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Generally, musicians starting out in the unsigned indie scene range from 16-30 years. One thing that is becoming increasingly noticeable is how different their musical backgrounds have been. Chatting to bands on a daily basis about where it all started for them seems to showing a disturbing pattern. The more recently these musicians left school, particularly over the last seven years, the less free school-based access they had: not only learning instruments but experiencing music education in school and attending live music events. While on the surface it would appear the government are supporting the arts with their recent funding announcements which promise to increase musical opportunities for all (I touched on this last week), the reality is that creative opportunities, across the board, are narrowing. In 2011-2012 the grant from the Education Department for non-core ( extra-curricular) musical activities was around £110 million. This year it’s only £60 million.

My music curriculum, back in the day, was filled with the chance to appreciate, compose and perform music, learning how to play musical instruments along the way. Hours and hours of time for learning, enjoying, rehearsing, developing, refining and embedding these skills over my primary and secondary career.

With increased cuts over the last seven years, the music curriculum is now something quite different. Music lessons are scheduled weekly for 30-40 minutes a week in primary schools. On paper, they boast rich and exciting plans filled with exciting musical opportunities and most teachers dearly hope to be able to teach it. The reality is different. If children are lucky, the lesson goes ahead maybe one week out of three as Literacy or Numeracy lessons often run over and creative arts are squeezed out repeatedly to cover the core subjects. If children have additional needs, it is likely they’ll be pulled off timetable during music or art sessions to go over the lesson they didn’t understand. That will keep happening week in week out as SEN (Special Educational Needs) budgets have been so savagely cut, there just aren’t the staff to support students and this seems to be how the students who don’t get it first time for a whole myriad of reasons are now supported – being retaught and retaught until it sticks at the expense of the creative arts that, incidentally, children who have additional needs desperately require for good self esteem and good mental health.

During my education, learning instruments and making music was something I did well. I was great at it. But I was hopeless at maths. If I had attended school now, I would have been that poor kid stuck in extra maths for the rest of my school life. Instead, I had an holistic education. My mental health did not suffer because of a narrow curriculum and nothing for me was off limits.

In secondary schools, music as a subject is now often cut from the curriculum all together or sidelined to an extra-curricular activity. The new Baccalaureate secondary model replacing GCSEs offers eight subjects, narrowing the creative arts opportunities students post-11 will have. Gone is a child’s right to a wide and varied curriculum and if we are not careful, gone will be the musical opportunities of anyone who can’t afford to pay for it.

During the time of my schooling, peripatetic music teachers all around the UK held weekend classes for instrument lessons, brass bands, wind bands, orchestras et al, giving students everywhere an opportunity to play, practise, rehearse and perform. I spent weekends and summer schools being part of this and I loved it.

Instrument lessons are now taught in Hubs up and down the country, which were set up in 2011 as a government response after their own cuts in music education. Children attend lessons in these places and parents fund a percentage of each lesson for a finite time. When, inevitably the funding ends after the initial set of lessons, often parents have to pull out and the lessons stop.

When I was at school, I wanted to play the violin so I had free lessons and hired a violin. I then wanted to learn the flute so I had free lessons, joined an orchestra and a band. I wanted to play alto sax and school made it happen for me. I come from a working-class background. There was no spare money for private lessons of any description, so my musical ability was sparked by an access for all approach in my state education.

Not in all cases, but an increasing number of those who are now part of a successful band or are able to navigate the scene solo generally are coming from more privileged backgrounds – and I don’t mean this in the Etonian sense of the word. Some of the younger musicians I come across had parents who were able to pay for instrument lessons and who could take them to live music experiences, drive them to events and nurture their growing interest.

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PHOTO: MODEL D PHOTOGRAPHY

There are a huge number of children who do not have access to these things. Shall we pay the gas bill or pay for flute lessons/ go to the theatre/ go to see a concert? It’s an every day reality for many families and increasingly so in these times of austerity. Music is becoming a privilege and no longer seen by the government as a necessity for all. I have a theory that this is directly linked to the workforce our government is creating through schools now. Metropolis is alive and well, people. The powers that be don’t see creativity as necessity. Yet currently, the UK’s creative industries bring over £76 billion to the UK economy and employ more than 1.7 million people. It just doesn’t make any sense to risk this, surely?

The government have a key responsibility to ensure music is accessible to all. It is a vital part of our heritage, life blood and is essential for good mental health.

Music releases a chemical in the brain that has a key role in setting good moods, a study proved. The study by researchers from McGill University in Montreal back in 2011, discovered that levels of dopamine were found to be up to 9% higher when volunteers were listening to music they enjoyed. It reported that humans obtain pleasure from music – an abstract reward – that is comparable with the pleasure obtained from eating sweets or taking drugs such as cocaine. Music psychologist, Dr Vicky Williamson from Goldsmiths College, University of London commented, ‘This paper shows that music is inextricably linked with our deepest reward systems.’

Now, for every 1000 students in secondary education now there are, on average, 100 students suffering with mental health issues. Within that number includes about 50 students diagnosed with serious depression. But we have a perfect storm here in this rise in need for provision and cuts to funding, narrowing of curriculum and disabling creative outlets.

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Right now, our unsigned music scene is thriving with musicians passionate to play, write, record and perform. Often, I meet musicians who tell me music saved them, music got them through, it was something they did to steer themselves through choppy waters. Singing, playing, performing for some was and is survival.

But all is not lost. I know about parents who taught their children instruments, I know band members who paid for a guitar by saving up for months then taught themselves and the child who taught herself the cello watching YouTube. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. But increasingly, our younger band musicans are telling me that they only started learning the guitar, keyboard or bass after leaving secondary education.

Without these outlets, schools will continue to see numbers of students with poor mental health rise as the pressure to perform well in tests increases. I just wonder when the government is actually going to admit to the reality that the cuts to arts budgets and the rise in depression in our young are inextricably linked.

As opportunities for the arts in mainstream schools disappear, this inevitably affects the diversity of those able to learn instruments and pursue music professionally; a difficult enough pursuit without being denied it throughout primary and secondary education. It is a worrying time for the music industry as music education opportunities increasingly diminish for certain socio-economic groups. It will ultimately be the voluntary sector that nurture grassroots festivals, workshops, clubs and performances in an attempt to bridge this ever-widening gap. I sincerely hope that music will still continue to flourish despite the rather bleak educational landscape ahead.

KATE O’BRIEN

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