Barry Manilow and the decline of classical music

(Originally posted 2009)

A couple of recent conversations, both with educationalists, have filled me with gloom about the future of classical music in the UK. The distinct impression gleaned from both is of the slow death of classical instrumental teaching in schools. “My school used to have half a dozen outstanding musicians at any one time”, one said to me. “But now they all want to do electric guitar or drums”. Another lamented the death of the local youth orchestra. “They lost the endangered instruments first, oboes and bassoons, and then they just didn’t have enough players and had to shut it down”. What, I asked, was the prospect of finding a good local young soloist to do a concerto? Much shaking of heads. “You might find someone, perhaps in one of the private schools. But I’d have to put out feelers. I can’t think of anyone off hand.” This autumn a local University renowned for its music department, one told me, had no string players in its new intake of students.

It is a cliche that things are not what they used to be, one widely mocked because we all know that things have a tendency to remain exactly the same; but let me record one way things truly were different in the 1970s. I had violin lessons till I was 17, but hardly had I got into double figures when I realised that girls had an irrational weakness for boys who could play the electric guitar. So the violin was a chore (enjoyed playing, hated practising), whereas the guitar was a pleasure to be indulged whenever there was a free moment. The school had a visiting guitar teacher, but the kids who had lessons were universally useless at rock and roll. That’s because you cannot teach someone to play it. You have to work it out for yourself. Classical music requires technique, and if you can acquire one it will take you almost to the highest level, where only the last few percentage points of musicality marks the difference between Alfred Brendel and a journeyman. But rock and roll is not like that. In a discipline which prizes above all else the ability to improvise, every player has to find their own way: after all, the great masters of the electric guitar, from Hendrix to Richard Thompson to Tom Verlaine, have styles so divergent they might be playing different instruments.

Not only were lessons useless, but they were given by adults. Pop music was ours, the music of the young, and we would no more have let them teach us about it than they would have known how. You may say that the slow death of classical music (if that’s what it is) is just a natural consequence of an art form’s obsolescence. Perhaps. But is not that also true of pop music? Is it not the case that when a medium is taught in schools, when there are exams you can take in it, when Phd students pore over the lyrics to Dark Side of the Moon, the medium’s time is up? When my children know more about the Beatles and AC/DC than I do, when the latest in electro-pop (Lady Gaga, La Roux) is just the 80s revisited, when pop is condemned to rehash the cultural stylings of its heyday for a new generation, when the X-Factor churns out singing strippers who would make perfectly capable cruise-ship chanteuses in another life, isn’t that the sound of a dead horse being flogged? When will the new punk come to sweep it all away? And if it does, will it just be a re-hash of the old?
Kids do not need adults to tell them about pop. They will spend their youth discovering it and making it for themselves. But they do need adults to tell them about classical music. Why? Well, because although it’s amongst the greatest art the West has ever produced, because although once discovered it is an emotional and psychological resource for life, most kids won’t find it on their own: they are put off by the language and the lack of surface glamour which most pop music strives assiduously to cultivate. There are other reasons for the decline of classical music in Britain, but a woeful blindness on the part of educationalists must take its share of the blame. I have heard teachers say in all seriousness, “We’re glad we don’t have to teach classical music at GCSE any more: it helps with inclusivity. Now we’re doing keyboard and karaoke more kids want to get involved”. It is with difficulty have I restrained myself from shouting, “Take that, you smug bastard”, whilst beating them with a riding crop. Would they make the same argument about Shakespeare? Can you imagine someone saying, “We don’t bother with Macbeth or Hamlet any more, because the kids don’t want to get involved. We let them do Harry Potter or Garth Nix instead”? And yet that is effectively the place we have reached. A generation of teachers who were themselves taught little about classical music is now responsible for teaching a new generation of children. We have sown the wind, and are reaping the whirlwind.
My remedy? How long have we got. I would start, and it would only be a start, at the very bottom, in primary school. Every classroom has a CD player already. Make teachers play classical music every day while the kids are doing reading or drawing. This already happens in my youngest daughter’s school. Play the Brandenburgs. Some Handel. Start them off slow. Get the language into their heads. That would do to get them going.
Unfortunately my daughter’s teacher is a Barry Manilow fan. She now knows the words to Copacabana by heart; but when I conduct Beethoven’s 5th tomorrow night I know my wife will struggle to persuade her to come.
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