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Article The Press Freedom Issue

Is classical music just for the middleclasses?

Image: Bridgewater Hall courtesy of purplemattfish on Flickr

It is a Tuesday morning and I am sat in the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester watching and listening to the wonderful Halle orchestra, surrounded by hundreds of primary school age young people who are entranced by the beautiful sounds produced by the musicians.

The children are attending one of the Halle for Youth concerts, just one aspect of the Halle’s educational curriculum which spans all different age groups and different locations in Manchester.

Steve Pickett, the Halle’s Education Director, is clear about the importance of classical music to all children, “They come with no preconceptions and fresh ears. Some of the pieces today are quite challenging but they help children with their listening skills, not just in music but across the whole school curriculum.”

The north west of England has some of the finest orchestras in England, including the Halle, the BBC Philharmonic and the Manchester Camerata. There are also specialist music schools such as Chetham’s and the Royal Northern College of Music. But these are largely the preserve of the middle classes. But what if you come from a working class background and want to find out more about classical
music, or are interested in playing an instrument or going to a concert?

Children today are exposed to many different types of music, depending on their family, peer group or their own adventures through the media of the internet, Facebook and Twitter. Schools provide a music education as part of the curriculum although it depends on the school itself as to what this means in practice.

In 2012 the government reorganised music education on the basis of `The Importance of Music: A National Plan for Music Education’, whose proclaimed aim to target poorer children and to close the “musical divide between rich and poor”. But a recent Ofsted report has criticised the changes, “A quality music education only reaches a minority of pupils in England’s schools”. At the same time public service cuts are having a massive effect across the music education service.

Many young people access music through school, either through lessons to learn an instrument or through taking part in outreach programmes run by major orchestras, including the Halle and the BBC Philharmonic.

Across the Irwell Salford City Council, one of the poorest boroughs in the north west, has funded the BBC Philharmonic annually by £3m. For this the Orchestra’s Learning/Community team work with over 15,000 people of all ages in a variety of settings including schools, care homes and fire stations.

Kay Sharples, who comes from a working class background and lives in Salford, dusted off her clarinet, which she hadn’t touched for 20 years, and took part in a BBC Philharmonic Family Orchestra with her two children. “At the time nobody in the family was interested in classical music. I went along to the Family Orchestra to support my children but I enjoyed it and we ended up playing at an event at the Royal Albert Hall in London which was very exciting.” Both of her children have benefitted from the school music service: her daughter still plays an instrument and her son is now at Chetham’s Music School.

The BBC Philharmonic play at unusual venues. I attended one of their concerts at the Salford Art Gallery and Museum. The audience was made up of the people whom you normally find around on a Thursday midmorning, mainly elderly and retired with some students from the nearby university.

Speaking to them after the concert, local residents were very positive about being able to attend a free concert by talented musicians but one of them at this time of cuts to local services questioned the funding of an orchestra. She did not want to give her name, but commented; “I saw it in the council newspaper and decided to come along. No-one asked if our council tax should be spent on the BBC Phil and it concerns me that Salford Council are cutting services to some of the most vulnerable people”. I approached Matt Finegan, Salford Mayor’s spokesperson, for a response and he said “Why was she at the Phil concert, if she doesn’t think they should be supported by the city council?”.

At a time when public funding to the arts is under the microscope both these orchestras have had to prove that they are providing a service to all the community. At the Halle their education programme for work with schools has tripled in terms of numbers of schools taking part. As Steve Pickett says; “We have to diversify, we are involved with prisons, early years groups, old people, the health service and so on. Playing concerts is not enough.”

Whilst the Halle and BBC Philharmonic are working hard to reach a new audience, in former mill or colliery towns in Lancashire there is still a tradition of music that is at the core of the community; the local brass band. In these small towns many of these bands still hold onto a musical tradition that has echoes in the past history of this country.

The St. John’s Brass Band in Mossley, Greater Manchester is one of two brass bands in the town which also has an orchestra and a music theatre group. St. John’s was started by the local vicar in 1934 to provide social and cultural activities for the church goers. Run by volunteers and funded through concerts and one-off grants only the Musical Director gets a salary.

Andrew Reynolds, principal cornet player and band treasurer told me at the rehearsal night; “ It is a tradition that is handed down through families. But over the years the number of young people being involved has declined with the average age of the players being 60.”

So they have recently started a Learner band to bring in the next generation. The band own their own instruments and can offer the loan of them as well as free tuition to young people. The band consists of members who have been playing brass instruments all their lives as well as young people who are students at the RCNM. It therefore offers new players an amazing repertoire of experienced players to listen to and get tuition and inspiration from.

Bethany Jackson, aged 11 years, is in the Learner band. Her father used to play in the church band, and, although she has paid lessons at her local school, she goes to St. John’s every week. “ I played the trumpet when I was at primary school and now I play the baritone. I like it because it is fun and when I grow up I would like to play in a brass band.”

She has been exposed to classical music through her family’s musical tradition but she also goes to a school that promotes music in all forms. Her school goes to the Halle Youth events, has its own orchestra and has links with a local theatre that puts on musicals.

Paul Towle, age 32, grew up in a working class family where both his grandad and dad played the cornet. “I picked up the basics from my Dad and pestered him until he showed me how to play. I got into a band when I was 10 years old but stopped at the age of 15 just because I wanted to do other things like football and cricket.” In his mid-20s he took up his cornet again and he now plays in two local bands and spends over 10 hours per week playing.

He feels that over the years the brass band world has changed; “It has modernised, the competitions are better organised. But it is more commercial with people being paid to do gigs rather than being bought a couple of pints.”

To Paul it is more than just a band. “At one time over 9 members of my family played in St. John’s. It is a friendly place and you can just come here and have a “blow””.

So is classical music just for the middle classes? Steve Pickett is certain that it is not. “It is seen as toffee nosed and elitist but that is just its image. We need to educate our players so they can work with children but also maintain the quality of our orchestra”.

Maybe its just the label “classical music” that puts people off. When I asked DJ and working class hero Terry Christian to tweet a message to his 50,000 followers about music and class I didn’t get one response! Maybe I was asking the wrong question, people seemed happy to talk about their class (proud working class) and the different music they listened to but they did not want to put it in a box of “classical music”.

Cuts in the school music service are a worrying trend as it will undermine the broad nature of music experiences that all children can experience. Cuts have meant that to obtain lessons in instrument tuition parents now have to pay if their children want to take up these opportunities. For some children (and adults) the encouragement by local brass bands to grow a new generation of players is a positive sign in a society where funding to public services is in decline.

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