Roger Quintana as the golfing virgin Fidel Castro in rehearsal

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Review Review

Some thoughts on the Henley Review of Music Education in England

A large number of words about music were published on Monday this week in the form of the Henley Review of Music Education in England. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, commissioned the document from Darren Henley, Managing Director of the commercial radio station Classic FM. The latter has devoted most of his working life to this broadcaster, rising from reporter to top dog. He told me once he had a penchant for gambling. His review, however, takes few risks.

Henley makes a total of 36 recommendations interspersed among some 60 paragraphs about the state of music education. He says teaching is ‘inconsistent’, which is obvious because teachers are different. He observes that a number of different parties are involved in music education from funders to arts organisations and recommends that they club together and form Hubs because ‘partnership is key’. But partnerships, which presuppose the consultative process, are nearly always a hindrance to progress. Music teachers are most effective when they are dictators. Indeed, schools themselves are dictatorships, usually benign ones. Children are too easily manipulated to be given a vote. Why does anyone think UK citizens are disenfranchised until they are 18?

There is a tendency to sideline the school music teacher both in the review and in Music Education itself. In Paragraph 8.4, Henley says ‘secondary [music] teachers have a lot to offer’, which is surely damning with faint praise. Meanwhile, Music Services, run by Local Authorities are given undue prominence. In October 2010 they had a whole conference to themselves at the Barbican, hosted by the London Symphony Orchestra. These Services, which are described as 'clients of the Arts Council', are usually bodies of peripatetic musical instrument teachers and their increased profile on the musical landscape reflects the misguided view that music education has a lot to do with learning to play instruments at an early age. 

Henley recommends that ‘all children at Key Stage 2 [ie primary] are given the opportunity to learn an instrument’. Meeting the new Year 7 [secondary] intake at Hurstmere School Sidcup in September 2010, I ask each class in turn, ‘so who here plays a musical instrument?’. About half a dozen students in each class raise their hand, but to a child they respond, ‘I used to’. I suspect they are even quite pleased with the grown-up sound of their ‘I-gave-up,’ as if this shows the appropriately cool disdain young people are supposed to demonstrate towards music lessons.

Worried parents often ask at what age their child should take up an instrument. I tell them there’s no hurry – twelve, thirteen, fourteen, secondary school age. Henley cites the example of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela which has taken the world by storm, but he has not looked closely enough at the model. Some of the players start at a pre-pubescent age, but it is not the rule. In summer 2010 a double-bassist from the orchestra was taken on by the Vienna Philharmonic and he only took up the instrument when he was 15! Gabriel Schwabe, the German cellist who won the Pierre Fournier Award last September, was twelve when he began. 

Two excitable interviewees on Tom Service’s Music Matters programme on Radio 3 on Saturday morning, Susanna Eastman of the Arts Council, and Mark Jaffrey of Think Again, thought (again) that the whole review were terrific and ‘very positive’ but it seems they are delighted only by the words ‘ring-fenced’ which Henley recommends be applied to the government grant of 82.5 million pounds for music education. ‘There must be many relieved people all over the country,’ says Service.  One wonders if these commentators are more concerned for adult jobs than for children’s musical education. Is the point of paying taxes really just to keep other people employed?

Henley insists singing must also be part of music education and he is right but whenever he mentions it, he invariably places it second to instrumental tuition. ‘Children should learn to play an instrument and sing,’ he says. So does Michael Gove on the government’s behalf.

Singing is the most important of all musical skills. In choirs it promotes teamwork, an appreciation of harmony and the importance of listening. In solo work, it demands expression, self-reliance and a concern for words. Schools need to return to singing in assembly. Repertoire does not have to include hymns; a few well chosen folk songs might form the basis. The rugby anthems Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Flower of Scotland have enough brutish and emotional appeal for boys’ schools. Molly Malone always goes down well. So does Tom Dooley. 

Students are generally dismissive of anything called choir practice. At Hurstmere School they are derisive of attempts to form a choir, but form long queues to attend sessions with a peripatetic music technician for whom they ‘sing’ or rap into a microphone. Henley is right to recommend the development of music technology in schools. There is a great desire among students to perform with a microphone like pop balladeers. The Hurstmere’s Got Talent show in January was a huge, noisy success, yet it happened independently of the music department, the music technician having been employed by the headmaster without recourse to the music teacher. 

When Henley describes the Music Education scene as patchy, what he really means is that it is difficult to ascertain exactly what is going on in classrooms in any given location. This is the centralist’s fear of ignorance and it betrays a lack of  confidence in the workforce. Governments need to learn to trust teachers more. Instead Henley recommends increased inspection by Ofsted, even of instrument teachers in the Music Services organisations for the first time. ‘Anyone can set themselves up as a teacher with no assurance of quality,’ he claims, but this is a silly thing to say since of all teachers, those in music carry their own guarantee. You don’t need Ofsted to tell you whether someone can play the piano.

Henley accuses the organisation Youth Music of waste and recommends all the Music Services organisations to save money on office admin (ie paper clips) but he could have been much more radical. If the purpose of the review was to identify areas where savings could be made, it has failed, for if anything Henley’s proposals are likely to cost more money. He recommends the estalishment of a National Music Plan, which sunds like more centralisation, another review of charitable organistaions and ‘a further specialist piece of work’ on the development of music technology in schools.


Mahler Symphony No4
Sunhae Im, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra / Manfred Honeck
Honeck’s German representative posts a new disc of him conducting his American orchestra at home in Heinz Hall. They give a colourful, almost exaggerated account of Mahler’s sleigh-bell symphony, each instrumental soloist prominent and prescribed dynamic emphasised. The thunder and chaos of the first movement’s development, the manic strings and bestial wind tone, suddenly return to politeness with the recap as if straightening garments after an embarrassing tumble. The Japanese record company Exton provides the soprano Sunhae Im for the finale. She’s a youth with pure, straight, unwordy tone – it’s the youth’s Wunderhorn, after all, says Honeck unaplogetically. She preserves the childlike simplicity of the peasant poet’s view of heaven – the food running in the streets, the free wine, the administering saints – and the caps the otherwise knowing performance with sweet naivety.

Victoria Hail Mother of the Redeemer
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers
The Sixteen embark on their annual ‘pilgrimage’ concert tour to the cathedrals and abbeys of Britain next month taking with them boxes full of their latest CD, one of which their own record label Coro sends me. It sends me. The music is all by Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), Spain’s great High Renaissance master, in the four hundredth anniversary of his death and all in honour of the Virgin Mary. The voices sound fresh and athletic. The opening Salve Regina plainsong in octaves shines through the ensuing polyphony like a beam. The two-choir Missa Alma Redemptoris mater shows the quality in depth of the voice parts as they weave through the score like opposite lines of dancers in a Scottish reel. They are more like tennis players in the Litaniae Beatae Mariae, batting the list’s different names for Mary to each other across the stalls. Victoria’s trademark double soprano lines shows him at his skilful - and they at their beautiful - best in canon through the Gaude Maria. He honours the past in the Magnifcat alternating plainsong and polyphony verses and crowning it by adding a second tenor line in canonic pursuit of the second sopranos with their plainsong template. Harry Christophers conducts with flowing elegnce. I sense the ancient stones longing to reflect his choir’s echo.