The Coronation of King Charles III came in the same week that we heard the organisation Psappha, which promotes new music, had been forced to close because of funding problems. This in itself followed hard on the heels of threats to close the BBC Singers and reduce the size of BBC Orchestras by 20%. The accessibility of music lessons for schoolchildren is decreasing all the time. Many children can only learn a musical instrument if their parents can pay for lessons. Fine instruments are out of reach for many families. Music is not on the list of subjects accepted for the EBacc qualification.
Brexit has emptied the diaries of musicians who used to pop over the Channel to play in other European countries – since Brexit, the paperwork has increased so much (for both sides – artist and promoter) that many European invitations have just disappeared. Many musicians are reluctantly thinking of leaving the profession.
Meanwhile, audiences are still nervous about going back into crowded concert halls. I know quite a few people who just haven’t felt like venturing back to concerts since the pandemic. Uncertainty about the situation has taught people to wait until the last minute until booking concert tickets. This in turn causes anxiety for musicians and concert organisers who never know until the last minute whether the concert will be financially viable.
By contrast, yesterday’s Coronation service in Westminster Abbey was full of glorious music excellently performed. There were ‘blended’ orchestras with participants from major orchestras across the UK. There were blended church choirs with the wonderfully high standard of singing which is traditional in such choirs. There were individual singers such as the marvellous Bryn Terfel and Roderick Williams. There was new music specially composed for the occasion, including quite a bit of music by female composers (hooray!) There were military bands performing with great aplomb. There was the Ascension Choir, teaching us all a thing or two about music and movement.
I followed people’s comments on Twitter as I watched the ceremony. It was clear that music played a big part in creating and resonating with the emotion of the day. Everyone praised the music and musicians, mentioning over and over again the high standards of performance.
Well, people should enjoy it while they can, because you don’t get high standards of music-making without years of training, hopefully begun at a young age so that neural pathways are laid down in the brain as early as possible.
Without expert training, few will get to be accomplished musicians. Without accomplished musicians, there will be nobody to perform the centuries-deep repertoire written for skilled performers. To play it, musicians need to be able to read music notation to a high level of complexity. But is reading music taught in schools? It often isn’t. To keep the great repertoire of the past alive, we need to be continually training new generations of musicians to play, read and perform with confidence and understanding of different styles. We need to keep fostering a culture of youth orchestras, chamber music groups, choirs and bands. Otherwise, future national ceremonies will unfold to a soundtrack of AI-generated pap.