In 1963 Queen Elizabeth II ventured, no doubt with some trepidation, into the gloominess of Birmingham’s pedestrian underpasses in order to see the progress being made with the Inner Ring road. 6 years earlier, local dignitaries holding a ceremony to celebrate the start of work on this same road had been showered with rubble. Nicknamed the ‘Concrete Collar’ the inner ring road was finally completed and opened by HRH Elizabeth II on 7 April 1971. However, separating pedestrians from traffic via underpasses soon became unpopular and successive city planners have sought to break up the pattern giving pedestrians more access to ground level crossings.
Some would argue the Inner Ring road, along with the later developments of the M6 have made Birmingham a slave to the motor car and are in part responsible for the reputation it gained, certainly in the 1970s, for being a rather dismal industrial city which was cut off by concrete roads encircling it and keeping it from open spaces. However, in recent years this has started to change. And to understand why we need to go back to the 18th century.
In 1791, Birmingham was hailed as “the first manufacturing town in the world”. Birmingham’s distinctive economic profile, with thousands of small workshops practising a wide variety of specialised and highly skilled trades, encouraged exceptional levels of creativity and innovation and provided a diverse and resilient economic base for industrial prosperity that was to last into the final quarter of the 20th century. Perhaps the most important invention in British history, the industrial steam engine, was invented in Birmingham.
The last 200 years have seen Birmingham rise from market town into the fastest-growing city of the 19th century, spurred on by a combination of civic investment, scientific achievement, commercial innovation and by a steady influx of migrant workers into its suburbs. By the 20th century Birmingham had become the metropolitan hub of the United Kingdom’s manufacturing and automotive industries, having earned itself a reputation first as a city of canals, then of cars, and most recently as a major European convention and shopping destination.
Today there is a fancy new train station, a stunning library and most recently, £57 million has been spent on a new conservatoire. Its Principal, the renowned cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, said the new building came at a difficult time for arts funding, and he hoped to use the new college “to ensure that the future arts industry is not dominated by the wealthy elite”. This will not be easy. In 2016 the Royal Academy of Music, which produced Annie Lennox and Sir Simon Rattle, took in the lowest proportion of state school pupils out of all universities in the UK.
Music education has always been tarred with the elitist brush. For years, music has been the ‘non academic’ subject in schools and not fostered as a serious career choice. This position was strengthened by the introduction of the English baccalaureate in 2010 to boost numbers of students studying science and languages. With many pupils now focussing on purer academic subjects the numbers studying GCSE music have fallen by around 10% in recent years. Coupled with this today around a third of secondary schools only have just 1 music teacher.
Music is taught in the majority of schools around the country, but it is skewed towards the rich. Those wishing to study classical music, a grounding that can lead to rock and pop, must often pay for private tuition and own their own instrument, which cuts out those who cannot afford it. We should not let this happen. If you exclude state school pupils then musicians will always be drawn from the top and Britain would be far poorer for it.
Dr Nina Kraus at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, carried out some research which found that giving children regular group music lessons for five or more hours a week prevented any decline in reading skills, which would normally be expected in poorer areas. Dr Kraus said music appeared to remodel the brain to improve the connections between sounds and meaning, the process by which babies learn to speak. “Music automatically sharpens the nervous system’s response to sounds.”
Music is therefore in some ways a complex problem. On the positive side, Recordings 4 Schools are busier than ever before recording in Primary Schools all over the UK. We believe it is so important to take the opportunity to create music in Primary Schools and then record it so it can be preserved for pupils to listen to in years to come. We do also record quite a few Independent School Choirs but sadly not as much in State Secondary schools. We are not in any way elitist and would be delighted to record at every school in the land. However, our stats do tend to support the notion that beyond Primary Schools, music does appear to be still slightly skewed towards the private education sector.
Let us hope that with the support of government initiatives and people like Julian Lloyd Webber, music education can be as important & ubiquitous as the predominance of music in society suggests it should be.