July 8, 2011 7:15 pm

Starting on the right note

Growing numbers of children take up musical instruments - but do they get a step up in life, or does relentless practising put youngsters off music for ever? Rebecca Tyrrel reports
The Millard-Clothier children

The Millard-Clothier children, clockwise from top left: Honey, Gabriel, Lucien and Phoebe

Roger Pascoe, head of music at Hanover primary school in Islington, north London, says 11-year-old Gabriel Millard-Clothier throws himself into everything he does. Gabriel plays the flute, the violin and the bass recorder and has recently been awarded a £1,000 ($1,600) bursary from the London Symphony Orchestra, which means he gets a year’s mentoring from a senior orchestra member. He has already played on stage at the Barbican.

Gabriel’s sister, Phoebe, 13, plays piano (classical and jazz) and the cello. Then comes younger sister, Honey, eight, on piano, flute and descant recorder and finally six-year-old Lucien, who plays classical guitar. Is this a typical family? Is Hanover primary an unusually musical school? Pascoe says the headteacher is keen on music and promotes it. Gabriel thinks Pascoe is an awesome teacher. On the other hand, Gabriel doesn’t like to practise. “No child likes to practise,” says Pascoe. “That would be strange.”

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Phoebe has a music scholarship at St Marylebone School in London, a top state school. Competition is intense: for entry in September 2011, the school had more than 200 applicants for eight music places.

The numbers reflect a trend: many children are taking up one, if not two or three musical instruments despite the costs, which can run into thousands of pounds for a family with two or three children and much more for someone such as the writer and broadcaster Rosie Millard, mother of the Millard-Clothier children. While she may be at the extreme end of the spectrum (her children’s regime is detailed in her blog, helicoptermum.com), Millard is certainly not alone in her determination. Many parents have a quiet obsession with making their children learn music, even if they are not musical themselves.

Pascoe confirms that the number of children learning instruments at his school is rising. In independent prep schools, music is pretty much compulsory for children who will be fighting for places at public schools. At St Hugh’s, a co-educational prep in Faringdon, Oxfordshire, head Andrew Nott says more than half the pupils are learning at least one instrument – and the number is rising. At Norland Place, an independent prep in Holland Park, west London, head of music Helen Davies says the number of instrument lessons is circumscribed only by space in the timetable and the availability of peripatetic music teachers.

It’s easy to understand why musical families want their children to continue family traditions. But there are also sensible reasons why music – more than any other extra-curricular activity – makes perfect sense for 21st-century children.

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music magazine, a preschool music teacher, and mother of two instrument-playing children, aged eight and 10. She trained as a cellist and says music is unique because it engages every part of a child: “Drama builds confidence through self-expression but lacks a physical discipline, while sport has the physical discipline but misses the aesthetic dimension. Dance combines both but may require a specific physique, so it’s not right for every child.

“Through playing music, or singing, the child is sharing and communicating with others, processing extremely complex encoded information, expressing themselves, building up technical prowess through solitary hard work and exploring some of the greatest achievements of western culture. Music gives children another language with which to communicate.”

Though the number of children learning instruments is growing, the number of jobs in orchestras, ensembles and choirs is not. Christopher Humphrys, a successful cellist and son of the broadcaster John Humphrys, says: “A child has more chance of becoming prime minister than turning into a concert pianist. These days there aren’t any big bucks to be made. Do I want my children to do it? The simple answer is no.”

So, when only a very few musicians go on to make more than a decent living, why are more parents pushing a child to practise an instrument relentlessly every day, making them get up early in the morning because the evening has to be spent doing homework? What is the goal for Millard, who says she shouts, screams and offers bribes (Phoebe shows me the iPod that was used last year to entice her to practise)?

“Taking it up as a career isn’t what it is about really,” says Millard. “I think it is important for children to grow up with music in their lives – it’s great to be able to play an instrument.” She says she is “thrilled” about Gabriel’s bursary, “really pleased” that her daughter won a music scholarship and is “very excited” that Phoebe will be able earn some extra cash playing jazz in a bar when she is at university but she doesn’t want her children to become professional musicians.

Monica Moezinia, an American living in Kensington, feels the same way. Her son Frederick (Ricky) is a 14-year-old violinist. He is very talented, well beyond Grade Eight (the highest grade of the standard exams set by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music). Moezinia says she derives “deep enjoyment” watching Ricky on stage. He recently performed at a fundraiser to benefit musically gifted children in Israel. Talented as Ricky is, however, he is every bit as keen on playing football. And then there is his academic career – where might that take him? “Look at the last secretary of state,” he says, referring to Condoleezza Rice, who is a concert pianist when not helping to run the world.

Learning an instrument is increasingly seen as a vital part of a good education. Millard says: “It is not just because children can get into a better secondary school via a music scholarship, an interest in music gives you access to the civilisation of the western world.”

Certainly, in the battle for places at top universities, a strong music section on a CV can help. Rachel Spedding, executive director of Oxbridge Applications, which prepares and guides applicants through the Oxbridge exam and interview process, says “playing an instrument is extremely worthwhile” for candidates. “It demonstrates commitment and dedication, as well as creativity and intelligence. That said, last year Oxford University reaffirmed that acceptance ‘is a purely academic judgement’ so brilliance in music alone will not guarantee a place.” Spedding says the discipline needed for learning a musical instrument while juggling academic work can help with the pressures of applying for university.

At Cambridge, Spedding says, there is usually a general interview that is not conducted by subject tutors. “They want to know how you are going to contribute to other aspects of life – music, drama, dance. All these things bring something else to the college.”

Despite its attractions, there’s no getting away from the years of hard work involved in a musical childhood. Sally Ewins, assistant head of music at St Hugh’s, is also following a successful career in music and is passing on to the next generation the non-negotiable fact that there is no such thing as a musician who doesn’t practise.

She says she entirely understands why her mother once stole her flute. “It was a clever thing to do. I was in a terrible panic because I thought I had lost it. What she did made me start practising.”

Two of the teachers I interviewed told me they knew of a successful, high profile musician (possibly she is the same person) who was grateful for the relentless parental pushing she received. However, the point of their anecdote is that the varnish on this woman’s violin was stained with childhood tears. Is this how tomorrow’s adults will see it when they look back on a childhood dominated by music practice?

The balancing act for parents with musical children is that they must push but not too much. The downside of too much pressure to perform well – whether musically, in the classroom or on a sports field – can, in a few teenagers, manifest itself through rebellion or more serious problems such as eating disorders.

Wallace cautions against parents foisting particular “prestige” instruments, such as the violin, on to children. “It can become stressful and actually mess up their relationship with music. Your child might be better off singing in a choir, playing the gamelan, encountering music through dance, or simply being a fantastic listener.”

Instead, if children are going to learn an orchestral instrument, Wallace suggests that parents go beyond the most popular – flutes and clarinets – for which there are very few orchestral places and consider the viola, double bass, bassoon or French horn. These may be more testing instruments but those who persevere will be offered lots of playing opportunities.

On a visit to the Millard-Clothier household one evening, there is no practising and a computer game is on the go. The children, says Millard, practise in the mornings. Nevertheless, she is tough. “What I hope is that I can bully them to a position where they want to practise on their own because it will eventually become fun.”

Does Millard worry about what this enforced music is doing to them? “I think Phoebe will thank me because she will be able to play jazz piano and her friends will wish they had a parent like me.”

Certainly it would seem that for many parents there is an element of living vicariously through their offspring. They have no desperate wish for them to go on and be the next virtuoso. But who wouldn’t like to be able to walk into a room, sit down and play a sonata? If only, our obsession with music seems to be saying, our own parents had pushed us harder when we were children.

Which instrument will suit your child?

Piano: fantastic instrument to start young and it’s vital if your child is serious about music generally, writes Helen Wallace. Suits those happy in their own company – it can get lonely until the child is good enough to accompany others, then it’s a great social ticket.

Violin and cello: both are very demanding and children need to start young. Think about switching to a viola for more group playing opportunities.

Double bass: cumbersome, but children can start later and players are always in demand for both jazz and orchestral groups.

Clarinet and flute: good starter instruments that produce a gratifying sound but there are only two places for them in most orchestras.

Oboe: wait until they have adult front teeth and some breathing stamina. A challenging but rewarding instrument. Talented players are always in demand.

Bassoon: a mellow, underrated instrument that can be taken up after starting off on a clarinet or oboe. Gives many more ensemble opportunities.

Trumpet: popular and relatively easy to get going but there are few places in youth orchestras. Consider a trombone or tuba for more chances to play. Good for jazz.

French horn: very challenging to begin with, so it’s good to start on another brass instrument first. Requires perseverance but horn players are always needed.

Percussion: a good option if your child is a pianist but wants to play in ensembles. An expert teacher is vital to make progress, though.

Recorder: a great starter instrument but if you carry on, you’ll need a specialist teacher in baroque or early music.

Guitar: technically awkward for the very young (try ukelele) but can be rewarding in all sorts of self-directed music, alone and with others.

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