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Abigail's Blog: Breaking Down Barriers

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After a show last Friday, I happened to be chatting to an audience member about our respective weeks. At Sage Gateshead each week is quite different – different musicians, different audiences, different groups of people attending conferences or courses. Often this difference feels slightly surreal.

Last week’s best anomaly was a Bake Off for apprentices from businesses from across the North to mark National Apprenticeship Week: Sage Gateshead is the regional lead for Creative Apprentices and our kitchen hosted the event, starting bright and early on Monday morning. I have never seen that volume of baked goods in one place.

No two weeks are the same at Sage Gateshead. But it struck me in my audience member conversation that this is nothing compared with his weekly experience as a supply teacher, going into a different school in a different area each week to cover different teachers and different classes.  He explained that one visual clue on a Monday morning, as to what the week will be like, is whether the children have instruments strapped to their backs as they arrive in school.  This, he explained, signals to him that there is a fair chance that the children will have good concentration, an understanding that learning is a long-term project, a sense of collaboration and a confidence to get things wrong and know that it doesn’t matter. Anyone learning a musical instrument over a period of time knows these things. It’s not the only way to acquire this knowledge, but it is a pretty sure-fire way.

Cut to Saturday afternoon and Royal Northern Sinfonia and our Young Musicians Programme had a ‘Super Saturday’ aimed at primary age children and their families. Built around a performance of Prokofiev’s famous Peter and the Wolf, there were also loads of free activities including a post-show disco and the chance to try out a musical instrument with a member of Royal Northern Sinfonia. As I arrived before the show, I was struck by how packed the building was, with 37 musicians situated in every corner, each with a snake of children and their families queuing to try out an instrument.  The sound it amounted to was unique, shall we say, but the collective enthusiasm was astounding.

On an average weekend at Sage Gateshead 250 young people have weekly tuition in an instrument and play in an ensemble in our Young Musician’s Programme – some of them go on to study music to the highest level, for many it will spark a life-long interest in music, for most it will be part of the foundation of how they learn and how they are in the world.

This is happening weekly in schools, through Music Education Hubs and through a network of national organisations like Sage Gateshead – thousands of young people learn instruments on a weekly basis.

Of course, the majority of young people making music are not doing it through these systems – they are making music on their own at home or in their own bands: self-organised, informal, often self-taught. And the life skills which any kind of long-term involvement in making music lays down, can, of course, be laid down in many other ways.

The systems I refer to are only a part of the picture of young people’s involvement in music and, more broadly, the question of how we enable young people to develop life and learning skills which mean they are resilient, confident and creative people. It would be very easy to assume this quite traditional – and very physical – way of learning music might have fallen out of favour. Indeed this has been a risk: numbers have been in decline, music has moved out of the core curriculum and perceptions at large around this kind of music aren’t always positive.  But I don’t necessarily think this decline will continue: the impact and the joy people get out of this kind of learning and the life skills it leaves young people with seem to me to point to it prevailing.  There’s one big caveat to this however: it will only prevail if it becomes more inclusive and we ensure that as wide a range of young people as possible can participate.

At the heart of this issue is money, but there’s much more and there’s a long way to go. I am hopeful that we can make change happen. Last week the Department for Education launched a consultation, which will ultimately lead to a new National Plan for Music Education – a framework to ensure that as many young people as possible have access to music in school and through their local Music Education Hub.  At the same time, Arts Council England have launched a survey about Diversity in Classical Music, aiming to assess the barriers to entry and progression which people might encounter.

On a weekly basis, I see with my own eyes that demand for this kind of learning is strong and the impact it has is powerful. But I also see the challenges and the barriers, which need addressing. I think there’s a moment coming up for us to move this forward – in a way which pushes forward what’s valuable about this kind of music education, while kicking aside the barriers around it.

Abigail Pogson: Managing Director


Sage Gateshead – Young Musicians Programme

Royal Northern Sinfonia

Department for Edcuation

Arts Council England