Peter Phillips

Class prejudice is keeping talented children out of classical music

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Musicians have always had an uncertain social status in England, the traditional reactions varying from amused condescension to mild repulsion. The former was the old class-based judgment on men who had chosen to take up a profession which at best was associated with society women and at worst seemed menial; the latter directed towards brass players from rough backgrounds whose lips juggled pint pots with mouthpieces and not much else. The most respectable practitioners were probably organists, often referred to as ‘funny little men’, but taken seriously. As evidence of the class-based comment, this was Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son towards the end of the 18th century: ‘If you love music, hear it; go to operas, concerts and pay fiddlers to play to you; but I insist upon your neither piping nor fiddling yourself. It puts a gentleman in a very frivolous, contemptible light...Few things would mortify me more, than to see you bearing a part in a concert, with a fiddle under your chin, or a pipe in your mouth.’

The class system has weakened since Chesterfield’s time, but if there is any walk of life where instinctive prejudice is still to be found it is in music. At one level there is nothing more telling than eager promoters referring to a troupe of doughty professionals as ‘girls and boys’, no doubt anticipating an evening of carefree fun with entertainers to match. But there is a more serious side to the mindset, which shows itself when politicians talk about funding music lessons.

Here we come to conflicting prejudices, minutely examined by David Wright in his excellent new study of the Associated Board exams and their history (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural History, Boydell Press 2013). The essential problem is that music lessons are very expensive compared with other artistic trainings, requiring one-on-one tuition if any satisfactory result is to be achieved and presupposing that the student will study over a long period of time. There is no quick fix, much to the inconvenience of politicians. Who is to pay for this? Traditionally it was the parents of musical children, which turned the profession into an interesting mix of those whose parents could just afford it — since rich children rarely went this way — and those from poorer backgrounds who were good enough to win scholarships.

By the 1970s the scene for training musicians in our schools had evened up quite nicely. The government seemed to have accepted the inconvenient truth that musical ability can show itself in children from any background, and ran a programme of funding that gave money to Local Education Authorities to spend through their schools specifically on music lessons. This extended itself to the establishment of county youth programmes, with their own orchestras and choirs. I particularly remember the orchestra in Leicestershire, which made a big name for itself, but there were equivalent achievements throughout the country. According to David Wright, this happy situation was killed off by the 1988 Education Reform Act, which obliged the LEAs to make individual schools more responsible for their own budgets.

In the tussle for money that followed, music lessons (as opposed to music-appreciation classes — a more passive and infinitely cheaper activity) tended to lose ground to other subjects. Slowly but surely music lessons retreated to the place where they had long been, with the ultimate irony that when the Blair government came to form its education policy in the late-1990s it assumed that music lessons were a self-funding middle-class activity, an assumption that only ten years earlier had no longer been accurate. To give an impression of doing something about music for the less well-off, Blair launched two quick-fix and costly initiatives (Music for the Millennium and the Music Manifesto), which vanished after a year with the entirely predictable result that those who had been encouraged to sign up had made little real progress, and were then left in the lurch.

Professional musicians remain a difficult body of people to classify. They are not posh; they are not detectably from really poor backgrounds; they have known how to work drillingly hard at one thing, sometimes against the advice of their families; they do not expect to earn a fortune but fight tooth and nail for what they do think they are worth. They tend to be plain and undemonstrative, difficult to gauge though easy to get on with, which may explain why they have proved easy targets for people to pin their petty theories on to. What I keep coming back to is the number of talented children, rich and poor, who have been denied the opportunity to develop as musicians, because their talent one way or another has not been taken seriously.