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October 27, 2003
Bernard Levin on musical education

I'm in a rush today, or rather this evening late in the evening, and have no thoughts of my own to offer. But I started reading what looks like a very fun book over the weekend, by Bernard Levin, called Conducted Tour. It's about Levin's travels to and attendance at a succession of music festivals during the summer months of 1980.

If I have any more to say about this book, it will almost certainly be at my Culture Blog, in other words. But in the Introduction, there is this little (musical) educational aside:

In 1980, the educational authorities of one or two of the English counties discontinued, as an economy measure, the provision out of the rates of individual tuition for children whose parents wished them to learn to play an instrument, and a very great fuss was made about it, from which it would have been perfectly possible to deduce that the counties in question had made it illegal, on pain of summary execution, for any child to learn to make music, rather than that they had done no more than decide that one form, and only one, of the learning in question should no longer be paid for by other people. I mention this to show what a long way we have come in a fairly short time; my mother certainly must have found it very difficult to pay for our music lessons, but it would never have occurred to her to ask her neighbours to foot the bill.

This is in connection with a music teacher who was hired by Levin's family to teach him, when he was aged 7, to play the violin.

When I think of what now followed, and by what hair's breadth I avoided acquiring a lasting hatred of the very thought of music and an even more intense loathing of its sound, I offer up a Heilige Dankgesang to St Cecilia, and beseech her to intervene, as she surely must have done for me, on behalf of I know not how many other children who, with no innate musical aptitude, fall into the hands of teachers who are quite unable to convey to them any sense whatever of what music actually is, apart from the notes on the paper and the horrible noises that the unprodigious infant makes in an attempt to reproduce them. Such a teacher was the well-meaning soul who took my musical tuition in hand, and who, for two and a half years, before I finally struck work and refused to spend another minute practising in such torment, left me in complete ignorance even of the fact that there were such things as works of music - sonatas, quartets, concertos, even symphonies - let alone that it was possible to go and listen to them, and derive much enjoyment from doing so. For two and a half years I laboured at this joyless thing they called music without so much as learning the name of a single composer, or indeed discovering that such people existed. Up and down the scales I went, progressing in the end as far as a rendition of 'The Bluebells of Scotland'; I have detested that tune ever since, and it is a mercy I have not grown up with a similar abhorrence of bluebells, or even Scotland.

What does that prove I wonder? Well, I guess one thing it proves is that the customer, when it comes to education, is not always right. Because the customer is the parents and the product is what some ghastly teacher does to a child.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:31 PM
Category: This and that

Let us know when you get to the Wexford Festival bit. It's one of the few things I've had to stop reading temporarily because I was actually weeping with laughter.

Comment by: emma on October 28, 2003 09:29 AM
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