We're losing our future music makers!

The crisis in music education, with teenagers’ involvement at its lowest level ever, means the next David Bowie, Adele or Ed Sheeran will be lost to the future, unless a new consortium being launched tonight in Shepherds Bush can halt the slide. Simon Tait reports 

The Clarion is a new musical instrument that has taken eight years to create. It can be played with any party of the body, including by eye movement. It has been developed by the charity OpenUp Music to enable disabled young people to develop their musical talent.

 “No matter how extensive your disability, this instrument allows you to develop and manipulate sound in a way that would be impossible with a conventional instrument” says Mary-Alice Slack of Creative United. “But instruments like the Clarion shouldn’t remain in the realm of special needs – it should be available for any young musicians who wants to control sound differently.”

Creative United (CU), set up to enable cultural enterprises to grow, has created the consortium with OpenUp that hopes to change the shape of orchestras by the inclusion of disabled musicians and their special instruments, OHMI (pronounced “oh-me”) which makes musical instruments for one-armed musicians, and Drake Music, dedicated to making tailored solutions for individuals.

Thanks to the ingenuity of makers, instruments have been developed to meet the needs of all kinds of disability, including the KellyCaster guitar developed by Drake Music which allows the rock musician John Kelly to play (main picture) despite having minimal movement in his arms. Darren Walker, a war veteran who lost an arm in Iraq, is pursuing his musical career with a adapted trombone.  David Nabb, professor of music at Nebraska University, has learned to play an adapted saxophone following a stroke.

The new consortium, which is as yet unnamed but is supported by Arts Council England, has a mission to open up music education and influence the government, its agencies and the music industry, to help at least 25,000 families over the next four years to get access to musical instruments, for disabled and non-disabled young people.

The KellyCaster, created fro rock musicians John Kelly by Drake Music

Its inception is being announced by the government's new disability champion for the arts, the TV presenter Andrew Miller, at an event marking the 10th anniversary of CU’s Take It Away scheme which gives interest free loans for instruments, and in that time as disbursed £63m to 90,000 individuals. 

But none of the instruments Take It Away has distributed have been for disabled musicians, because none of the suppliers specialise. Slack would like to see the Clarion, for instance, available at high street music shops.

“If we’re to be truly inclusive we have to think about the needs of all children, and the crisis in education is not just hitting the disabled” she says. "Seven per cent of young people under 18 have disability, and we need to be responsive to them. We’re challenging ourselves to understand the needs of that 7% - 900,000 children and young people – who may be precluded from music education because of the lack of adapted instruments.”

But the consortium’s first task will be to research what invented instruments have been developed for the disabled than could bring non-disabled young players to music as well.

Special instruments can be two or three times more expensive than conventional ones – a one-handed flute can cost £5,000, and Professor Nabb’s special sax would be around £15,000. So the consortium is liaising with enterprises such as the Bristol Music Hub and its collaborators The Colston in Bristol, The Sage in Gateshead and The Barbican in London, set up to provide teaching for young disabled musicians, and the British ParaOrchestra which has only disabled players, to establish the exact needs.

Statutory music education is now absent from the national curriculum beyond Key Stage 3, so opportunities for young people to discover and develop as musicians are increasingly scarce, confirmed by the government’s own figures that show the number of teenagers participating in music in England is at its lowest ever level 

 “It’s never been harder for teenagers to become musicians and there’s never been fewer of them doing it; we need the government to work with us to act now to ensure that the opportunities for young people to develop their creative talents, including the opportunity to learn and enjoy music making, is open to all” Stack says.

And successful players are stepping behind the campaign, including the one-time child prodigy violin virtuoso Min Kym, the Royal College of Music’s youngest ever foundation. “Music and mastering the violin have been and continue to be integral parts of my life. They helped me bridge the gap between my native Korean culture and the culture of contemporary Britain that I was growing up in” she says.

“I really hope both able bodied and disabled kids across Britain don’t lose access to such a life changing opportunity that learning an instrument can be.”


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