Ian Clayton column: A musical north-south divide

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It must be about 15 years ago now when I was invited to work at Wycombe High School, a girls’ grammar school on the edge of the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire.

The National Youth Orchestra was holding a summer school there for talented and gifted young musicians.

I was drafted in alongside some brilliant music professionals to lead creative writing workshops so we could put together a performance of words and music for an invited audience by the end of the fortnight.

At the time I was working at Yorkshire TV and I mentioned to my bosses there that they might like to make a documentary if we could get some of the young people in the orchestra who were from our area to be a focus.

I didn’t realise how naive my idea was at the time. When we did a bit of research I soon knew.

In the whole of the National Youth Orchestra then, there were just two musicians from the Yorkshire Television region: a young man from Bradford who played the double bass and a young woman from Nottinghamshire who played a violin.

I don’t have figures that tell me the geographical make up of the National Youth Orchestra today, but I did see some interesting figures about the National Children’s Orchestra that were published recently.

The National Children’s Orchestra has a mandate to offer opportunity to talented musical youngsters from across the UK. Yet their own figures have revealed that the geographical location of applicants for audition is hugely disproportionate.

Children living in the south of England dominate and some instruments are hardly represented at all in the north.

Figures show that seven in every ten viola players lives in London, there are no bassoon players from the north of Britain, not a single brass instrument player comes from Scotland and there is just one young harpist from Wales, the traditional home for that instrument.

The principal music director of the NCO, Roger Clarkson was quoted as saying: “We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where there is no child playing a oboe north of the River Trent.”

So what has happened here and what is to be done? There was time when almost every town, big or small in the north had a colliery brass band or a factory band.

Many of these had a youth section. Look at the success of bands like Grimethorpe, Black Dyke Mills and Brighouse and Rastrick. But with the decline of industry, many of these bands have found it harder to continue without the sponsorship they require.

It must be time for the government to step in and take music education seriously, otherwise music, like many of the other cultural pursuits in this country, will become just another thing affordable by a privileged elite who live in one corner of this nation.

In Venezuela, which we are encouraged to believe is a Third World country, they have a music education project called El Systema that encourages children from all backgrounds to join in.

That country spends $28 million a year on youth music. Over here we seem to see music as something that can be cut, like libraries or nurseries or swimming baths.

For me a sign of a civilised country is one that has a library, a baths or access to music within walking distance of your house.

I got to thinking about the National Lottery. I was wondering what proportion of the takings from say a newsagent’s shop in Pontefract or Castleford actually gets spent round here.

I would be interested to know how much of the couple of quid someone spends in Airedale or Chequerfield actually goes on good causes in that area.

Then I’d like to look at the same scenario in, let’s say Wycombe in Buckinghamshire and see what they get back.

I wonder if every now and again the lottery could look at spending what it takes on a certain estate within a square mile of the shop it takes it from?

I’m not against sharing and I don’t mind money being spent in London that is raised in Hemsworth, but I’d like to think some of London’s money gets distributed up here as well.

Every kid has the right to blow his or her own trumpet, whether they be from a council house in Featherstone or a mansion in the Cotswolds.

After all, the old adage fair’s fair still stands....doesn’t it?