy. In my own county, Gloucestershire, loss of Local Authority funding at the time of Music Hub establishment caused all peripatetic music teachers to be made redundant, and they needed to get re-engaged directly by the schools instead. Not surprisingly, at a time of school budget stress, a good number of them found the door shut.
A nationwide focus on Hub-funded whole-class instrumental teaching in primary schools is now prevalent. There is something laudably egalitarian about 30 kids learning to play the violin or trumpet: everyone gets a go. But they don’t necessarily get a go for more than a term, or at best a year, so without properly-funded "progression" strategies in place for the gifted, that means a lot of kids being able to play the proverbial three blind mice, but little more. There also seems to be a vogue right now for whole-class ukulele teaching. There is nothing wrong per se with ukuleles; but such mass tuition of a non-orchestral instrument is a ticking time bomb for youth orchestras down the line. It’s the musical equivalent of birth-control: recreational and non-reproductive.
The delightfully controversial pianist James Rhodes is joining other high-profile musicians, such as Nicola Benedetti, Alison Balsom and Julian Lloyd-Webber, in the crusade about music education cuts. A three-part Channel 4 series is on its way, where Rhodes galvanises a town (Basildon) to improve a failing primary school through music. It has the potential to be classical music’s Jamie’s School Dinners moment. And with Rhodes’ ability not to mince his words, it is set to be riveting.
If (some of) our state schools have lost their way with music – or if the National Curriculum and funding cuts have marginalised it – let us remember that the UK leads the way in the kind of music education/outreach projects delivered by our arts organisations. Many children around the country – though not enough - have access to other kinds of musical encounters beyond the classroom, and they are hugely imaginative and resourceful. Whether it is Sistema Scotland, Ex Cathedra’s Singing Playgrounds, London Music Masters’ Bridge Project or the initiatives coming out of the Mayor of London’s Music Fund, there is a lot going on to tackle the social and diversity issues surrounding classical music. But all this cannot be a replacement for comprehensive, centrally-directed and –funded music education; it should complement it.
Especially for those people with policy-making and budget-setting powers, a competition like BBC Young Musicican is a welcome reminder of the extraordinary talent, craft and commitment that continues to be nurtured on this impressively musical island.
• The semi-final of the Young Musician of the Year is broadcast on 17 May, and the final on the 18 May on BBC4 and Radio 3. Meurig Bowen is Director of the Cheltenham Music Festival.