TAITMAIL Who loves music? Don’t ask politicians, ask the Artistic Citizens
Free music lessons at his Coalville comprehensive are the reason why Jonathan Vaughan did not become a brickmaker in the Leicestershire village of Ibstock where he was born and where his grandfather was foreman at the brickworks.
“There were many kids from Coalville that ended up going to music college and getting eminent positions in orchestras who would have been third generation coal miners if they hadn’t had free music lessons." he says. "I wouldn’t be sitting here were it not for that fact”.
Those free music lessons at King Edward VII’s Comprehensive, now Castle Rock School, led young Jonathan to the Royal College of Music, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He is now Professor Vaughan and the new principal of Guildhall, and the fact that the path he had is closed to today’s comprehensive school Jonathans, bricked up by an education system in which there is no longer any room for music, is his inspiration now.
“We are failing our young people in every possible way we can as far as the arts are concerned” he says, and his mission is to tear down the walls, not just to open up career chances for putative musicians from non-wealthy backgrounds, but to connect the creative arts with the community in what he calls Artistic Citizenship. More of that later.
He sees the DCMS report that the creative industries are contributing £111bn year to the UK economy, but also sees “an absolute preoccupation” among politicians with teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects, leaving no room for creativity. The illogic is baffling. With no free music lessons the likelihood of kids from state schools or underprivileged backgrounds getting into somewhere like Guildhall is diminishingly small. “So the message for parents and kids is that music and art are marginal subjects and to be avoided” he sums up. “And there’s a self-fulfilling prospect that institutions like ours are going to become still more elitist”.
In his 40-year career, he says, he’s spent too long in fruitless conversation with MPs - after our meeting he was off to Downing Street for more talks about levelling up - and though he welcomes Labour’s announcement this week that the arts and creativity will have a central place in its manifesto, he can’t see a change in the political attitude in his lifetime. “The cavalry is not coming over the hill to save music education”. He quotes John Gilhooly, CEO of Wigmore Hall, who at the recent Royal Philharmonic Society Awards said that music provision in this country has become dysfunctional and incoherent.
So politicians have to be side-lined and the likes of Guildhall have to step up to the plate. Vaughan has opened six regional centres – Guildhall Young Artists (GYA) – based in schools and online, to which local schools and teachers refer youngsters aged four to 18 for music lessons by Guildhall approved tutors. There are already 1,500 in the system, 20% on bursaries and 40% ethnically diverse, and in the last registered year 39% of the scheme’s year 13 leavers went on to study music or drama at higher education.
We need collaborations among different kinds of cultural institutions, and even non-cultural ones. The old concert hall format is no longer appropriate for the work that is being made now and the demand for it, and the protocols of concert performance are excluding – when he was the LSO’s chairman he got into a heated debate with his fellow players who objected to members of the audience applauding between movements, because they didn’t know that the polite convention is that you wait until the end. “We should be happy they want to applaud; it means they’re enjoying what we’re doing. What can possibly be wrong with that?”
The enthusiastic GYA take up is proof that there is lively interest in learning music among schoolchildren, and it feeds into Vaughan’s Artistic Citizenship, but he is going deeper. With support from Help Musicians UK he is conducting a feasibility study into setting up a national scholarship for underprivileged children. “There’s scope for a basket of charities and some high network individuals to come together under a national brand and set out a national schools programme that can be delivered at local level”. And this would be Guildhall having a role in brokering a national discussion, the kind politicians have long ago abandoned.
Guildhall sees music education as a lifelong process, and it’s already the biggest single provider of under-18 music teaching as well as being the top for higher education. Its oldest student is 82. But its programmes need to be even more accessible, Vaughan says, and he is looking at ways of making degree programmes more affordable.
Artistic Citizenship is the title of the PhD Vaughan is half way through, which is also part of his plans for the school. It’s about taking creative expression into non-conventional spaces to add a new perspective to ordinary people’s perceptions of their world.
“Guildhall believes arts education is about helping people to live well in a world worth living in” he says. “It’s not only about bringing music to people. We know that the arts can be inspirational - at weddings, funerals and coronations we call upon the arts to express things that words can’t. Artists are working in communities, prisons and hospitals, but there’s also a visceral impact the arts can have.”
His example is the production the school mounted at the Barbican this week of Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking about someone on death row. “As a dialogue on the ethics of capital punishment it was incredibly powerful, and it’s a response you simply can’t get from a newspaper or a news broadcast” Vaughan says. We need commissions instigated by centres like Guildhall in collaboration which can also present the work, and Vaughan is talking to potential partners around the world. Pre-Covid people were already concerned about how the world was being led by market forces, to the detriment of culture. Me Too and Black Lives Matter threw a light on more inequalities in society, and Vaughan believes he and his colleagues need to take responsibility to reflect those shifting tectonic plates. “We need to retrain our artists to do that – it’s not only about activism, it’s working at the coalface with communities”.
Guildhall was to have been a partner with the Barbican and the City of London in the Centre for Music scheduled to rise on the site of the Museum of London. The scheme was abandoned when costs spiralled out of sight, but it would have contained a research institute to examine the social impact of the arts. Arts organisations, he says, are competing for funding and therefore overplaying their impact so that it’s hard to get a true picture.
That research is urgently needed, but it is being done quietly within institutions. Vaughan is in the process of examining the work of 24 other colleges around the world and their research within their communities, and what he has learned is already being worked into Guildhall’s prospectus.
“I have great optimism for his young generation” Vaughan says. “They have been royally screwed over by our generation who got our free education. If they’re players they can’t even afford to buy an instrument never mind a home.
“What we need to do is build the next generation of cultural leaders who are transactional, who learn how to negotiate and collaborate at the grass roots. I think that if we can set a network going out into the world doing this at a micro level we will bring about fundamental change. The ‘government knows best’ policy has failed. The only alternative is that we have to do it ourselves.”