I’ve noticed of late various despatches that raise the important issue of classical music education in schools and the government’s failure to lend it support. Of course, all learning is of value and music in particular has been scientifically proven to have a beneficial effect on children’s thought processes. But wait a minute, is school the best entry point for a child’s musical appreciation? Shouldn’t it rather be a home-grown thing, parents taking their children to concerts, inspiring them to take up an instrument because they themselves play or even playing them cds? To deal with the former option first, imagine this situation: Dad takes little Jenny to a concert where Mullova or Vengerov are playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. Jenny has never been to a live concert before; she has no knowledge of the violin and Mendelssohn is a total mystery to her, but she’s bowled over. ‘Dad, can I have one of those for Christmas please?’ she asks excitedly, and come December 25th she unwraps a quarter-size violin. The seed is sown, not at school, but in the context of an inseparable bond between father and daughter, who egg each other on. The music is an extension of the love between them. Or there’s the family ensemble, which Jenny joins as soon as she’s old enough and able enough, simply because she wants to be part of the conversation.
My guess is that while some kids will gravitate to Mozart or Beethoven during school assembly, most won’t. Rock is the thing, music that keeps time with their quickened pulses. I started off that way (Elvis, Lonnie Donegan, Buddy Holly), but a long spell of illness found me discovering Wagner by accident, and from there I was up and away. Here was music that seemed to recall the passion and excitement of favourite film soundtracks composed by the likes of Steiner, Korngold or Newman. Music heard on radio and TV can have the same effect. Then again school trips to the concert hall, to real live events, can only be a good thing. The musical initiatives of the philanthropist Robert Mayer gave countless children a chance to explore the thrill of a live concert and that, surely, must have stayed with them for life.
And there’s the crucial issue of how much you can actually teach a child. Countless musicians who I have interviewed claim that while learning to manipulate a violin neck and bow, or the keys and pedals on a piano, is often an effortful slog, unless your coordination is shot to ribbons, or virtually non-existent to start with (as mine is), learning the physical aspects of playing isn’t all that difficult. What is difficult is learning how to deal with silences, how to breathe and phrase musically. As the great pianist Artur Schnabel once said ‘I don’t think I handle the notes much differently from other pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, there is where the artistry lies!!’ He also said the he was only attracted to music which he considered better than it can be performed. So here’s a challenge for you. Take Schnabel’s 1932 HMV recording of Beethoven’s last Sonata Op 111 from your shelves. Go to the beginning of the second movement, the Arietta, listen to the way Schnabel sustains the pauses and weights the chords at an extremely broad tempo, and if you have a piano in the room, try to imitate his style of playing. If you haven’t, I’ll save you the trouble anyway: it’s impossible. Even Schnabel himself couldn’t quite upstage his former self on his later recording of the work for RCA. This is the ultimate example of Schnabel teaching me a lesson that, had I been a great teacher, I could never have taught him.
Another example of this magical phenomenon is a music college concert I attended years ago where a friend’s hugely gifted daughter gave a brilliant performance of a violin showpiece. But for me that wasn’t the concert’s highlight. A few minutes later a very young child walked onto the stage with her harp. She played a simple folksong and I can tell you that the effect was magical, not because of the way she manipulated the notes, but because of her mastery of the silences between them. She too was teaching me what I could never have taught her, nor could any teacher.
So I suppose the upshot of what I’m suggesting here is that a love of music ‘will out’, no matter what, just like a love of art or literature. Yes, if it’s possible let’s please readmit classical or concert music to the school curriculum, but my guess is that a real appreciation of the greatest repertoire comes from outside of the school’s gates or, more likely still, is the result of an inbuilt love that was there from the start. It’s a question of pushing all the right buttons and with the potential threat of mocking peers or worst still unsupportive parents and siblings there’s a real danger that those buttons will remain under a solid glass casing for life. Still, nature here has the potential to upstage nurture. The willing home nurturers therefore have a duty to identify a ‘creative nature’ and encourage it.