About that Guardian letter

The classical music industry is working together to shout the cause of music education. But we should remember that its newest cheerleaders are still in development.

Saxophonist Jess Gillam’s letter to the Guardian. It’s a fundamentally good thing. The message is strong.

It’s not an especially new message. Plenty of others have been saying the same thing for a long long time now.

Set in the context of the ISM’s recent State of the Nation report Jess’ letter is prescient too, though I’m not entirely convinced the timing is accidental.

There are a number of other necessary bandwagons on the road to reinstating music education in the curriculum, the wheels of which are still turning, some slower than others, some considerably more squeaky.  

The letter to the Guardian refers to some of those other campaigns, along with Jess’ appearance at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Music Education established and maintained by the Incorporated Society of Musicians.

What impresses me is the way it appears that the industry is collaborating, marshalling resources and messages, timing their dissemination to support one another’s endeavours.

Record labels, membership organisations, and broadcasters are supporting one another to send out a clear message to politicians: music education needs to be reinstated in the curriculum.

But there’s grit in the tank.

Jess, like her BBC Young Musician cohort cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, is in classical music terms hot property. Since signing to Decca they’ve cropped up in all sorts of places on TV and various public events, usually coinciding with an impending album release

Both Jess and Sheku are valuable assets to record labels. Whilst we applaud their achievements and how they’re helping raise the profile of an artform and music education, they are valuable to record labels because these altruistic acts provide an opportunity to drive business.

And whilst that in itself isn’t a bad thing, there are some implicit messages surrounding Jess and Sheku’s appearance on-air and in-print which we should as a community remain vigilant about.

Both musicians are hugely talented and have come to prominence just at the time when pressure has rightfully increased to tackle various social justice issues head-on. What both musicians are able to achieve in raising awareness, influencing, and driving change is incredibly important. But to be clear, such endeavours on their part also help content distribution organisations drive streams and raise revenues.

What worries me (and this be me being over-protective here) is the way in which they are projected: as musicians who have completed their journey and ‘made it’ just by virtue of having won a competition and made various TV appearances. These musicians are are still in development as performing musicians. Had they not signed to a record label or won BBC Young Musician would their voices still be heard?

Jess’ letter to the Guardian is a positive message. It’s necessary. But I’m uncomfortable seeing it only in the context of music education. I see Jess’ letter as part of a much broader marketing and PR strategy to raise profiles that in turn increase revenues, drive advertising sales, and importantly allows a large-scale brand be seen to align itself with a common cause.

And that raises ethical questions for me about the way in which artists in development who could themselves be struggling to come to terms with the attention they now receive, at a point in their lives when they’re still developing their practise.  

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire: Inspiring Musicians Since 1886

Next week sees the first concerts in Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Concert Hall. Every Tuesday from 9th January, weekly hour-long lunchtime recitals will feature musicians from Radio 3’s New Generation Artists.

This is the latest in a series of big announcements coming from the newly minted Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, announcements that project an air optimism and excitement about a city which has in recent years upped the ante in reasserting itself. The story that’s being told now is one of reinvestment, redevelopment, and in part, preservation.

And since the opening of the newly built Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (replacing the concrete carbuncle in the centre of the city) that same story of transformation can be told about music training in Brum.

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, opened on 7th September 2017

A new book by former graduate, professor and Fellow of the Birmingham School of Music Christopher Morley, provides a thorough history of the institution, documenting its various homes, and its present day range of activities.

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire: Inspiring Musicians Since 1886 published by Elliott and Thompson oozes pride in the institution. It also celebrates the talent which has helped power the institution throughout its 121 year history, a history that doesn’t get talked about very often.

Careful picture editing has contributed to a striking sense of drama, helping position the conservatoire as a diverse and inclusive institution.

Amid some of the politically reductive discussions about the value of higher education, Morley’s survey is timely. At the same time as stating relevance of itself, and of specialist music education, the book also illustrates how such conservatoires depend on composers, conductors, and professional orchestral musicians to make up its faculty.

These institutions don’t exist in a vacuum. In places like Birmingham they’re helping reassert a city’s cultural identity. And the effect is surprisingly infectious.

To talk of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire today, must acknowledge the interdependencies with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, pianist Peter Donohoe, and composer Granville Bantock to name a few.

The cultural ecosystem that these connections helped create project Birmingham as an exciting destination, one that has weight and an infectious sense of self-confidence about itself.



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Dartington International Summer School and Festival 2018

Dartington launched its 70th summer school and festival programme at a special event in the 1901 Arts Club last week.

The evening included live performances from alumni (due to a double-booking, I was only able to catch the marvellous Alim Beisembayev tackle the fiendish Brahms Paganini Variations).

The month-long residential summer school (next year running from 28th July to 25 August) prides itself on a warm and inclusive feel, something I experienced first-hand at the launch event. Present-day devotees are eager to share stories with one another. They’re also quite happy to explain to those of us who have never been before what its unique qualities are.

I’m not quite sure I’m necessarily ready to fully embrace the on-site camping experience, but with budget accommodation starting at around £400 for a week, and AirBnB vendors selling at similar rates for entire properties, Dartington distinctive mix of amateur and professional music-making and learning makes this a definite for me next year.

Personal highlights include the Woodwind masterclasses in the first week, the historical fiction and landscape creative writing workshops in week two, and former director Gavin Henderson’s talk about the history of the summer school in week three. In addition, my eye is drawn to the conductor workshop with Tim Redmond, the cello masterclass with Adrian Brendel, and the Film Music Improvisation workshop with the marvellous Neil Brand.

Dartington’s 70th anniversary Summer School and Festival runs from 28th July to 25th August 2018. Booking opens in early December 2017, details can be found on Dartington’s Summer School website.

Birmingham Conservatoire student runs marathon dressed as a giant viola

A straightforward idea brilliantly executed. I’m not entirely sure whether viola player and marathon runner Alistair Rutherford appreciates quite how funny he looks in his ‘lightweight Plastazote foam’ outfit. As unexpected news events go, this one was a surprise with a rich collection of supporting material. Included here for your delectation.

Alistair – also known as ‘The Running Viola’ – ran in yesterday’s Birmingham International Marathon completing the race in 3 hours, 20 minutes, and 33 seconds. He beat his personal best. He also broke the Guinness World Record for the fast marathon run in a musical instrument costume. No, I didn’t know there was such a record either.

There was a charitable angle to all of this, inevitably. Alistair is set to raise at least £4,000 for a UK-South African project, Cape Gate MIAGI Centre for Music & Birmingham Conservatoire. The collaboration provides weekly instrumental Skype lessons given by academics, students and Birmingham Royal Conservatoire alumni to music students in deprived circumstances in South Africa.

Money raised from Alistair’s world record attempt will enable his pupil, Njabulo Nxumalo, aged 17, to fly over to the UK next month, along with Kwanda Buthelezi, aged 13, and Mbali Phato, aged 12, and perform in a concert on Saturday 18 November as part of the second Cecil Aronowitz Viola Competition at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

FAO: Philip Shaw OBE

Dear Philip

A trusted source tells me you’ve retired.

I was surprised. Time has passed quickly.

I wanted to write. I couldn’t let you drift into retirement without wishing you well. The impact you’ve had me and on countless other individuals over the past thirty years as head of Suffolk County Music Service shouldn’t go overlooked. We owe you.

Your passion for music and your commitment to share it is highly-prized. It’s the kind of spirit that rubs off on people. In rehearsals you introduced us to a sense of drive, showed us what can be achieved with discipline, and pointed to the reward that comes as a result.

Suffolk County Music Service’s work has allowed young people the opportunity to exercise choice and pursue freedom. It’s promoted a sense of community too.

Your work has made Suffolk feel like home.

Much of that is down to your indomitable spirit; your unshakeable belief in the value of music education.

That this government rates music education so poorly must be galling for a man who has banged the drum and flown the flag for all of his career.

Do not let the short-sightedness of a handful of elites overshadow your achievements. Don’t underestimate the commitment of those you’ve inspired to continue to fight the cause for future generations.

You gave me a chance back in 1989 backstage at Snape Maltings Concert Hall. I have Rebecca to thank for introducing us, and you for saying ‘Yes, OK’. Suffolk Youth Orchestra sowed the seeds for my ultimate recovery. I will always remember that moment.

At SYO you were jovial, sometimes corny, always ready to share your considerable knowledge and experience.

You were nearly always grumpy. That made working to please you even more of a tangible prize. We all worked harder to perfect and finesse. That’s quite some strategy you adopted there. I’d like to think it was accident rather than design.

Know this: it worked.

None of us wanted to let you down. All of us feared that glance from the podium if a solo flopped or an entire section failed to engage with the very clear and distinct beat. The experience was terrifying and exhilarating. That was playing a concert.

You have the power to bring music alive just with a glance through your glasses. Just for the record, my own traumatic concert experiences as a teenager now render Puccini’s Messa di Gloria and that sodding clarinet solo in Danzon No. 2 unbearable to listen to now. I was shit at sight-reading. I think you knew that secretly.

More than this, you provided a context for the music. By making playing in a county youth orchestra an aspirational thing, you gave it and the music a much-needed relevance, and us a sense of purpose.

You legitimised a field of study that for some contemporaries of mine at least was a source of amusement or ridicule.

Sometimes I listen to pieces of music and I think of you. That’s a bit odd in some respects, I know. Probably a bit weird to read. Sorry.

The truth is that other human beings are largely responsible for those special moments in our own lives. You’re one of my list. Thank you.

You did us proud because we wanted to make you proud. We knew we achieved that when your smile was so broad that we couldn’t see your eyes.

I have absolutely no idea how I could possibly pay you back.

Enjoy your retirement. It is much-deserved.