The slow death of classical music education - RSA

The slow death of classical music education

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  • Picture of Ray Coyte
    Ray Coyte
  • Arts and culture
  • Education and learning
  • Schools

Classical music is becoming a niche activity not helped by the fact that fewer and fewer state school pupils are being encouraged to learn to play orchestral instruments. It’s time to reassess our priorities, argues Ray Coyte.

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Attendance at classical music performances is on a downward trend. According to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts, 4.6% of US adults attended a classical music performance in the year to July 2022. This was down from 8.6% in 2017.

There is likely to be a Covid effect to this statistic, but the same survey for the same period shows that attendances for ‘other performing arts’ – including pop, rock, hip-hop and country music, comedy shows and circus acts – increased from 15% of adults in 2017 to 21.2% in 2022.

As a member of several UK orchestras, I would suspect that the same trend is happening in this country. Does this matter? I would argue that it really does. An appreciation of classical music brings benefits way beyond the cultural aspect. Music, particularly classical music, can stimulate the brain, calm the mind and the body, evoke emotions and provide an escape from the stresses of daily life.

Economically, the UK music industry as a whole is on high. According to UK Music, sales and streams of recordings, live shows and spending by overseas tourists attending shows in the UK together generated export income of £4bn in 2022. Moreover, the industry’s overall contribution to the UK economy was £6.7bn in terms of gross value added.

The power and value of music is also recognised by the UK government in its excellent National Plan for Music Education (June 2022). This sets out an ambitious and positive pathway to allow every child to learn to sing or play a musical instrument by 2030 driven by local music hubs.

In this celebrity-obsessed world, what would children prefer – being in a band smashing out killer riffs on an electric guitar at Glastonbury or quietly playing in the second row of the violas at the Barbican?

Classical error

 So music makes you happy, boosts the economy, plus the government is right behind it. So everything is good? Well, sadly if you are a fan of classical music, things don’t look so great.

The harsh facts of the matter are as follows:

  1. Unless your parents can afford to buy you private music lessons outside of school, the chances of you learning an orchestral instrument in the state sector are slim.
  2. Many music hubs (the local education groups set up to teach and promote music) have rooms and warehouses full of unused violins, clarinets, flutes, cellos and every other orchestral instrument sitting waiting for a student to borrow. As years drift by, fewer and fewer students want to pick them up.
  3. It can take five years to learn to play a violin, averaging an hour a day of practice to become moderately competent. That’s about 2,000 hours. To get to level three of a video game can take you two hours. If you were a teenager, what would you do?
  4. Many secondary schools focus music teaching on non-classical genres – bhangra, indie, pop, rock, blues, techno, dubstep. All are important genres, of course, but classical music sits at the bottom of the priorities of so many schools.
  5. Many schools simply do not have the resources. The music room of a local school near me consists of a drum kit, a few keyboards and a wide range of electronic mixing desks. Electronic music production using loops is the only thing on offer. There is not a page of sheet music in sight.
  6. There is a skills deficit. The national plan for music is a laudable ambition but, if a primary school doesn’t have a teacher who can play a piano or a guitar, no amount of targets will facilitate the teaching of the topic.
  7. An image issue. There is a rather cruel saying in the jazz guitar world that also applies to classical music. “A rock guitarist can learn three chords and often plays to an audience of thousands, whereas a jazz guitarist has to learn a thousand chords and plays to an audience of three.” In this celebrity-obsessed world, what would children prefer? Being in a band smashing out killer riffs on an electric guitar at Glastonbury or quietly playing in the second row of the violas at the Barbican?

Classical music is becoming a niche activity. It probably won’t die completely, but it is slowly drifting towards being an elitist pastime and a posh night out for posh people at posh locations.

Beyond music education

The decline of classical music as we know it doesn’t just lie with schools and music education. We live in a multicultural society and every school needs to service their own community. Does the teaching of a Mozart concerto have a place in a school that is mostly populated by Asian children whose culture is filled with wonderful bhangra music? Perhaps not. Does a community with a Caribbean heritage full of uplifting reggae music need to learn Shostakovich?

Classical music is becoming a niche activity. It probably won’t die completely, but it is slowly drifting towards being an elitist pastime and a posh night out for posh people at posh locations.

Should we care? It depends on whether you think classical music is important. It depends if you believe that learning to play an instrument is valuable and rewarding. It depends if you think those big orchestral sounds behind so many pop songs are needed. And it depends if you think those epic orchestral sounds behind every movie you have ever watched matter.

In many respects, classical music can be compared to a Shakespeare play – sometimes challenging to understand, but culturally precious and wonderfully deep and complex.

The future for classical music does matter. And we shouldn’t simply stand by and watch classical music education die a slow death.

Ray Coyte plays classical double bass in a number of orchestras.

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  • The problem is mirrored in the slow decline of Radio 3. The more the trailers proclaiming it as 'the home of classical music', the more that music is interspersed with music that is anything but. The objection is emphatically not snobbish. There are places for all kinds of music. The problem is the banality of the programming and the rapid shift between genres. It does nothing for the frame of mind. Playing a song from an elderly American musical between a movement of a Bach cantata and a Schubert song does nothing for appreciation of the classical. And of course neither the Bach nor the Schubert will turn up on, say, Radio 2....

  • A really interesting piece addressing the decline of music education in state schools. I am also reminded of the Thomas Beecham quote “ the English do not really care for music, but they absolutely love the noise that it makes” . So maybe its also about encouraging people to enjoy the sound world and opportunities that classical music offers ( aka. its not just for selling products !)

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