I was watching BBC Young Musician 2012 on TV the other day. I don’t watch a lot of television – Sherlock, Doctor Who and Torchwood being the exceptions – but occasionally something will come on that interests me enough to make time for it, and so it was with the Young Musician competition. As a musician myself, I was eager to see the competition from other young people my age… and then crawl in a hole and feel insignificant when I realised how good they were. But it was very interesting anyway, and I recommend it to anyone with access to BBC iPlayer.
They all, without exception, practised a lot. Like, six hours a day lot. Like, getting up early to practice an hour before school, taking their cello with them to practice at lunch, staying after school, then bringing it home and practicing it there. And that was just the state school kids. A lot of them went to some sort of music school, like Chetham’s, so they had hours of music lessons during the day and support during the evenings.
And then all of them – at least, all of those in the parts of the programme I watched – went to one of the Junior schools on a Saturday: Junior Guildhall, Junior Royal College of Music, etc. Even one of the ordinary state school girls (who won! Hooray!) had to travel to Germany for her cello lessons because her teacher had moved.
My mum commented, “It’s not for the poor, is it?”
Music is expensive. You have to pay for lessons, you have to pay to be in orchestras, you have to pay to hire the instrument and then when your kid gets a bit better, you have to pay for your own instrument, and if you want a decent one that’ll easily be hundreds or even thousands, if they’re thinking of sticking with it. My flute was second hand, but it still cost four times what I’d managed to save in two years.
A while back I applied for the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, but they were full. They asked me if I was interested in the Wind Band instead – auditioning, at least – and sent me the information, which included the prices. The prices that, I might add, were not available anywhere on their website.
I took one look at that and told my parents that I wasn’t going to audition. Why? Because that would cost more than we spent on dance in a year – for what was basically a week’s course. Because music is almost always exclusively for the richer folk in society.
Dance, too, is expensive. It’s not just classes, it’s clothes and shoes, especially for something like ballet. I mean, if you do RAD syllabus, which is what my school teaches, you’ll need a leotard, tights and flat shoes, then a character skirt and shoes. And then if you do the vocational grades, you’ll need pointe shoes, which cost a pretty penny and hardly last any time at all. Or Irish dance, where even the most basic hard shoes are upwards of £50, and when your children are still growing you’ll have to pay that every few months.
Art, then. If we’re looking for budget ways of expressing ourselves, how about drawing? A pencil and paper, how expensive can that be? Well, even if you’re lucky enough to need no teaching at all, you still need the paper. To draw worthwhile pictures, you need good paper, because you need the thickness and the texture. Oh, and you’ll probably need a decent pencil too. Perhaps several, of different hardness and size. Oh, and how about some paints while you’re about it? Decent acrylic paints, they’re going to set you back three pounds per tube or more. I paid £6 for my first blue acrylic paint… admittedly, I wasn’t aware I was buying pretty much the most expensive brand ever, but I’ve hardly used any of it and still have it four years later.
Art at school – GCSE or A-Level – is one of the most expensive subjects because of all the materials you have to buy to get the different media and therefore fulfil the mark criteria.
Other ways of expressing oneself… drama. Expensive. Classes cost a fortune and often you have to pay to perform in productions. If your school has a strong drama department, that’ll lighten the load, but you’ll still be asked to provide costumes for performances, mark my words.
Writing. I guess writing is the only one you can do with just a notebook and a pen (or even a pencil, a cheap crappy one, which most people can afford). Even so, it’s easier with a computer. If you want to build a following and publicise your books and find the information you need, you really need the internet. You need access to a word processor.
I have a friend whose parents are unemployed, and a while back they were without a computer for, oh, I don’t know – four months or something? Which isn’t a lot, except when you think about how much schoolwork is set that needs the internet to do it properly. For four months she had to go to the library if she needed the computer, and as her house was far enough away from school that she didn’t get home until an hour before the library shuts, she hardly had time. And besides, with more and more libraries shutting every month, how long will it be before there isn’t anywhere you can go to use a computer – because it’s just assumed that you’ve got one, because everyone else does?
How are people who don’t supposed to write?
The thing is, so many ways of expressing oneself and being creative are dependent on having the money to do so. I’ve been lucky. My parents decided a long time ago that my musical education – and that of my brother and sister – was more important than fancy holidays. And we could afford it, if we stayed with friends in Wales instead of going abroad. I grew up being able to have lessons on two instruments, and owning my own flute and violin. I take ballet classes. I did GCSE Art. I have my own laptop (which I paid for myself).
I’m one of the lucky ones.
But so many young people out there can’t. They just can’t afford it. Their parents don’t prioritize it, perhaps – or they do, but they just can’t raise the cash.
And until something changes, until the arts are better funded and the prices go down, music and dance and drama and art and writing are going to continue to be the domain of those who are better off. Which isn’t right. Any young person deserves to be able to learn an instrument – whatever instrument they want, be it the ukulele or the harp. Any young person deserves the right to learn to dance.
I want to be a ballet teacher when I’m older. I don’t know if I’ll manage it, because it depends on whether my body stands up to training or whether I have to take another path, a less physically demanding one. But if I do, I’m not going to be the sort of teacher who favours those who do six classes a week, who charges too much for the poorer kids to consider joining, who insists on perfect uniform that can only be bought from one shop and costs £30 a leotard.
I’m going to be the sort of teacher who teaches everyone. Because the arts are for everyone, not just those that can afford them.