Teaching the World

Tony Haynes' Grand Union Orchestra

It is a sad fact that professional promoters and music education animateurs can be oblivious to treasures on their doorstep, especially when they have been around for two or more decades and have proven music education credentials.

Expensive importations from North America are, of course, better able to grab headlines. It was with such thoughts that I read an article by Tony Haynes about the importance of an inclusive approach to music education – difficult to think of  a better qualified advocate, for Tony Haynes’ Grand Union Orchestra is a national treasure and living proof of the musical vitality of multi-cultural East London. Rhinegold, publishers of the Music Education Yearbook, have generously consented to our reproducing “Teaching the World”.

Ivor Widdison

First, cards on the table: I am steeped in the European classical tradition piano lessons, church choir and organ, brass band trombone, orchestra viola. My school didn’t rate music very highly, so I was largely self-taught in music theory, but lucky enough as a scholarship boy to get into Oxford. The Oxford music degree at that time was very academic, but I loved it, and the ability to write five-part counterpoint and four-part fugue has proved useful ever since. I later took an MA at Nottingham, where my main interest was indeterminacy – another technique that comes in handy from time to time.

But I am also a musical adventurer, and right from my teenage years I always found opportunities for adventure – playing weekend dances, organising jazz groups and big bands, writing music for theatre, working in night-clubs abroad, travelling, meeting and playing with musicians in other countries. All these threads – and above all my aspirations as a composer – find fulfilment in the Grand Union Orchestra, which I co-founded 25 years ago, and where the adventure still continues.

There’s only so much you can learn from books and records; it’s live interaction that makes a true musician, and it’s taking part in a wide range of musical experiences that shape an individual musical personality. It doesn’t matter what your cultural background is, or where you start from, as long as you move out of that limited world and absorb as much as you can of the other musical experiences that surround you. But those experiences have to be authentic…

Listeners don’t have to ‘understand’ the music they hear. Music from the European classical repertoire that has become popular or lodged in people’s musical affections has an impact and immediacy for almost anyone that somehow transcends ‘difficulty’ or ‘accessibility’. Exactly the same is true of, say, the Louis Armstrong Hot Five, John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, the gospel of Aretha Franklin, South African township choirs, a famous fado or Anatolian singer, the qawwali of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the sublime improvisations of Ravi Shankar. All this music has an elemental quality: it appeals because it is heartfelt and artistically truthful; it is, in short, undeniably ‘authentic’.

However, even for a listener, to understand something of how the music works helps deepen appreciation; for a musician it is essential. Realising how an Armstrong or a Coltrane navigate harmonic sequences to create their melodic improvisations is to gain a precious insight into the creative world of jazz; identifying the clave and characteristic interlocking patterns of Cuban music is to comprehend both its rhythmic subtlety and its West African origins through the slave trade; knowing how a classical Indian rag is laid out, and how tiny structural signposts like the tihai pepper the music, is to enter a completely different, utterly fascinating, world of music-making.

The best way to enter this world, of course – to really understand what is happening in the music – is to try it for yourself. For that you need a guide, and guides need to be expert.

European classical music is well provided for in Britain today: professional orchestras, opera companies and fine choirs abound, and most run extensive outreach programmes. These should be education and community projects which reflect and spread understanding of their core repertoire – 500 years of gloriously varied European music – and of course help build a growing audience, especially among young people. The way to do this is imaginatively to lay bare some of the features which underpin the music (which, unlike most other musics around the world, by the way, has been composed by a single person).

This means taking the trouble to explain (and arouse interest in) sound and instrumentation, form and structure, harmony, counterpoint and melodic contours – features which are also embedded, as it happens, in much contemporary popular and vernacular music. Those who play in, conduct and write for orchestras are well-placed to deliver such enlightenment – they are clearly authentic exponents with appropriate expertise. But what they do not have is professional expertise in disciplines outside their artistic remit – rap and hip hop, music technology, song-writing, improvisation, jazz and especially anything we loosely call ‘world music’. If it’s thought important to impart these disciplines, then musicians with the right credentials should do it.

Luckily, Britain today also abounds in fine musicians born and bred into virtually every musical culture around the world – one of many advantages of being a nation shaped by immigration. However, with rare exceptions, they get little institutional support or public subsidy; they are seldom found in schools or invited to teach in conservatoires; they have few opportunities to inform the general public about their music; and, most lamentably, they have virtually no access to the young musicians who would so value their knowledge, influence and example.

Similarly, Britain is awash with singing projects, but where are the singers from Brazil, Ghana, South Africa, Bosnia, Turkey, Bangladesh, China and a dozen other cultures displaying their vocal styles and passing on their inimitable repertoire to the delight of young singers (many of whom, let us remember, are themselves of non-European origin)?

These questions never seem to be debated: a report commissioned by Youth Music into the lack of representation of minority ethnic musicians lies quietly buried; the Music Manifesto ignores the issue; DCSF, local authority and institutional tenders are consistently awarded in favour of the European mainstream…

Let me be clear, and end as I began: I yearn for European classical music to be advocated, explained and appreciated as it deserves; at the same time, we must give all other professional musicians who contribute to the culture of modern Britain comparable status and opportunities. Unless we do both, our musical culture will become progressively enfeebled; and worst of all, we are selling short a whole generation of young musicians.

Tony Haynes
Grand Union Orchestra
May 2009

Article reproduced from Music Education Yearbook with permission of Rhinegold