I was very sorry to read that the number of pupils in Scotland learning a musical instrument has dropped by almost 5,500 since 2016-17.
Councils are blaming “increased charges and reduction in teaching capacity due to financial constraints” for the fall, according to the recent annual survey of councils’ instrumental music services, as reported in the official journal of the teaching profession, the TES.
It’s not just a sign of the times – it never is – but a terrible reflection of what the Scottish Government (in our name) regard as important. After all, the gross cost of providing instrumental music services for the 31 local authorities in Scotland is about £30m a year. Now I know that you don’t just find thirty million down the back of the sofa, but in the grand scale of things it’s not that much. Just for some context, the total Barnett consequentials for Scotland for 2020-21 will literally be more than a thousand times bigger, amounting to around £3.5 billion.
It’s always about choices at the end of the day. As a child, if I somehow magically acquired a threepenny bit, perhaps as a reward for carrying someone’s peats home, there was a terrible choice: three penny chews, or one toffee bar. Three always seemed bigger than one to me, so I always went for the penny chews, and I’ve been paying for that choice ever since with every visit to the dentist.
All of us still face that basic choice every day. Even those millionaires I know, who wonder whether to buy this £8million estate in the Highlands or that £8million house in Knightsbridge. Usually they buy the two. But for the rest of us, the choices are more basic: can I stretch to that second-hand Audi, or will my 10-year-old Skoda manage another year’s MOT? Mince at £2.50, or those lovely looking lamb chops at £4.50?
And so to the Scottish Government with all the competing demands on the table, from health to education, from Gaelic to roads. Ahhh, but all that money spent on Gaelic road signs I hear some mutter, as if adding Port Rìgh to a sign that says Portree (or vice-versa) will bust the bank. It doesn’t. Nor does the £30million spent on instrumental education. What it does is provide essential funding for not just one of the great skills and joys of life but also one of the most useful and necessary.
The Irish say that when Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise they suffered five great losses – food, fire, house, clothing and music. It was one of the essential needs. And study after study has demonstrated that learning a musical instrument brings with it enormous mental, emotional, social, intellectual and – yes – even physical benefits. Just try playing the bagpipes for an hour or so and it certainly saves you going to the gym! The benefits of playing tunes together, whether in a traditional band or in a choir or orchestra are obvious: you learn to rely and trust others, to play as a team. And the intellectual advantages are well charted: from giving you better memory capacity to reducing stress (once you’ve mastered the grace-notes!).
But ultimately it’s really about none of these things, but about the sheer fun of it. About the joy of learning something without it being merely functional. The pure delight of being able to pick up a bodhran or a flute or a drumstick and making sounds with them. Not just a noise, but a pleasing sound. A rhythm, as when you first learned as a child that if you tapped on the desk it made a sound, and if you tapped twice it made double the sound and before you knew it you were halfway to being Buddy Rich. Or at least Jimmy Shand’s drummer.
Not everyone has the privilege or advantage of coming from a musical household, which is why musical instrumental tuition in our schools (over and above that dreaded time-tabled ‘subject’ marked ‘music’) is essential and needs to be properly funded. I think you can build a mile or so of motorway for the price of teaching everyone in Scotland a musical instrument, but I still think the latter is best value.
The cutbacks forced on all councils by government cutbacks are a disgrace. They diminish our children’s futures, reduce our nation’s cultural vitality, and shame us. If needs be, cancel those extra miles of road and teach all our children to play and enjoy the music.