The choir rehearsing at Music Centre on Saturday morning. Picture by Peter Boam.
WIGHT LIVINGAt the risk of blowing our own trumpets, the Island is not just good at music, it is very good — very good indeed.
So good in fact, that for many years, the Island’s music service was rated by Ofsted as being in the top 25 per cent in the country.
Let’s face it, we are a musical Island. And it’s not just that over the last decade, we have been the venue for world-class festivals such as the IW Festival and Bestival.
At grass-roots level, the Island excels. There is the IW Musical Competition Festival, which finished on Monday, Ventnor’s Music for Fun Festival, the revived Newport Jazz Club and let’s not forget that you can’t go out any night of the week without running into local bands and musicians plying their trades in pubs and bars.
Chances are that some, if not all, of these musicians will have benefited in some way from the IW Music Service.
So the furore that greeted the IW Council’s announcement its music service was facing huge cutbacks is all too easy to understand.
Nationally, funding for music education will be slashed from £75m in 2012/13 to £58m in 2014/15, with the Island further disadvantaged as the reduction in grant to the IW over the three years is 60 per cent, compared with a national reduction of 23 per cent.
What that translates into in Island terms is that the music service is facing a massive drop in funding from £360,000 in 2011/12 to £145,000 by 2014/15. The government aims to switch responsibility for the music education grant from local authorities to Arts Council England in April with the cash then awarded via a bidding process to a music 'hub’, which would then be responsible for commissioning services.
There is also the added problem that the IW Council has overspent on the service by £142,000 this year, according to the IW Council’s chief executive, Steve Beynon.
The options were laid out before a packed meeting of the IW Council’s children and young people scrutiny panel last Wednesday.
At the end of the meeting, the council leader, Cllr David Pugh, himself a cornet player, pledged to go back to central government to try to squeeze more money from them.
Other options that will be looked at during a consultation on the future of the service include turning it into a charitable trust or even approaching organisers of the Bestival or IW Festival for funding.
Just why the Island has reacted so strongly to the news of the cutbacks can be illustrated with the findings of a national survey of music services conducted in 2005 by Ofsted.
It found that 12.45 per cent of Island students between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 4 were learning to play an instrument, compared with just 8.4 per cent nationwide; just 13 per cent of Key Stage 2 pupils were learning, compared to 21.43 per cent on the IW, and fully 100 per cent of our middle and high schools were receiving specialist instrumental tuitio, compared with 88 per cent nationally.
Countless Island pupils have benefited from this commitment to music, among them, 21-year-old Edward Moore.
The former Trinity Middle and Ryde School pupil was a member of the Music Centre from 2000 to 2008 and gained a first class BA honours degree in music from Durham University. He is now studying for a Masters and next year is taking up the position of assistant director of music at King Edward’s School, Witley, near Guildford.
He said: "The many Saturday mornings I spent at the IW Music Centre were undoubtedly hugely formative in my development as a musician. The staff who conducted, administered and organised the centre were, and are, truly inspirational.
"Their expert tuition, guidance, energy and dedication were invaluable to me.
"They gave me my first conducting opportunity, something for which I am extraordinarily grateful.
"Since then, I have conducted and directed many different choirs and orchestras at university — the act of walking on stage at The Sage, Gateshead, to conduct a performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time can be traced directly back to the gamble the Music Centre staff took, letting a young and nervous saxophonist inexpertly flail his arms for a short while."
He added: "The Music Centre allows young people to experience the sheer joy of of corporately making music while providing the opportunities necessary for those who might wish to pursue music to a higher level to do so.
"In addition, the social benefits cannot be overlooked — friends I made at the Music Centre will stay with me for life."
It’s not just those who have made their careers in music who are joining the chorus of protest.
A passionate letter from an 'amateur musician’ in East Cowes claims the changes would threaten music education on the Island and make it elitist.
The letter states: "If you want to beat the class system and give all Island children a level playing field’s chance to grow and succeed in life, music education is one of the IW’s shining strengths.
"The Island boasts one of the country’s excellent music education programmes, and we are also leaders in music performance, including our large and small festivals. Our Island has also produced many home-grown, internationally acclaimed superstars in classical music, musical theatre, jazz and rock. So why would we willingly put our children, teachers, reputation and economy in such jeopardy by altering an excellent music service?"
Louis Henry, chair of the IW Music Centre Friends’ Association and himself a music teacher, said last Wednesday’s decision was the 'least worst’ way forward for the music service, which would allow time to look into a wider range of options for its future.
He said if the changes went through, the service would go into a slow decline.
He said: "You get the situation where existing, experienced staff are expensive. If you then try to make the budget work by employing cheaper staff, they are less qualified. As staff are replaced, I can see the standard going down and that will have a knock-on, negative effect."
During the meeting, the IW Council’s chief executive, Steve Beynon, said the council had, some years ago, taken the decision to ask its music service to operate on a self-sustaining basis and to, therefore, reduce, over a period of time, the amount of subsidy.
He said a lot of Island schools were, as a result, commissioning music services for themselves.
Mr Beynon said: "That is part of the challenge the current music service has got.
"If they were prepared to use the music service, we would not have the financial difficulty at the end of the year.
"We have a number of challenges. Not all schools are using the service. It is reducing some of our income and that is why we have an overspend situation.
"The music for excellence government grant is reducing. We have to find ourselves in a self-sustaining position that takes us forward, despite the amount of money that is reducing by 60 per cent from the government."