Battle in Print: The Music Manifesto misses the real power of music

Piers Hellawell


‘I teach a class called “Everyone Can Draw”’, an American artist once told me glumly. ‘It should be called “Not Everyone Can Draw Well”.’ His complaint was not that some people cannot draw well - something he already knew as an artist - nor was he railing at the temerity of the less able in having a go. His target was the crass egalitarianism that minimises the chasm between exploration and expertise, the prevailing fiction that only the lack of a workshop holds every individual back from effortless creativity. And this view is hard to challenge, since to do so is to be caricatured as advocating selective training only for the able few, leaving the majority without ‘participation’; it’s a whiff of the bad old days of selection that triggers every alarm in the missile system of modern social outrage. Jane Austen, who knew something about social exclusion, had no scruples in attributing to one of her most hapless satire-targets, the non-musician Lady Catherine de Burgh, the delusion that art is skill-free and is mainly a matter of participation:

There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would [my daughter] Anne ... I am confident that she would have performed delightfully.

But they did not learn to play, being unlucky enough to live outside the era of the Music Manifesto (a government policy document outlining a new scheme for music education), and with it the wider spirit of today that we are all musicians held back only by ‘exclusion’. The nostrum that musical, artistic or literary achievement is but a night-class away is one of today’s most seductive illusions. But it can be destructive too, a siren hope to adults of the sort that is rightly excoriated in magazines for teenagers that gasp ‘You can be Famous!’. Serious artistic achievement is barely more attainable for most people than Celebrity, our most popular opiate, and the Music Manifesto, to an extent, is part of this game show in being so glibly ‘can-do’. This is my first reservation, that a mania for generalised enabling leads to avoiding much sense of, well, learning.

The Manifesto offers a parodic view in which music is a free-for-all party; such a vision is genial but the reality is that music is very far from open-handed with its gifts, as every young pianist or apprentice sitar player knows, and as Bart Simpson found when trying to play (without tuition or practice) the electric guitar. Homer’s rejoinder to his son, ‘remember what television teaches us: if you can’t do something straight away, it isn’t worth doing’ should alert us to the danger of the breezy insistence on involvement as an end in itself. This danger is perhaps obscured by the sort of glazed New Labour language so mercilessly ridiculed through the Blair years (‘the right “pathways for progression” must be in place - and clearly signposted. The pathways must be multiple and flexible, accessible to all…’) that it is amazing to find it emerging, wide-eyed, to graze on the unreal pastures of Planet DCMS.

It would be churlish and inaccurate to portray the Music Manifesto as a technique-free zone; the Singposium sounds a wonderful project, and the Practiceathlon creates fun and fundraising out of music’s essential maintenance. Even here, though, the impression is that practising is a desirable extra, given the possibility that ‘they’ll keep up their practice regime even when they’re not being sponsored for it. Well, hopefully’. An initiative like this should be surging ahead with advice on how to practice - a much misunderstood art - not simpering about whether there is urgent need to remind youngsters that instruments do not teach themselves.  We live in a can-do era, one that shudders at anything less than problem-free exhortation to get involved. Basic harmony, exposure to repertoire and a bit of historical background are deaths-heads at this feast, though indispensable parts of the foundation for real musical ‘can-do’.

Literacy is the best way to empowerment, the real deal for ‘inclusion’. I give credit to the Manifesto that the first of its Five Aims includes giving children a ‘sound foundation in general musicianship’, but there is no unpacking of what this might be. To become a session musician or jazz pianist without serious harmonic understanding is unthinkable, and I would welcome Manifesto aims such as ‘to encourage teaching of basic harmonic structures to young blues and jazz improvisers’; it doesn’t have to wear classical garb (another no-go designation), but it does need to be there. Unwelcome basics like this remind me of the old ladies in Fawlty Towers who are shooed up to their rooms during the Gourmet Evening: ‘I’ll send you up a menu!’ barks Fawlty as they are hustled away, too frumpy to be seen at the party.

To participate as an amateur is a rich experience, and if the Music Manifesto was concerned solely with encouraging amateur fun its positive, enthusiastic approach would suffice. However, since it sets its sights on the jobs ladder, gushing familiar DCMS-speak about music as career opportunity, more focus is needed on the demands embodied in such aspirations. Nor is it kind, though it is depressingly ingrained in today’s world of Music GCSE, to belittle detailed study as the enemy of enjoyment. A teacher is quoted praising a conductor because he ‘really enforced the importance of the enjoyment of singing, feeling the music and the vibe, rather than looking too structurally at the music itself’. It is a sad reflection of how ingrained the hostility to analytical thinking has become in our schools if a teacher can proffer this ludicrous antithesis in all seriousness: music has become about keeping children occupied, rather than about opening ears and minds to inner working through participation. Incidentally, I would be very surprised if the conductor cited in this case, whom I know and admire, was not firmly committed to structural learning through enjoyment, rather than opting for this bogus opposition between analytical learning and ‘the vibe’.

The Music Manifesto’s aims, while genial, remain unfocused. In a way its strength and weakness are the same: a huge shove for music learning is an important initiative, but at the same time there is not a single thing to pursue called ‘music’, nor is there one social function it performs. That playing in a garage band and listening to Indian classical music are both ‘life-enhancing’ does not make them the same thing. Music is many things, some of which can be seen to conflict - for example the perennial aesthetic fisticuffs between prevailing oral ‘folk’ traditions and the notation-basis of Western classical repertoire. In the Music Manifesto, meanwhile, music is portrayed as a catch-all social surgery, a huge sonic sandpit from which our youth might just stomp across into lucrative careers. I suspect the disparity, the awkward refusal of different musics to align, further encourages the Music Manifesto’s thinking away from artefact to process: in this mindset music becomes an activity - and we all know activities are ‘a good thing for kids’ - when in fact it is a result, one of infinite possible results, which the activity generates. Is this distinction important? Oddsbodikins! It certainly is, because if we concentrate on the activity, the result matters less and less; without an end result any musical activity becomes as good as any other - a means of ‘taking part’, ‘getting involved’ and the whole lexicon of education-as-child-minding - when it is not. Any child who has sat in different youth choirs or orchestras with various conductors knows that some activities are enhancing and others are dire. Their parents tend to forget this as they drink at the well of benign platitude. It is not forgotten by trail-blazing organisations like Contemporary Music for Amateurs (COMA), which has commissioned numerous new works for its non-specialist music ensembles around the UK, in recognition that if the end product is crafted and stimulating then the amateur performers will raise their game accordingly.

The Manifesto needs to proclaim music’s central truth: art changes your life, and the more you know about it, the more powerfully it does so. It is not primarily a means of making friends or of getting a job, though both those might result (more often the former); people like me do not devote our careers to writing, playing or recording music to create drop-in centres or youth employment, but to contribute to the collective imagination. The Music Manifesto needs to make clear not only that music has a positive social function, but that the goal of all this effort is the blazing power of the art form itself.

Piers Hellawell’s work has been commissioned, broadcast and performed in many countries. He has for some years taught composition at the Queen’s University of Belfast, where he has the Chair of Composition; from 2000 to 2003 he was also Gresham Professor of Music, a visiting post in the City of London. f

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