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Musical youth: The decline of instrumental music tuition in schools

Picture: Alamy

Musical youth: The decline of instrumental music tuition in schools

Aiden Macdonald was just seven years old when Big Noise first visited his school. The organisation, which aims to bring about social change through intensive musical education, had made a name for itself in 2012 when the children attending its Raploch project took part in a televised Cultural Olympiad concert under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel. A year later Big Noise arrived in Glasgow’s Govanhill, and Macdonald, then in P2 at Cuthbertson Primary School, was one of the first pupils to take part.

“They showed off the stringed instruments, let us look at some of them and try them,” he recalls. “I was fascinated by the instruments – I loved the double bass but was given a viola, which I now realise is the best instrument. They kept coming into the school. I’m very grateful.”

The reason Macdonald is grateful is that Big Noise has changed the course of his life. That’s what it is supposed to do, of course. Based on Venezuelan programme El Sistema, the point of Big Noise is to work with children and communities in areas of multiple deprivation, using music to, the organisation says, help “develop confidence, teamwork, resilience, pride and aspiration as well as the capacity to work hard, [and for children to] reach their potential and lead successful and fulfilled lives”. In many ways it is more about social change than musicianship.

Aiden Macdonald | Sistema Scotland

For Macdonald it has changed his life in a completely different way, though. Because Macdonald is an extremely talented musician, so talented that for the past four years he has been having lessons with Dr Lev Atlas – Scottish Opera Orchestra’s principal viola player – as part of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s (RCS) Saturday juniors programme; last year he switched from Shawlands Academy to the specialist music department at Douglas Academy for his final year of school and after summer he will begin a four-year undergraduate course in performance at the RCS. None of this would have been possible, he says, without Big Noise: “I owe it all to them.”

Macdonald’s mum Julie, a carer, brims with pride as she sits next to him on the couch in their Govanhill home, and they nudge each other affectionately as they tell how she cries when she sees him perform. “The tears flowed,” Julie says as she recalls Macdonald playing Bohuslav Martinů’s Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra at a concert in March. “The tears always flow,” he laughs, putting his arm around her. Still, with Macdonald setting his sights on a career as a professional musician and, eventually, teacher, she knows neither of them would be in this position if Big Noise hadn’t rolled up at Cuthbertson Primary all those years ago.

“He was so lucky that his was the first year that got Big Noise,” she says. “Everyone after him got it but the ones that were ahead of him missed out. I always say to people that even if I’d won the lottery I would never have thought to get him viola lessons – people that I knew didn’t go to royal conservatoires. He was always a bright boy but to see him at the conservatoire and doing concertos, it’s amazing. It’s changed my life too. I would never have dabbled in classical music, but it’s opened up a whole new world.”

When I was a kid growing up in Aberdeenshire in the late eighties, learning a musical instrument was very much what state school pupils who wanted to did. I had friends who played viola, cello, trumpet, and flute, but I went for violin. I started off in junior primary school getting joint lessons with a classmate called Fraser, the two of us scratching out Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star together on our tiny, quarter-size instruments. By the time we started sitting ABRSM exams we were getting one-to-one tuition and when I left school at the end of fifth year I had Grade 7 under my belt. Had a fit of teenage truculence not led me to give up lessons in S4, the time and the opportunity would have been there for me make a stab at Grade 8, the hardest level possible and the standard that is generally required in order to gain entry to a music college. I was far from remarkable, both in the sense that, while a reasonably competent player, I had no especial talent, and in the sense that very many people around me were being taught, in the school setting, to that level. Yet even the most musically talented children would struggle to get to that stage now.

A few years back there was a lot of noise about the provision of free instrumental music tuition in Scottish schools. With music lessons classed as a non-core part of the curriculum, the Scottish Government had declined to fund them, and local authorities were having to foot the bill themselves. As budgets became more and more constrained, many started introducing charges and by 2019 just six councils were providing lessons free of charge, the remaining 26 saying they had no choice but to pass the cost on to parents. Prices varied from a £120 a year in Inverclyde to £524 in Clackmannanshire and the number of children learning an instrument plummeted as a result – in some areas by up to 45 per cent.

That same year parliament’s Education and Skills Committee released a report – A note of concern: The future of instrumental music tuition in schools – that recognised the “value of a music education both to individuals and society as a whole”, said music lessons should be “an uninterrupted feature of any pupil’s education from primary school onwards”, and urged the Scottish Government, local authority umbrella group Cosla and all 32 councils to find a way to provide them. In a debate in parliament, then education secretary John Swinney – the current first minister – said free music lessons should be offered to all because “participation in music and the arts can have a hugely positive effect on our children, our young people and on their families”, enhancing their “mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing”. 

Junior Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra | Martin Shields

Yet, after much to-ing and fro-ing between local and central government, it took until 2021 – after the instrumental music service had been further battered by the pandemic – for the Scottish Government to pay the £12m that was at that point being charged in fees, finally taking that pressure off of families and out of individual council budgets. Although the situation remains precarious – the full cost of the service is considerably higher than £12m and last year Midlothian Council threatened to reduce its service amid ongoing financial woes while Perth and Kinross is to reintroduce fees for music groups and camps – the impact of that funding agreement was immediate. As detailed in a December 2023 report from the Improvement Service – a publicly funded body whose mission is to facilitate “transformational change” in local government – after two years in which “no local authorities charged for tuition in instrumental music services or for instrument hire” the number of children learning an instrument “rebounded very strongly” to reach the highest on record. After several years of turmoil, the problem, it seems, has been solved.

Only it hasn’t. I’ve come to the RCS to meet Francis Cummings, a violin lecturer who is also head of the Junior Conservatoire, the Saturday morning music school that Macdonald has been attending for the past four years. Like me, Cummings learned to play violin via free lessons in a Scottish state school; unlike me, he was particularly talented, going on to study at the conservatoire and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester before completing a post-graduate degree in musicology at the University of Leeds. Prior to taking the role at the RCS he had stints as director of music at both Sistema Scotland – the charity that runs the Big Noise programmes – and St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, a specialist centre that focuses on preparing gifted young musicians for a professional music career. For him, while the state sector might be seeing more children than ever before coming through its doors, those children are not receiving a rigorous enough musical education to enable them to progress. “Local authority teachers are being asked to teach bigger groups, and that’s a challenge,” he says. “The numbers learning have increased, but now children are getting 25 minutes teaching in a group. That’s a common thing.” 

As we chat second-year student Noah Chalamanda, a percussionist who is preparing to perform alongside world-famous RCS alumnus Colin Currie that evening, stops by. He used to get lessons in his state school in Crieff but started attending the Junior Conservatoire after his teacher spotted his ability and recommended he audition for a place. Later I’ll be hit with a wall of sound as Chalamanda and three fellow students rehearse John Luther Adams’s mesmeric piece Drums of Winter, but for now he tells me how stifling learning in the kind of group environment Cummings describes can be. “You can only learn so much and come so far,” he says. “I had drum lessons with five other people and we took it in turns playing but there was always a bigger focus on those that were struggling. If you could do it you might just get 10 minutes in an hour-long lesson.”

The impact of that is reflected in the levels those learning in that environment are managing to reach. A Freedom of Information request sent to all 32 local authorities shows that while some pupils in the instrumental music service are sitting ABRSM exams, only a tiny proportion are doing so at Grade 8. The information authorities gather is incomplete, with many saying that as families pay to sit what are effectively external exams the data is not centrally held. Still, the information they do provide is instructive. In Clackmannanshire, for example, 75 pupils sat an ABRSM exam in the 2012/13 school year – four of them at Grade 8 – while just 28 (two at Grade 8) did so in 2022/23, although the council says the numbers have to be viewed in the context of falling school rolls. In Aberdeenshire, meanwhile, 61 kids sat an exam last year – none at Grade 8 – while in the Orkney Islands no one sat an exam at any level because there was no one available to examine them.

RCS percussion student Noah Chalamanda | Christian Gamauf

For Gayle Brown, chair of teachers’ network Heads of Instrumental Teaching Scotland, few authorities put children forward for instrumental exams because the point of the service is to allow youngsters to enjoy dabbling with an instrument rather than to prepare them for a career as a musician and as such music exams are not seen as being worth the cost. “There will be children who want to do exams but that’s not the priority of the instrumental music service at all because it’s an additional cost for parents and is an add-on extra,” she says. “We have a small percentage that want to do it, but they would be the minority.”

The logic of that seems flawed, though. Not every child will want or be expected to become a scientist, but they are still given every opportunity to study a range of sciences to the highest degree possible in the school setting before having to make that choice. Few kids will know they want to become musicians when they pick up a instrument for the first time and it may take them many years of learning to decide they do. Notably, despite his achievements, Macdonald only decided last year that he’d like to continue studying music after school. “I tried to convince myself that there were other options, but I realised that I didn’t know what I was talking about,” he says. “I’d mentioned law, but I wasn’t passionate about anything but music.” Yet, regardless of how talented they are, if they’re not given the opportunity to learn to the highest standard, other children coming through the state school system will not be able to make that choice.

The reality of that is already hitting home. At the conservatoire I meet with assistant principal Dr Lois Fitch, who tells me it is becoming increasingly difficult for the institution to fill the places set aside for Scottish students each year. “We have entry standards, we don’t fall below those, and it’s getting harder to maintain applications from quality Scottish students,” she says. “That’s a challenge. We have three recruitment categories – Scotland, the rest of the UK and international, which now incudes the EU. For the 2024/25 intake we’ve filled international and the rest of the UK but we haven’t yet filled Scotland – we’re still auditioning. That’s changed over the years. It’s anecdotal because I didn’t work here then but 20 years ago there would have been a big difference between the level of a Scottish audition and international students; when I was at university in the north of England there was a significant proportion of Scots and they were often markedly better than we were. Now it’s a much harder environment, but then there were more teachers, more funding in the system and more recognition that this was something worth investing in.” 

That isn’t to say there aren’t incredible opportunities open to Scottish schoolchildren. In early May I head to Edinburgh to visit St Mary’s. There are five independent specialist music centres across the UK, but St Mary’s is the only one based in Scotland. As I approach, the sound of youngsters practising mingles with the shouts and chatter coming from the school playground and, as headteacher Dr Kenneth Taylor shows me round, we meet S3 violinist Lara receiving coaching on Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate’s Zapateado in the beautiful surrounding of the school’s chapel. Upstairs we go into a practice room to hear S5 pianist Benjamin gets to grips with the intricacies of a complex Chopin piece, his teacher encouraging him to think about the uppermost knuckles of his fingers as he attempts to perfect his sound. It’s clear that the standard of musicianship here is exceptional and, with just 80 pupils on the school roll, it would be easy to form the view that St Mary’s is the kind of exclusive institution that only wealthy children are able to go to. That is not the case, though, Taylor says.

Dr Lois Fitch | Robbie McFadzean

“Our school isn’t attached to a local authority because we are a specialist school – we’re effectively independent, but we wouldn’t exist if the Scottish Government didn’t support our families through its Aided Places Scheme,” he tells me. “Each family’s income is looked at and they receive support with fees depending on what it is. Some people have all their fees paid, some have none, but it’s a small school so is expensive and most families wouldn’t be able to afford the fees without the scheme. In the past five years the Scottish Government has been very good to the school – they pay something like 60 to 70 per cent of all the fees we take in. 

“We take pupils that we feel are the sort of people that will go on to become professional musicians and we’re looking to take children that we feel are going to thrive but we have a real mix. We do have pupils from musical families – one or both their parents are musicians – but equally we have some who just have an incredible ability. In terms of backgrounds, the pupils are from all walks of life.”

Though the provision of instrumental tuition across local authorities may be patchy, the state sector is doing its bit too, with four specialist music facilities housed in secondary schools dotted around the country. What they offer differs to what is provided to pupils at St Mary’s, where the general curriculum fits around the intensive study of music and instrumental practice. But Douglas Academy in Milngavie – the school Macdonald has been attending for the past year – Dyce Academy in Aberdeen, Broughton High in Edinburgh and the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton High School all offer focused musical training alongside the normal school curriculum. For a country the size of Scotland that seems like a reasonable level of provision but, given that children will have to reach a certain standard before being able to apply to any of these schools, and given that it is proving harder and harder for them to achieve that in a state-school setting, it’s not enough – and it’s the kids in the poorest areas that are most likely to miss out. 

Indeed, though the picture is mixed across the country, the statistics published in the Improvement Service report show that while instrumental pupil numbers have increased across most local authorities, in many areas teacher numbers have decreased. In Inverclyde, the most deprived area of the country according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, there was a 45 per cent increase in the number of kids learning an instrument between 2012/13 and 2022/23. But, as the number of teachers has dropped by a similar proportion, there are now 106 pupils per teacher compared with 44 a decade ago. In Edinburgh and Aberdeen, which are home to the least deprived areas of the country, there are 88 and 86 pupils per teacher respectively.

St Mary's Christmas concert

Sistema Scotland, which last year received £2.8m of government funding, is just one organisation that is picking up some of the slack in the system. But, as there are just six Big Noise projects – in Raploch, Govanhill, Fallin in Stirling, Torry in Aberdeen, Douglas in Dundee and Wester Hailes in Edinburgh – and Sistema’s funding for this year has still not been confirmed, it can only do so much and what it does do is focused on urban areas. At the same time, while Cummings says his job is to work with local authorities to get talented kids into the Junior Conservatoire with the view to getting them to the standard required for entry to the RCS, those that are successful have to pay, meaning that while bursaries are available those from less well-off families are likely to be locked out. 

“We’re trying to be as inclusive as possible – we’ve got young people from Raploch, young people from Gordonstoun [School] and everything in between and that’s how it should be,” he says. “We’re here to bridge that gap between local authority and the conservatoire but it’s very hard to go to a local authority pupil and say come to the Junior Conservatoire. We try to keep the cost to a minimum but in my day the Junior Conservatoire was funded – we could say come here and it won’t cost you a penny, but we can’t do that any more. Junior conservatoires south of the border get funding, Scotland is the only one that doesn’t. That’s a huge inequality.”

Amid it all, the local authority service, which remains the setting in which most children will first have the chance to play a musical instrument, continues to face the dual pressure of soaring demand and second-class status. Brown makes the point that the instrumental service is doing the best it can with the resources available, but says that it is constantly under threat because it is not seen as core to the curriculum.“There are pressures because it’s not seen as an essential service in the education team so when cuts take place instrumental music is at the forefront,” she says. “We need to be seen as an essential part of the education system. What we offer is very wide-ranging but we feel pressure because of budget cuts.”

During my visit to the RCS I sit down with its principal Professor Jeff Sharkey, an American composer and pianist who has led the institution for the past decade. During that time the conservatoire has consistently featured in QS World Rankings’ top 10 of the best institutions for performing-arts education and last year placed one notch above the Juilliard School, the New York institution renowned for a stellar alumni list that includes Yo-Yo Ma, Nina Simone, Laura Linney and Nigel Kennedy. Sharkey admits that rankings can be spliced and diced in a number of ways and this one is for performing arts as a whole, not just music, but still, he’ll take it because it shows the importance of what the institution does. Yet despite the conservatoire’s standing on the global stage, like Fitch, Sharkey is fearful that without a change in how music is valued within the Scottish education system, the number of homegrown kids it educates will continue to dwindle. “The last thing I want is to be an internationally renowned conservatoire that happens to be in Scotland but without any Scots,” he says.

“After Covid a lot of pupils stayed at home but one of the reasons to go back to school was the arts,” he tells me. “The thing you learn by someone else depending on you to play your part in an ensemble, or to play your part in a play, is that you are needed; you can’t let those other people down. The arts might be the last place in the world that you know that what you’re dealing with is human. The team building, the listening, the creativity, the giving way to say ‘it’s your turn’ are so valuable to society. It’s a real challenge that the arts have not been seen by governments north and south of the border to be a priority. There’s so much talk about Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] and there’s so much talk about skills but there’s a big problem in the UK that I don’t see replicated so much in other countries in that arts are seen as nice to have if you have everything else. That means they become middle class, they become optional. The arts is one of the main drivers of our economy and if we don’t invest in growing kids to be taking part in that it will all be imported. We’ll have better outcomes in society if we invest more in the arts.”

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