Children, Classical Music, Power & Freedom

Naust flute

I don't play much now. It's my own fault. I've a beautiful instrument – shown above – and a harpsichordist who is probably one of the top fifty continuo players in Britain. He's also modest so won't enjoy reading that. Yet I hardly ever get round to it.

Putting that pathetic, self-inflicted wound on one side, I think about when I did play, and quite often dream about it. In my teens there were times when I practised five hours a day so the memory runs deep. You can't have that sort of sustained engagement with an activity – like a marriage – without it leaving an imprint. It even changed the shape of my face. For the better, but that wasn't difficult.

A big debate in classical music is about how to get children interested, particularly working class children who may not have the encouragement at home. You can take them to concerts on school trips, play them recordings, bring professional orchestras into schools. That's all good stuff.

But the best way is to get them playing a musical instrument. It's the difference between going on a coastal walk and running into the surf and swimming.

So what happens when they do play? One of my main memories, which still sends shivers down my spine, is a sense of power and achievement. Of practising a piece and finding a passage I couldn't play, which technically was beyond me.

Then returning to it, like a dog worrying a bone, and plugging away: pulling it apart and, with the help of a good teacher, running at the problem from different angles. Working out exactly what was wrong with me, strategising to put it right, then applying the strategy, then amending the strategy to make it still more effective.

Then, one fine day, I could play it! The joy of those moments has never left me. It would then become a double joy to meet up with a pianist or harpsichordist or chamber group and play the piece together. It was like giving birth… but without pain, responsibility or expense.

For a child to achieve that is important. Athletes do something similar. It's his prize. He worked for it. He did the brain work and hard grind. He can prove he did it by playing the piece. Nobody can take it away from him. It's a wonderful feeling.

So when children don't learn to play an instrument they're denied that opportunity to fill themselves with special feelings: self-worth, power, the capacity, the freedom, to transform themselves.