Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Accessibility versus Dumbing Down

Last night, we attended another Proms Concert, this one a celebration of the life of Vaughan Williams on the 50th anniversary of his death. (A really good concert, BTW. Listen if you get the chance.) During the second interval, I had a chat with a friend who works in one of the Orchestra Departments at the BBC. To protect her identity, I'll call her "Scully".

Scully said that one of the biggest concerns within her part of the BBC is that classical music is considered elitist. The implied assumption is that only rich people listen to classical music and, therefore, the money would be better spent on something that is popular "down in da 'hood". So the orchestras have to fight for their existence.

All the way home, I steamed in indignation. I'm still having problems putting my indignation into words. I think it boils down to this: this country is still class ridden, with the biggest snobs being those who make assumptions about others likes and tastes based on class. Consider the rubbish that was written about James Blunt when he first appeared on the music scene; the press were suprised that someone of his background (Harrow School, Sandhurst, the Guards) would be into pop music (the implication being that "posh people" don't do pop music. Absolute tosh!).

I think I've mentioned before that I passionately resent people making assumptions about me. Australia is basically classless - if its society is stratified, then it's Middle Class vs Rich, and the only differences are where you live, what you drive and how much money you take home. In British terms, the suburb I grew up in and the local high school (where I first learned the flute) are probably working class. Nobody had a lot of money but it didn't matter - we weren't limited by our "class". My dad worked in a factory; the first time I went to the theatre, it was organised by their social club (Oklahoma, I think, at Her Majesty's Theatre).

If the BBC snobs have their way and cut the orchestras, then it's people like me who will suffer. I got into classical music because I was exposed to it at school. As a result, I learned the flute and sang in the choir. Our education district ran an annual music camp, filled with kids from Springvale, Frankston, Dandenong and Doveton - not wealthy suburbs by any means. I think I was 17 before I went to my first "professional" classical concert, with paid musicians, and where I wasn't involved somehow in the music making.

One of the best things the BBC does RIGHT NOW is to make classical music accessible to everyone. You just have to turn on the radio or the TV (NB: about half the Proms are televised on either BBC2 or BBC4). The BBC orchestras spend a lot of time and money on out-reach programs. They support the Proms, where the cheapest tickets are £6 and all children get in for half price. There are special "Family Proms" events where everyone gets a chance to make music and meet the orchestra. I'm not sure what else the orchestras can do.

To me, the real question is this: when real music lessons aren't available at school, how do you recruit the next generation of listeners/musicians? (The very basic music syllabus for the National Curriculum doesn't include learning how to read music.) Also, how do you break down the snobbery that assumes that to play classical music means you have to be called Tristram, own half of Surrey and dislike pop music?

If I was God for the day, I'd change the school syllabus but until that happens, we need a different solution. I puzzled over this for several hours. Classical music has to be made "normal", in a country where the focus for the last thirty years has been dumbing things down. If the snobs at the BBC had their way, they'd have the orchestral musicians playing "garage" to kids when they tour schools instead of Vaughan Williams.

Finally, I came up with a solution for the BBC. Insert some classical musicians into their working-class, soap opera, Eastenders. Portray the musicians as real people, practising their instruments and drinking in the Old Vic. Have them lug a cello through the street market on their way to work, playing for a professional orchestra. Give them a mockney accent like the rest of the cast. Have the drinkers at the Old Vic go along to a concert to support their mate (and don't turn it into a stupid comedy moment). Make classical music normal in the East End.

What do you think?

- Pam (out of time but not out of words)

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