Where does music belong?

Let me tell you about something that happened to me when I was 14 years old. Every Saturday I travelled to London to attend the Royal College of Music Junior Department. (I loved it and it was almost all a very positive experience!) Each year we auditioned for places in the various orchestras. We had to play some Orchestral excerpts and a solo piece. After the auditions we waited until the lists were posted on a notice board in the Concert Hall. I was over the moon to have been given the position of first horn in the Second Orchestra. This was quite an achievement and responsibility. (Horn sections have five players - first, second, third, fourth and the ‘Bump’. The ‘Bump’ helps the first horn player with what is quite a physically demanding role. In lists, the players are listed in the order first, second, third, fourth, ‘bump’. The players sit in the order ‘bump’, first, second, third, fourth.) The person who had been awarded second horn told me that because my name was first on the list I was the ‘Bump’. And so he played first horn all year and I was the ‘Bump’. Even though I was congratulated by many for achieving the position of first horn, no one dealt with this injustice and I was too quiet and shy to mention it to anyone in authority myself. I confess that I still struggle with this injustice! It really is time to ‘get over it’!!

Why am I telling you this story? Because I believe it is attitudes like that of the young person who usurped my role as first horn player that lead to elitism and a schism in the music world. I once attended an open rehearsal with an orchestra of some standing. I was greeted by my horn playing colleague with, “Where did YOU come from?” and although there were some friendly people there, I did not feel comfortable or particularly welcome. This might, in part, be down to shyness on my part, but what is this atmosphere so frequently found in orchestras of a high standard?

Over the last 20 years I have found my place very happily in the world of Community Music. And I am very happy there. Community Music is much more of a ‘thing’ than it was 20 years ago. You can study community music, even take a degree in it! Most people are within easy reach of a Community Choir and local bands and orchestras abound in our communities. The Orchestral Workshops that I run are a real celebration of community music making. They are attended by some very good players as well as some less experienced instrumentalists It’s true that the more experienced players ‘carry’ us to some extent, but I can honestly say that egos do not get in the way at all. We laugh, make friends and make music together - it’s great fun.

I argue that music should be placed right in the heart of our communities and that, historically and culturally, this is where it belongs. All cultures and societies have their own music and music plays a vital role in communities around the world. I believe there is a place for individuals to refine their skills - to become the ‘elite musicians’ of their communities but I strongly believe that the defensiveness and snobbery that I have experienced in the classical music world needs to disappear. It makes me sad that the divide between ‘community music’ and ‘proper music’ exists and that our communities don’t seem to be able to accommodate music and players of all standards.

Community music groups and ‘high quality’ music ensembles both have their places - and there is no reason why community groups can’t be high quality ensembles and why high quality ensembles can’t be community groups! My call is for all musicians to welcome other musicians and for appreciation of music and music making across the board.