There was a piece in the Observer a week-or-so ago about past BBC Young Musician winners – including cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who recently played at the royal wedding – calling for all pupils of primary school age to have access to instrumental lessons.
I was taught through music tutors when I was at school. I began learning two instruments from a young age, and it was this tutoring that allowed me to participate in multiple bands, ensembles, tour parts of Europe and study music right through to A-levels. These are all experiences that I will have with me for the rest of my life. I thought I was part of an elite group of talented youngsters in my school that had the unique talent of picking something up and being able to play it.
Then I came to Cambridge. If there is ever anything a person realises when making it to Cambridge, is that they are not special, there is likely someone better than them and almost everyone plays or has played an instrument. No longer was I the special music guy, but it typified a phenomenon that a great deal of research has been devoted to: there is a clear and distinct link between playing and understanding music and a child’s ability to do well in other subjects. If you can understand music, you are more likely to be higher achieving in maths, you are more likely to have a better memory and more likely to have a superior level of mental comprehension.
As it stands, there is no nationwide programme for one-to-one instrumental lessons; any that are offered are provided by (and occasionally subsidised) by the local authority or the school itself. And, with both school and local authority budgets cut in recent years, those lessons seem more and more like an expense too much, meaning there is less possibility for offering instrumental lessons, especially for students from low-income backgrounds who cannot pay part of the costs. I was lucky enough to receive tutoring from my local music service from the age of six to when I left aged eighteen, and I cannot stress how helpful it was in providing an outlet for creativity. It appalls me that there are children in this country who do not have the same standard of education because of where they live. If the government is serious about raising a workforce filled with bright individuals, providing them with music tuition is a clear way forward.
However, for the moment, instrumental music lessons seem to be reserved more for those who can afford to pay for them. A study by music exam board ABRSM found that an estimated 90% of those from the wealthiest backgrounds will have played an instrument, compared with 80% of those from other social backgrounds. It also found that students from richer homes are also more likely to have had music lessons. Again, if we are genuinely serious about social mobility, about getting bright students from low-income backgrounds into top universities and well-paid jobs, then the Young Musicians are right: instrumental lessons are one of the best ways forward.