Orchestras Live Chief Executive, Sarah Derbyshire, shares her thoughts on the current state of music education and the implications for the orchestral profession.
The state of play of music education provision, from early years through to emerging professionals, continues to be a matter of concern to all in the music industry and something we monitor at Orchestras Live. I was encouraged, attending contrasting concerts earlier this year, to feel that we were beginning to see strong green shoots of change - towards a more equitable gender balance on stage, repertoire featuring newly commissioned work and work by female composers across the ages, all enthusiastically received by substantial audiences. It seems timely this month, early in the new academic year, to revisit the topic and see if my optimism was well-founded.
A shift is taking hold in the programming, presentation and marketing of classical music. The gender balance on stage is improving, at last; musicians engage with their audiences direct from the stage and young players not only rise to the challenge but fully expect that their professional performing lives will be more holistic, engaging with audiences both on and off the platform.
The evidence on stage would suggest that the music education system continues to be a pipeline for fine, committed players. That interventions and initiatives to ensure greater inclusion of diverse performers from all social and cultural backgrounds, who are representative of the audiences to whom they wish to perform, are bearing fruit.
BUT – and it’s a big but – what will this all look like in 20 years’ time? Will that pipeline still exist? Will it be wider, identifying and supporting a greater diversity of people from an early age who show musical promise? Or will it narrow even further, limited to children whose families can afford the time and money to support their musical development?
Judging by recent investigations, reports and headlines about the state of music education today, and from conversations with colleagues in conservatoires and music colleges who are witnessing a depressing reduction in the diversity of those applying, there is considerable anxiety that the pipeline itself is under threat.
Early in 2019, The Music Commission published its ten-year vision for music education: Retuning our Ambition for Music Learning. This calls for “every young person, regardless of background or circumstances, to be supported to realise her or his full musical potential”. The Commission sets out eight steps towards that goal which remind me very much of the recommendations in my own report on music education – Musical Routes – produced in association with the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2015. I identified many strengths along with weaknesses and called for initiatives to address the inequity of opportunity offered through the music education landscape at that time.
As far as I’m aware, we’re still waiting to hear from another group: the Expert Panel for the development of a Model Music Curriculum set up by Education Minister, Nick Gibb, to provide a framework from which schools can base their own programmes of study. The Minister’s stated aim is that all children should “have access to a world-class music education”. Something with which I could hardly disagree. And yet any recommendations will be set against a backdrop of government policies that have actively driven students away from taking up music and creative subjects.
The Minister’s failure to acknowledge the evidence of this led MPs themselves to call for an explanation and a change in policy to reverse the trend (Changing Lives: the social impact of participation in culture and sport from the Common Select Committee for Culture, Media & Sport). In a corresponding move, universities are taking matters into their own hands by scrapping their list of ‘preferred A levels’ which has led students and their families to believe that arts and creative subjects are second-rate. These are encouraging actions that should add even more weight, if such be needed, to the Bacc for the Future campaign led by the ISM to scrap the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).
Even though there’s no prospect of the EBacc going away any time soon, it’s possible that these initiatives have helped to persuade Ofsted to introduce a requirement for schools to develop their pupils’ ‘cultural capital’. Seemingly oblivious to the potential for controversy, Ofsted have opened up another heated debate, since the term itself - ‘cultural capital’ - brings connotations of 19th century paternalism and has been criticised by academics and cultural commentators as an approach that enables the ‘establishment’ to define cultural values, freezing out anything beyond the mainstream, shoring up the status quo and thus stifling social mobility.
Nevertheless, at Orchestras Live we do welcome the fact that Ofsted has made it impossible for schools and their governing bodies to ignore the importance of cultural experiences in enabling children and young people to reach their full potential. We see our role as a crucial one in providing access to a rich mix of cultural offers to schools and contributing to Ofsted’s wider aim to give children and young people ‘the framework to succeed’ and to be ‘in awe and wonder of the world’.
We will work with our orchestra partners to deliver transformative work that puts children and young people at the thrilling heart of live orchestral music. We want to develop innovative delivery models that foster the creative voices of young people, validate their current interests, acknowledge the brilliance of the past and create new sound worlds for the future. We believe that orchestras and their musicians can empower young people to make music, the arts and culture in its widest and most diverse expressions a central part of their lives.