Educating young musicians

Over the last few weeks the BBC have been broadcasting highlights of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. As always, there have been a lot of comments about the format of the show and discussions about what can be gleaned from the competition about the state of music education in the UK. I remember being hooked on the programmes when I was growing up. I loved being able to see every stage of the compeition as well as the masterclasses that they used to have. Some of the masterclasses were filmed at the old BBC studios at Pebble Mill which was just around the corner from where I grew up so I got to go and listen to them. It was all very inspiring stuff for me.

I read with great interest the Guardian article by Mark Simpson which picked up on the high number of privately educated BBC Young Musician competitors and winners and warns that given the current climate, things are unlikely to change. Mark's article reminded me of my experience when I started at the Royal Academy of Music in London as an undergraduate in 1996. I was really shocked how many of my peers had come from either a private school, a specialist music school (such as Chethams, Wells Cathedral School, Menhuin School or Purcell School), had attended a junior music department (Junior RAM, RCM, Guildhall, Trinity etc etc) or played in the National Youth Orchestra. This had not been my trajectory into music college and, at first, I was very daunted. Many of them had known one another for years, many were reminiscing with anecdotes of their experiences in National Children's Orchestra together and very many of them already knew the various professors well. People were friendly and excited about what lay ahead but initially I felt like an outsider and was somewhat intimidated by the cliques. It turned out that, really, there was very little that I had missed out on. 

Over the years I've really appreciated the amazing musical experiences and training I had as a kid growing up in Birmingham and it has really bothered me that current and future generations around the UK are less and less likely to have such an experience. It is my absolute belief that there is no way I would be doing what I do today if it wasn't for the Birmingham Music Service. What is probably even more important though is for every professional musician like me that came out of Birmingham, there were plenty more people going on to a huge range of careers and jobs. Many of these people have continued to have music very much part of their lives. These people love music, listen to music, go to concerts, play in amateur orchestras etc etc.

It was unlikely that I would go through my childhood without learning an instrument at some stage or other. My parents love music and both had played instruments when they were children. It was that sort of family where music was very much part of the furniture, but not necessarily the be all and end all.

I went to a local primary school in Bournville, an idyllic place to go to school and, as far as I'm aware, the only UK primary school to boast a carillon tower with 22 bells. I remember being tried out for violin lessons at one point and being told that my arms were too short and replying that that was fine as I really wanted to play the flute. My mother recalls being shocked at this as I hadn't ever mentioned the flute (and I don't think I did ever again), I suspect this was bravado in having been "turned down" for violin lessons. At some stage I started going to Heather Wastie's Saturday morning recorder group at the Midlands Arts Centre and started piano lessons with a local teacher, Becky Storey.

Like many primary schools there was one teacher who was in charge of the school music and she, Miss Reed (if memory serves me right), was my form teacher in what we now call year 5. I get the impression that the visiting brass teacher from the music service was scouting for new students and Miss Reed picked a handful of us to try out.

Initially I was allocated the trumpet. I was TERRIBLE at the trumpet. I remember really struggling. As I was making very little progress eventually my teacher, Bob Vivian, made an ultimatum. Shape up or stop. I was quite keen on playing the tenor horn so I was allowed to continue but switched to the tenor horn which I LOVED!

Pretty soon I joined the South West Area Birmingham Schools' Wind Band (conducted by Cormac Loane) as second tenor horn in Eb. This was absolutely no indication of any prodigious talent, just what the music service did. They ran a series of such ensembles and joining the local area wind band was the first step in a journey that could take you all the way up to the main symphony orchestra or in other directions, with young musicians finding repertoire or ensembles that suited them. To give you an idea just how basic my abilities as a tenor horn player was at that stage, I vividly remember copying the fingering of the 1st tenor horn player as I had no idea what I was doing and some how busking through what was required of me.

The local wind band was the first step. I could then audition for the Birmingham Schools' Training Wind Band where I played tenor horn for a while (my favourite piece was Birdland) and then, thanks to my teacher at the time Mike Bates, swapped to French Horn. From the Training Wind Band you could go on to the Birmingham Schools' Wind Orchestra or the Concert Orchestra (conducted by the chap who started me off, Bob Vivian). String players had a similar "pathway" with local groups, then Junior strings, Intermediate strings followed by the Concert Orchestra. By this stage I was at secondary school and had continued lessons with my beloved teacher Mike Bates. However, as he was a trumpet player it was wisely suggested that I changed to the "proper" French Horn teacher at the school, none other than Richard Duckett, author of the Team Brass series. I already knew Richard as he, along with the rest of the brass teachers would put on "Brass Days" when all the local brass students, of all sorts of standards, would get together for a day of en masse playing. I loved Brass Days, and not just as it was a day out of normal school.

Now I was in the Concert Orchestra, things started to get much more interesting. The Concert Orchestra would go on trips and have holiday courses. We would compete in the Music for Youth festival which meant we got to play at the Festival Hall and the Royal Albert Hall and get to hear fellow young musicians from the length and breadth of the UK. We took part in an offshoot of Music for Youth, "Let music live" where local Birmingham hero Simon Rattle conducted a massed choir and orchestra of 2.000 young musicians as part of a "Keep Music Alive in Our Schools" day. By the time I got to the end of my schooling in Birmingham I had a hectic week. Monday after school was the school orchestra (conducted by Simon Palmer), Tuesday the Birmingham Schools' Brass Ensemble (a dectet based on the Philip Jones formation, conducted by Bob Vivian), Wednesday could be, when they needed horns, the Birmingham Schools' Baroque Orchestra (conducter by Alan Davis), Thursday was Birmingham Schools Chorale (conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, of Ex Cathedra fame), Friday was the Academy of St Philips (a chamber orchestra, separate from the Music Service run by Peter Bridle, recent winner of the Classic FM Music Teacher of the Year, Lifetime Award) and Saturday was the Birmingham Schools' Symphony Orchestra (also conducted by Peter Bridle). My parents were the best of taxi services you could imagine.


Throughout this time, all lessons, instruments and these orchestras and ensembles were provided by the Birmingham Schools Music Service to students such as myself - for free.


I received the most wonderful of opportunities. I received the most excellent training. I met other young musicians from all over Birmingham, many coming from all sorts of different backgrounds but being brought together to take part in these ensembles. You had a peer group which could provide the complex mix of camaraderie - the support but also competition that helps you progress. You'd be inspired by older students in the system who you could aspire to emulate (Heather McNaughton, a young musician brass finalist in 1992 was a few years ahead of me). You'd also be inspired by other students, who after term after term of doggedly trying to master some aspect of playing suddenly would be racing ahead of everyone.

Even with the most inspiring of teachers, learning a musical instrument will be a very limiting experience if all you're doing is having a weekly half hour lesson. Having all the ensembles and groups in Birmingham gave young musicians a reason to play. It gave us context, both of the music itself, but also the journey of learning an instrument. We could see and hear where we could get to on our instruments and thus returned each week to our instrumental lessons, maybe having done zero practice, but having got the instruments out of the cases and learnt ever so much from our fellow students and the rehearsals in general.

As long as I can remember we've had to fight for music to be respected in the curriculum and for pupils to have the chance to learn to play an instrument. Fewer and fewer opportunities to have lessons and instruments for free exist. Music Services get closed down. Happily, Birmingham seems fighting fit and I hope will continue to thrive for many generations to come.


Not everyone aspires to be a BBC Young Musician of the Year. Not everyone wants a career in music. But everyone deserves the opportunity to access this level of music education.