Wells Cathedral School’s Director of Music Alex Laing says the future of music education rests on courage, openhearted generosity and sharing everything

What would life be like without music? Try turning off the radio, remove soundtracks from film, remove jingles from advertisements. We would be lost without music. Yet, music is taken for granted, with funding cuts in the arts and with less and less support for it in schools.

We are extremely lucky at Wells Cathedral School. We are one of very few specialists music schools in the country; we have incredibly talented pupils and staff and we enjoy amazing facilities, including a beautiful modern concert Hall (Cedars Hall), a medieval hall (Quilter Hall), and the awe inspiring Wells Cathedral. We know we are lucky and we know that we want to share.

Now that we are through the restrictions imposed on musicians by the pandemic, we have been able to throw our doors open again. We have been able reinstate our large concert diary and also to resume and expand on our community music programme, including our instrument days which are free to attend. What an experience it was recently to hear over 50 French Horns players from Grade 1 to post Diploma – and from near and far afield – all performing together in a specially composed work. In recent months we have held similar days for clarinet, violin and trombone.

Wells Cathedral School on why sharing music matters
For music to thrive, we need a spirit of openness and sharing – music teachers need to stick together, says Alex Laing

Days like these enable us to share much more than facilities and expertise. They help us to create and nurture amazing team spirit – everybody shares. The youngest musicians are encouraged to share their reactions to music heard or performed for the first time, while the more senior players act as mentors or “elder siblings”. They begin to appreciate the process of teaching for themselves and how this helps them reflect on their own practice. It is also a fantastic chance to involve parents.

At a recent violin day, while pupils were rehearsing with one teaching team, another team was involved in a seminar with parents discussing openly, honestly, and supportively the trials of and strategies for helping young musicians to practice better and more joyfully. We all agreed that marks in exams are not as important as being creative, having fun and telling a story through our music.

“We can succeed in making sure future generations take up and enjoy music by sticking together, forging partnerships”

Practice can be shared too. It is always a joy for me to discover musicians working together. This can happen surprisingly easily if a culture can be created of openness and generosity and of questioning. It is remarkable how one’s own practice improves by really listening and reacting to another musician. Asking very young children how music makes them feel, what it sounds like, what story it tells, is key to this. No reaction to music is ever wrong. I am frequently amazed by drawings, by models, by computer animations of children’s reactions to music. Equally, after producing these creative reactions, by how much more they are able to say with the music when they perform it. Their own musical voice has been hugely strengthened and their commitment to performance is stronger than the desire merely to play right or wrong notes.

Music teachers need to stick together. None of us has all the answers. We can all get stuck with what we think we know works best and however well it goes there is a chance that it might lose its freshness and impact. We can succeed in making sure future generations take up and enjoy music by sticking together, forging partnerships, collaborating, and sharing everything we have. Please do not hesitate to be in touch should you wish to discuss and share any ideas or hear more about our Instrument or A-level Music days.

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Further reading: Why the arts develop skills for life