In a time of austerity should cash-strapped councils cut funding for music and the arts, as Kirklees Council has said it will be forced to do? Or should they view the arts as vital for future economic success and community wellbeing?
At a recent concert by Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra in Huddersfield Town Hall, Opera North cellist Jessica Burroughs made a heartfelt plea for the future of musical education and live performance.
She spoke of the part Kirklees Music Centre – now facing the loss of council funding – played in her development as a musician, and the importance of giving members of the public access to concerts.
Her speech (see the panel opposite) followed Kirklees’ announcement that it plans to review and reduce funding to all the arts. It is facing total cuts of £458,000 before 2018 in this sector alone.
The lunchtime organ recitals and concerts with the Orchestra of Opera North planned for 2015/16 may be the last – although Opera North says it is working closely with the council to explore “different funding models”.
One of those who heard Jessica’s plea was the retired assistant director of cultural services for Kirklees Council, Brian Haigh.
A local historian and former museum curator, Brian says that subsidised concerts in Huddersfield Town Hall have been a feature of life in the town for 150 years and are “part of the area’s heritage”.
He added: “When the local authority took responsibility for running the concerts after the First World War they had special workmen’s tickets for the gallery seats. In the scheme of things it doesn’t cost very much, but the benefits from public concerts are very considerable and yet go largely unrecognised.”
In a statement sent to The Examiner he called on the council to re-consider decisions on arts funding and said: “Concerts tend to attract an older audience, which comes from many backgrounds. And there is nothing wrong with this.
“Indeed, encouraging people out of their houses has positive benefits for health and well-being. But concerts are not just for older people and Opera North has done its best to widen audiences, offering under-26s tickets for £4 and ‘kids (16 and under) for a quid’, alongside popular programming and education projects.
“The arts, and in particular the orchestral and lunchtime concerts at the town halls, should be regarded as essential to the functions of life... and should not be seen as a cost but as an investment in a thriving society and economy.”
It is widely recognised that the arts make a substantial contribution to both the wellbeing and financial stability of the country.
As Professor Rachel Cowgill, head of music and drama at the University of Huddersfield, points out: “Arts and culture are a major economic area for the UK. And if you look at some of the literature about what the professions are going to be in 30 or 40 years time, and what skills we need to develop, they are all to do with emotional intelligence, problem solving in a complex environment, creative thinking and manual dexterity – all qualities that music equips you for. That’s hugely important.”
While the current Government wants to focus on the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – Prof Cowgill says there is evidence that music can help with these.
She explained: “There is research to say that learning music from a young age enhances your ability to understand figures and work with maths as well as improving communication and teamwork skills.”
Prof Cowgill, who is chair of the National Association for Music in Higher Education, is concerned that cutting public funding for music teaching will create a musical elite: “It’s fair to say that without free lessons at school I would not have been able to develop as a musician, and that goes for a lot of the musicians in my generation.
“Another crucial point about all this is that the more state-funded education and music lessons are constrained the more music becomes a middle-class subject.
“Music undergraduates across the country are predominantly white and middle or upper class. There is a serious issue there about cutting off opportunities to young people from all backgrounds.”
And she believes early exposure to arts education is vital: “Children need to find out what their aptitude is and have the opportunity to develop their talent and skills.
“They may have aptitude in music or drama, but because options to study them are narrowing they might never get a chance to fulfil themselves. There are a lot of transferable skills from the arts but we need to be funding these areas of activity to develop young talent.”
Thom Meredith, head of Kirklees Music School, agrees. “Universities like people who are musical because they have got that self-discipline and are prepared to stick at something to achieve a goal. It’s not easy learning to play a musical instrument and it requires persistence,” he said.
“Employers want problem solvers, young people who are creative thinkers. That comes with music.”
While the music school loses its council funding from March 2016, it is hoping to make a case for continued support for its work with looked-after children, families on low incomes who currently get a discount on music tuition, and the gifted and talented scholarship programme.
The school provides music tuition for 3,500 children; runs a vast number of musical ensembles, attended by 1,000 youngsters; and has an innovative First Access scheme, which is largely Arts Council funded and goes into 90% of the authority’s primary schools, delivering instrumental or musicianship lessons to entire year groups.
It is widely regarded as one of the country’s flagship music schools and enjoys regular success at the National Festival of Music for Youth. Every year around four students go on to study music at a conservatoire and many more become music undergraduates at university.
Thom says he and his staff work hard to widen the net when it comes to finding the musicians of the future.
He explained: “When I first came here to work people said the music school was an elitist organisation but we have fought for so many years to make it accessible to everyone. Five years ago we had one looked-after child in the school, now we have 40; and 7,000 children a year benefit from the First Access scheme.”
The cuts mean that two of the area’s seven music centres – Huddersfield and Cleckheaton – will close, with children transferring to their nearest centre. For funding, the school will rely on fees from parents, schools and the Arts Council. There will, inevitably, be a net effect on staff as well.
Such measures suggest that the arts are not seen as vital to communities.
As Brian says: “There have been some unfair settlements on local authorities such as Kirklees and they are cutting the things they don’t have to have.
“But music is something that stays with a child for life. I remember my first experience of going to the town hall, sitting behind the percussion section when Sir John Barbirolli was conducting - and it was amazing.
“There are few towns of a similar size that can boast such a wealth of music-making. This should be seen as a unique selling point, something to make us stand out from a crowd, something to celebrate.”
Opera North cellist Jessica Burroughs made her first public performance at Huddersfield Town Hall at the age of nine. She was a member of Kirklees Youth Orchestra and won a scholarship to Wells Cathedral School before attending the Royal Northern College of Music. Recent highlights of her career have included performing at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.