“Music makes us one”

For a city famed for its music amongst other things, it seems strange that we remain so fragmented. Did it used to be like that? Need things stay this way?

Early New Year’s Day pondering having seen a couple of splendid musical performances on the TV screen…starting this post at 2am.

I was recalling Sigrid’s performance back in Cambridge at the Cambridge Union pre-first lockdown as she had just duetted with Sam Ryder of Eurovision Fame covering Freedom ’90 by George Michael – a track that had a powerful meaning at the end of my compulsory school years in the mid-1990s (although it was Robbie’s version I heard first). It was also the time George Michael had a number of tracks and videos from his album Older that were in the charts – including Fastlove, which was directed by a young Vaughan Arnell, who twenty years later went on to marry my sister!

Talking of Scandinavian music and musicians, I’ve been stumbling around non-standard musical [ie western orchestral/classical] instruments for a number of years – in part because I had a curiosity in childhood that was never met, and secondly because when I went to my second Cambridge Folk Festival in 2004, the Hobgoblin musical instrument tent blew me away. (I made a short video at the 2016 Folk Festival here). I mentioned electric violins (I got to grade 4 on the classical one in childhood but exam pieces kill the joy of learning in my experience), but have always struggled with getting the instrument to rest so as to free my hands, neck, and shoulder. Hence asking a decade ago why there were so few examples of re-designed ergonomic instruments. Then I discovered Mia Asano playing an electric viper violin (with seven strings so it’s effectively covers the tonal ranges of violin *and* cello) and wondered why everyone can’t have access to the patented contraption that frees everything up – even though the clue is in the patenting!

The Nyckelharpa – and Oktavharpa

Have a listen to this Swedish folk instrument (not to be confused with Sigrid who is from Norway!)

The additional strings make it sing in a very different way to a classical cello – to my untrained ears anyway. Then multi-talented musician Alina Gingertail takes it to a new level with her cover of the Game of Thrones theme.

“With an annual folk festival that brings people from all over the world to Cambridge every year, why weren’t alternative forms of music embedded in local schools?”

This is one of the things that is making my local history research post-war Lost Cambridge all the more painful: I’m learning about a history that I lived through, but only had a very partial sight of. How could we? We were children. And the mindset of the decision-makers of the day was just as much educating us to be ignorant (See Section 28) as it was restricting us to a narrow curriculum whether by direction or whether by deliberate underfunding and rate-capping from central government. Which is one of the reasons why rediscovering those local musicians and artists who tried to make a difference against so many barriers is ever so important to our collective local history – not least if we are to enable future generations to be inspired by it to achieve greater things.

Ludovic Stewart – older brother of Frida the peace campaigner

I had been aware of Ludovic’s existence but until I researched for his profile I knew nothing about his vision for music in and around Cambridge – which was pioneering.

Above – Ludovic Stewart in the Cambridge Evening News from the British Newspaper Archive.

One of Mr Stewart’s earliest co-operators was Brinley Newton-John, then the headmaster of the Cambridge County High School for Boys. At the time of the former’s appointment as the County Adviser for Music (both men were employed by the old Cambridgeshire County Council on the pre-1965 smaller boundaries that did not cover Hunts or Fenland), Irene Newton-John, Brinley’s wife, had just given birth to their third child. You may have heard of her – her name was Olivia, who died last year. Had they stayed in Cambridge, who knows what the two of them would have achieved, but the Newton-Johns emigrated to Australia and the rest is history.

The lesson from Ludovic’s example – and that of the Gilmours who founded the Cambridgeshire Holiday Orchestra was to identify the barriers children faced, and remove those barriers.

“It’s had its knocks for being non-selective, but the point about it is, there’s. no audition – and no fee. It functions for a week each holiday, and for about six hours a day.”

Ludovic Stewart to Deryck Harvey, Cambridge Evening News 01 January 1973 – fifty years ago to the day!

From secondary school onwards, I don’t recall music being framed in a concept of anything other than ‘have you done your practice’? For years and years I have wondered why studies on drop out rates were so hard to find. Only now have I found one:

“Survival of musical activities. When do young people stop making music?”

This from one year, one month, and one week ago at the time of writing!

“Results indicate that about 50% of all students drop out of music lessons and other musical activities by the time they turn 17 years old, with most students quitting between the ages of 15 and 17. Musical home environment is an important factor that is associated with lower drop out rates while conscientiousness and theory of musicality showed smaller significant associations.”

Ruth N, Müllensiefen D. Survival of musical activities. When do young people stop making music? PLoS One. 2021 Nov 24;16(11):e0259105. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0259105. PMID: 34818348; PMCID: PMC8612519.

When you start unpicking the home environment factor, suddenly the issue of housing policy comes to the fore. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 3.9million children live in poverty – that’s over 1 in 4 children in the UK. If we build our leisure and performing arts facilities in places that people on low incomes cannot get to without incurring financial costs, that too is another barrier.

“So what has happened in Cambridge?”

The Perse got planning permission to build a new swimming pool a few months ago, while the whole of North Cambridge is still waiting for theirs (I’ve suggested repeatedly to councillors and developers for the garage site on Milton Road to be used for a large pool, as well as making the case for a new North Cambridge Arts Centre. In the meantime, The Leys built a state of the art theatre a decade ago. What difference would it make if Cambridge’s state school children had access to such facilities on their doorsteps? (And not have to be bussed over).

The easiest thing to do now would be to criticise the parents of privately-educated children. But then that would let ministers off the hook over their massive and cumulative strategic policy failures that have resulted in Cambridge being the most unequal city in the country. Furthermore, there is a lack of substantive research on the reasons why people stop playing musical instruments.

“Apart from very few exceptions, there is a lack of longitudinal data on musical engagement and dropouts”

Ruth N, Müllensiefen D. 2021

It turns out there was a reason I wasn’t finding much from academia as to the reasons. There’s further research to be done on the impact of anti-poverty policies on children’s access to and take-up of arts, sports, and leisure activities.

What the former Poet Laureat, Sir Michael Morpugo said in his Richard Dimbleby Lecture in 2011 – advice that was ignored by Michael Gove the then Education Secretary

Have a watch/listen to Sir Michael Morpurgo here

“So let’s not distract ourselves endlessly with what we call our schools – academies, charter schools, free schools, comprehensives. Forget league tables and targets, and let’s break free of the shackles of a narrow curriculum; it’s time to focus on the commitment and talent of the people who touch our children’s lives.”

Sir Michael Morpurgo – transcript from 21 Feb 2011

Is the same not true for lifelong learning? Mindful of successive governments focusing on training and skills for jobs because successive Chancellors of the Exchequer have chosen to restrict budgets in those areas?

“Let’s have more writers and poets and story-tellers in schools, along with artists, musicians, dancers, scientists and wizards of technology, sportsmen and women – it is these people, along with the teachers will make the difference and change lives, and let’s find the funds to do it, even if we are in the grip of austerity.

Sir Michael Morpurgo (2011)

This is the same point that Ludovic Stewart made in 1973. Deryck Harvey introduced the point:

“Mr Stewart has long been an advocate of professional musicians appearing with amateurs and he would like to see a nucleus of professionals working together in the area.” – which I noted is also the vision of Andrea Cockerton of We Are Sound in Cambridge.

Above – a dream realised: January 2016 at Tattersalls, Newmarket. (I’m at 0m25s)

The level and vision that the likes of Ludovic Stewart had half a century ago, and that Andrea Cockerton has today, stand in stark contrast to what today’s ministers have to offer.

“It was a dream”, he said. “and part of it has come true: I wanted to get the local authorities to employ peripatetic teachers [teachers who work in more than one school or college] around the schools, so that they could play in an opera orchestra in the evening – as I believe happens in Germany”

Ludovic Stewart (1973)

Mr Stewart was on a completely different level as far as vision was concerned. Had the times not been so financially turbulent, his vision may well have been adopted in other fields and subjects.

“Let’s have more trips to theatres and concert halls and museums. Let’s get children out into the open air, tramping the hills, sailing the lakes, whatever. All of this should be an integral part of their education, a right, not an extra. It will pay dividends in the end.”

Sir Michael Morpurgo (2011)

The problem is we are not building the civic and social infrastructure. The barriers are again up in Whitehall – and more specifically The Treasury which refuses to allow local councils more flexibility to tax the very wealthy industries to cover the huge deficits in infrastructure investment, and to provide the extra funding needed by those local authority areas that do not have the tax base to raise revenue from.

Furthermore, it is those extras that private schools advertise in their publicity. In Cambridge we see the posters on public transport – buses, and at bus stops. I dread to think how this makes children at underfunded state schools – and their parents & teachers, feel.

“What we absolutely do not need, is to be closing down our libraries, cutting back youth services, and provision for special needs children. Can we not see the collateral damage that will be doing to young lives? Let’s give them the time and the freedom to dream, to learn – yes, and to fly their kites. “

Ministers clearly did not.

Which is why lifelong learning is ever so important – not just for workplace skills, but for leisure and supporting children’s learning too.

In the mid-1990s I met up with someone who I was friends with in my early primary school years before she transferred to one of the local private schools – as is the experience of most primary schools in Cambridge – with the inevitable cuts to funding that come with unfilled places. When I was re-introduced to her father, he was upstairs playing on a grand piano. It was a scene that was both so unfamiliar and yet lovely – the concept of playing classical music, alone in a room, for the love of it. Remember the social culture in those days around classical music for children and teenagers in our part of town was to work towards exams. What would it have been like if parents in those days had the time, resources, and support for community music-making similar to what the Duxford Saturday Orchestra has managed for half a century? Can our generation succeed for Cambridge where Duxford has already succeeded?

“Music brings us joy and love, music deepens feeling.

Music feeds our hearts and minds, music brings us healing.

Music can be so profound, but music can be fun.

Music quickens all our lives,

Music makes us one.”

Sir Roger Norrington, Last Night of the Proms 2008 (from my old blog)

Happy New Year 2023.

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