Ahead of Havant Chamber Orchestra’s concert on 8th February, Stella Scott invited Robin Browning to share his thoughts on music education.
(With apologies from Stella – the ‘Clock’ Symphony is actually on the GCSE syllabus, not A-Level, but Robin’s comments are relevant nonetheless!)
SS: We chose Haydn’s ‘Clock’ Symphony because it’s on a current A-level syllabus. However, a study reported (in May 2019) that the numbers taking this exam have fallen by 35% across the country. As a passionate educator yourself, do you have any magic solution to offer to the current crisis in music education?
RB: Well, that’s a tough one. Ultimately, arts subjects such as music are increasingly marginalised within the curriculum, so there’s inevitably far less uptake by the time students reach A level. Studies show time and time again that music brings incredible value to a youngster’s education, yet there’s less and less encouragement to work on it as a subject. I see it all over the place, whether with youth orchestra members, teenage instrumental learners, and even at university level: a huge thirst for understanding what they’re playing, yet no clear way of quenching it, and insufficient opportunity for rigorous study of it as a subject. My experience of working with undergraduate conductors is that, progressively over the years, their depth of musical knowledge has become more and more shallow. I have to fill in more blanks than ever, things which were once covered during their pre-university study.
And if youngsters aren’t pursuing it at GCSE, then obviously, by sixth form, there will be less impetus to continue. It’s all very well restricting curriculum to core elements, and hoping we’ll produce world-leading doctors and lawyers, but we also need artists, poets and musicians. I could say a lot about this, as I feel very strongly and I’m the first to agree that, yes, it is a crisis, but now is not the place to get too political!
SS: What were your own early music education experiences like? Did all your family play or were you unusual?
RB: My father read a bit and sang in local choral societies. Mum was a meandering pianist. But both were music-lovers and I’m indebted to them for exposing me to Scarlatti and Sinatra from a very early age. I started very late: only well into secondary school did I begin violin lessons, at age 12. But I moved fast (leaving half my technique behind) and got beyond grade 8 by 15. I was writing songs and playing in dodgy 80’s pop bands, too. I was lucky in that, despite being at a relatively isolated rural comprehensive in Yorkshire, I had some inspirational music teachers who opened a vast array of doors in my mind. But I guess I am a little unusual in that there’s no family line of artists or musicians. I’m the only one I know, apart from a cousin who’s a minor rock star in Canada.
SS: Have any particular teachers inspired you?
RB: So many. My school head of music, as mentioned above, started me on the path to conducting. I learned violin with Herbert Whone who was a bit of a legend, encouraging me to think about art, poetry, even Buddhism and really instilling some core technique when I was a sixth-former. Subsequently, people like Paavo Jarvi, Ben Zander and Sir Charles Mackerras have given me so much guidance and advice over the years. I wouldn’t be the musician I am without them, not even close.
SS: We’re performing this next concert in a church again, but a rather different sort of building to the last one. What’s the best concert hall you’ve ever conducted in?
RB: I’ve played in many across the world, but two stand out. Firstly, the Dvorak Hall at the Rudolfinum in Prague: it has an intimate feel yet incredible acoustic. You can hear so much detail yet the sound is always so refined, never strained. And the other is Snape Maltings: again, partly for its kind acoustics, but mainly just because of how it feels and where it is. Being able to look out of a dressing room window across miles of marshes, at Henry Moore sculptures, before walking onto a stage bathed in warm orangey light to conduct Britten is one of the great memories of my career.