Sunday, 29 March 2009

Young people, culture and excellence

'Young people', 'culture' and 'excellence' aren't often mentioned in the same breath by the media today, but last night they were all to be found at a concert given by The London Centre for Young Musicians, that our daughter attends on Saturdays. The CYM draws its students from all across the London boroughs.

CYM gives its students an excellent musical education in all sorts of music - classical, jazz, and world music. Many CYM students graduate to the London music colleges, or go one to study music at university. Many play in the London or national youth orchestras.

Last night's concert was typical of the broad curriculum the students study: everything from Monteverdi's 'Beatus Vir' to South African jazz. A recorder ensemble not only played but acted a new piece that brought together the medieval composers Machaut and Dufay in a modern bus station - yes, it did work; the orchestra played Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' with a CYM student as the soloist.

What is so good about the CYM and worth trumpeting is the fact that it is introducing young people to the western cultural heritage - their heritage - and does so at a level of excellence that makes them work hard. It was inspiring to hear the choir give a polished, confident and stylish performance of Monteverdi's 16th century masterpiece. This is worth preserving and fighting for. Sadly, though, some of the London boroughs take the mean-minded and quite silly approach that they can individually do this better, and refuse to fund their students at CYM. Then they turn round and accuse CYM and similar organisations of being elitist - catering only for children whose parents can afford the full fees.

I passionately believe that introducing children to our heritage of western classical music is something worth doing - even if, ethnically, they don't come from that background. Music that is good doesn't have to be justified - and all children should have the opportunity to engage with it.

Before I was ordained I taught music in a boys' grammar school, and what motivated me was the desire to share with others something that I thought was good of itself. My whole teaching career was made worthwhile when one spotty fourteen year old boy said of a Beethoven piano sonata that I had played: "It's not bad, is it."

I suppose sharing something that is good is what has motivated me to become a minister in the church. Jesus came with good news, which he offered to all who would follow him. He welcomed all who would take the challenge, but he didn't include those who wouldn't - in fact he made it quite hard for them and let them go away. The gospel is good news for all; it opens up a way of excellence that has its challenges; it redeems people from mindless oblivion; it changes people who think they may be worthless. Helping people to understand good music and helping them to understand the gospel are very similar - for me at least. That's why I want as many people as possible to experience both.

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