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What price for a musical child in Brighton and Hove?
An Arts Council survey has revealed almost a third of parents are put off encouraging their child’s musical interests because of cost.
Reporter Peter Truman investigates to see if we are in danger of losing a generation of musicians in Brighton and Hove
It is a classic part of childhood – the moment you decide you want to play an instrument.
For many, it starts with the humble recorder.
But among the tone deaf and talentless will be keen cellists, fantastic flautists and outrageous oboists.
For the child, it is a chance to express their creativity and often make friends in a band or orchestra.
Yet for many parents, the words “I want to learn the piano”, leads to financial headaches as well as those during practice sessions.
Lessons, instrument hire, concerts – the cost of encouraging a child’s musical interest is high.
It is no wonder then that an Arts Council survey found that almost a third of parents nationwide were put off pursuing their child’s dream due to finances.
Campaigners warned a generation of musicians could be lost amid rising prices and pressures on family budgets.
School cut backs
Neil Fraser Smith, of the Brighton Festival Youth Choir, said the lack of money in music is being felt across the board.
He said: “Schools are cutting back on music.
“You cannot say there is a high standard in education in the public arena.
“There is much less music than there used to be.
“Also with singing there seems to be fewer, especially boys. We only have two in our youth choir, the rest are girls.
“The cost of singing lessons had gone up because teachers need to make some money. It also cost money to be a member of a lot of choirs.
“The fee is three or four times what it was 20 years ago. The trouble is nobody has any money to do any concerts.
Cost of performing
“We are having to put on our own promotions. And if you don’t make cash out of that then you don’t have a choir. We used to do three concerts in Brighton Festival but now we only do one.
“We used to go to London five times a year to places such as the Royal Festival Hall but now we cannot afford to.
“We are amateur but they used to pay for expenses. Now we have to pay for rehearsal time, pay for a conductor and hire a room to rehearse in.”
But Mr Fraser Smith said the saddest thing of all was the lack of music take-up in schools.
He added: “I have signed more petitions in the last two or three years than in the rest of my life and 90% have been about stopping music cuts.
“People don’t go to productions anymore. They just stay in and watch TV and DVDs.
“We mainly get university students who are studying music at the choir.
Music fading away
“The choir is considered one of the top five in the country and we get employed when there is money.
“But there is a danger that music in general will just fade away. The cost of instruments is just exorbitant.
“When my daughter left school at the time we were mortgaging our house and could not afford to buy her an instrument.”
And on the face of it things are getting even harder.
The council’s budget saw major cuts hovering over Brighton Music Service.
Hundreds of young musicians staged a mass busking protest at Churchill Square in January last year. More than 3,000 people signed a petition against proposals to withdraw £107,000 from the Brighton and Hove music service as part of council budget cuts.
At the 11th hour, a Conservative amendment meant it was spared the axe.
Preserve city's reputation
Councillor Graham Cox, chairman of the Brighton and Hove Conservatives, said it was important to preserve the musical reputation of the city.
He said: “We were concerned the cuts were unnecessary and counterproductive.
“As a result we wanted to do everything we could to protect the service.
“Music is one of those things that is okay for a parent who is well off as you can afford to pay for private lessons and instrument hire.
“It is much, much harder for children from less privileged backgrounds to access it.
“We were concerned and we need to do as much as possible to not just keep the service going but to make it good.”
There is still bad news on the horizon with the Arts Council still looking to cut £69,000 from the service’s budget.
Impact on service
Council officers admitted in its report at the beginning of the year that the shortage in funding could impact on those wanting to use the service.
A report to the Children and Young People committee in January said: “[The Arts Council cuts] will require the trust to decide whether to further increase fees or reduce areas of expenditure.”
Coun Cox questioned the Government quango’s decision to wield the axe at the service.
He added: “Of course it has to do its bit to get the national finances in order but a music service which helps less privileged people is not the first area it should be looking at.”
While the Arts Council may be taking away with one hand, it is at least offering a compromise with others.
It has launched the Take It Away scheme to try and make musical instruments more affordable.
It allows people to apply for an interest-free loan between £100 and £5,000 for the purchase of any kind of instrument and spread the cost over nine or 18 monthly repayments with a 10% deposit at the point of sale.
Of course, that is still a lot of money to a low-income family but it is a start.
Brighton’s Music Room shop is an official Take It Away retailer.
Store manager Shaun Lyons says: “The look of relief on parents’ faces when you tell them about Take It Away says it all.
“All parents want to encourage their children as much as they can and this scheme allows them to buy the instrument that will help them both enjoy playing and also develop their skills.
“We love being a part of a something that helps make the joy of music so accessible and we’ve sold several instruments through the scheme.”
The Arts Council has also given funding to the new Brighton and Hove Music Education Hub, which is putting on a performance called Soundcity.
Its vision is for all children and young people in the city, whatever their background and skills, to be able to engage with, to enjoy, and to be inspired by high quality music opportunities.
Helping keep passion for music learning
Vaseema Hamilton, principal at BIMM in Brighton, said the specialist music school had seen more applications for scholarships than ever.
She said: “It is two-fold.
“Our presence in Brighton gets lots of interest.
“But certainly the economic climate is starting to bite for parents.
“So we have seen the level increase in scholarship applications with many people in that financial state.”
Aware of the challenges out there, with “a sense of doom and gloom at the challenges of accessing traditional music tuition”, BIMM has made its courses more accessible.
It has removed additional fees for its Level 3 diploma and is restarting its level 2 diploma, allowing students to do a GCSE in a musical environment with a view to continuing that passion in higher education.
Mrs Hamilton said that while the private sector for lessons could be expensive, the college had found more students were looking online to help them.
She added: “Because of the way digital music is being created and performed, young people are leading on this.
“Most have access to the Internet and a lot teach themselves to play through online engagement.
“We need to help people understand more of what is out there.”
But she conceded at primary school level was where the war really needs to be fought, and online tuition could come up short.
She added: “There is a frustration around instrumental tuition for primary school children.
“Between 4 or 5 and 11 is when they get passionate about music and we want to sustain that.
“There is a lot more available for older age groups instead.
“But it is about that first experience and it needs to be an intimate one sometimes.”
Arts squeezed out
Mrs Hamilton said that was partly down to cuts but also to arts being squeezed out of mainstream curriculum.
It is clear there are schemes out there to try to bridge the gap that puts parents off investing in the musical dreams of youngsters.
But there appears a lack of knowledge among those from struggling backgrounds about all of the options available in the city, and the many organisations working hard in the face of shrinking budgets to provide these services.
Yet it is at primary school level where the most work needs to be done to fire the passions for future concert pianists and virtuoso violinists.
If this is not tackled, the plight of music, down to the humble recorder, could end on a bum note.
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