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James Rhodes on C4 with his ‘Musical Instrument Amnesty’

17th September 2014
Posted by Simon Turp

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Last Tuesday you might have caught the first episode of C4’s new two-part documentary ‘Don’t Stop the Music’. It’s a series which follows internationally renowned concert pianist James Rhodes as he declares ‘war’ on the ‘shocking state’ of music education in primary schools in England. Rhodes visited around forty schools in his research for the series but filming takes place mainly at St Teresa’s Catholic Primary School, Basildon, where there is a £0.00 budget set aside for teaching music.

Rhodes’ programme makes clear that St Teresa’s is not alone in giving its budget to English and Maths rather than semi-quavers and treble clefs. Halfway through the first episode we see Rhodes attend a conference for music teachers where there is a clear consensus that music education will remain neglected while Ofsted continues to set narrow-minded targets in the core subjects English and Maths.

Rhodes’ programme seeks to end this combat in the curriculum – his ‘war on music’ is really a proposal for ceasefire between the academic and not-so-academic subjects. English and Maths can in fact benefit from the provision of a well-funded music department, Rhodes argues. Countless studies have shown that learning a musical instrument can boost a child’s confidence, discipline, and ability to work in a team. Progress in English and Maths, Rhodes argues, is just one of the ‘ripple effects’ of learning music.

Last week’s episode of ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ has enjoyed a far-reaching ‘ripple effect’ of its own. Rhodes’ petition to urge the government to follow through with its promise – made in 2011 – to give all primary school children in England the chance to learn a musical instrument already boasts over 50,000 signatures. According to Rhodes, over a third of primary school children have yet to receive the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. The pupils of St Teresa’s are just a small portion of the hundreds of school children across the country who have yet to benefit from the government’s plans.

39-year-old Rhodes, who sports quirky t-shirts and used music-making to overcome periods of depression, asks for more than just signatures in his campaign to improve the quality of music education. ‘Don’t Stop’ marks the launch of his nationwide ‘Instrument Amnesty’ which asks members of the public to donate their unused instruments to Oxfam stores where they can be redistributed to local schools.

By carrying out the trial-run of his ‘Instrument Amnesty’ at St Teresa’s in Basildon, Rhodes illustrates the success his campaign might achieve on a national scale. In episode one we see him ‘call to arms the people of Basildon’ and in just a few days, the people of Basildon have provided each pupil in the year 5 class at St Teresa’s with an instrument of their own. Two weeks later and the children are able to give a live orchestral performance of Beethoven in their school assembly hall with Rhodes accompanying proudly on piano.

The year 5 orchestra at St Teresa’s might not compare to the Southbank Sinfonia. However, sonorous melody is more than adequately compensated for by the Year 5’s enthusiasm for the instruments they have been given. ‘Exciting’ is the word most frequently used by the pupils to express their joy in the new project. In episode two of the series it becomes apparent that the transformational power of music is not just emotive. Many of the children show academic progress, as well as social and behavioural advances, having been given the opportunity to try out their musical ability.

A recent report published by the Royal Schools of Music suggests that there has in fact been a substantial rise in the number of children who claim they can play a musical instrument. Figures showing a 35% increase since 1991 suggest that Rhodes’ series is somewhat off-beat with reality. However, as Robert Adediran of ‘London Music Masters’ suggests, “children from wealthier families are able to access higher quality music much more readily than children from low income backgrounds.”

Rhodes’ ‘Instrument Amnesty’ will hopefully bring more opportunities to children from families who simply cannot afford music tuition. Here at Gateway I would like to continue broadcasting Rhodes’ message: with our unwanted instruments we can join Rhodes’ army to promote the cause of music education.