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Music Education: Are Excellence and Access Mutually Exclusive?

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Music is fundamental to the human experience - its effect on our mood, its ability to enhance our emotions and communicate across language barriers is accepted, if not fully understood, by us all. From the womb to the grave, music plays a part in all our lives. When we engage with music - singing, playing or listening actively - we gain so much more. So why are we still arguing about how music should be incorporated into the education of our young people?

In the ever changing landscape of music education we still seem to be split into two camps: the advocates of social and emotional benefits of music - music as a social tool - and music as a creative, expressive and cultural activity with excellence as its goal. Why should these been seen as mutually exclusive? How can we ensure that by involving the broad spectrum of the population in learning an instrument at an early age we are capturing those who have a particular aptitude and want to make music the centre of their lives?

For most of my career I have been fortunate enough to witness for myself the extraordinary power of music - whether watching an elderly person with dementia accessing a rare memory of their former days in response to a Live Music Now performance, or, currently, seeing talented musical children blossom in the environment of a supportive orchestral community at the National Children's Orchestras.

Helping children to fulfil their musical potential works to everyone's benefit. They grow in confidence, learn to understand the rewards of discipline and hard work, develop their emotional intelligence and deepen their cultural understanding. They're growing into good citizens at the same time as learning to play or sing as well as they possibly can.

This year, we're celebrating the 35th Anniversary of the NCO's mission to identify, nurture and showcase the achievements of talented young musicians aged 7 - 14. Naturally, we're in touch with many of the thousands of alumni who played in the orchestra as children. Time and time again they tell us how formative the experience of rehearsing and performing in the orchestra was for them. Some have pursued a musical career like the exceptional young conductor Daniel Harding, or BBC Young Musician of the Year 2000, cellist Guy Johnston. Others have taken the understanding they've gained through music with them into the boardroom, GP surgery or legal profession. And many have caught the bug of working with children and young people, and have gone into the music teaching profession themselves.

Last Sunday, the NCO brought a group of those music teachers together - a group of music tutors from the NCO including an exNCO member, and a group of instrumental teachers working in the state sector. They ran a challenging and inspiring day for around 25 string players aged 8 to 13 in Selby, North Yorkshire, focussing on aspects of musicianship which could be seen to have had an immediately positive effect on their playing, when they performed for friends and family at the end of the day. All these children have had their first musical experiences through their school and local Music Services and their musical talent and potential is recognised. Bringing them together allows the NCO and North Yorkshire Music Hub to offer them a tailored musical experience to take them to the next level. Learning and performing alongside their musical peers, the children's own experience is collaborative too, their progress and achievement nurtured within the orchestral environment.

A couple of days later, I visited the Music for Youth National Festival in Birmingham. Hundreds of primary school children converged on Symphony Hall for the day to perform in their school music ensembles; choirs, orchestras, brass groups and more. The buzz and excitement was infectious; there was an enormous range of musical tastes and talent, with enthusiasm as the unifying factor. Every single one of the children performing will gain from their musical experience: some will go on to make music the driving force of their lives, either professionally or at a more personal level. Only by offering children a first class introduction to music, and enabling those who show talent to develop that to its highest level, can we be said to serve the needs of our children.

In these straightened times we need to seize the opportunity to work together: identify where our, and others, specialist skills lie and combine them for mutual benefit. I don't want to overstretch the orchestral analogy, but it is pretty clear that those of us in music education still have a lot to learn from music!