Music education isn't just a luxury – it should be for everyone

Boys from the Westminster Abbey Choir School rehearsing
Boys from the Westminster Abbey Choir School rehearsing Credit: Paul Grover/The Telegraph

It’s a condition of extraordinary childhoods that you don’t see their oddness at the time. I took for granted that we lived in the prison my father governed, and that there were great piles of books in every room of the house. I also thought it perfectly normal that music was part of the fabric of life.

My mother taught me to read and to sing at the same time, by sitting me on her lap at the piano while she played and sang from Walter Crane’s Nursery Rhymes and The Baby’s Opera. There was no radio in the car so the family entertained itself on journeys by singing. In school holidays, I was taken to Saturday morning children’s concerts at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls to hear a symphony orchestra.

It was a relief to my parents, who were worried about school fees for their fourth child, when I landed a Quiristership to The Pilgrim’s School in Winchester, the prep school that educates both the cathedral’s choristers and Winchester College’s “quiristers” free of charge, alongside fee-paying “commoners”. It was only at this point, thanks to the institutionalised wielding of the term “commoner” for non-singing boys, that I realised I was getting special treatment.

Largely thanks to my daily musical education from the incredible staff at this college, I went on to Winchester as a teenager. I only abandoned my dreams of pursuing music as a career in my mid-teens, when an ambition to act took over.My experience was remarkable, even by the standards of the time, but it had its background in a set of then-firmly accepted assumptions, in which music was enshrined alongside literacy and numeracy as a pillar of education, not a luxury for the better off.

My new novel, Take Nothing With You, is very much about learning the cello as a child (which I did) and how the discipline of music gives a vulnerable child a safe space. Our family life was disturbed for various reasons but I was shielded by the combined rigour and joy that daily music provided. Take Nothing With You draws in particular on my life-changing experience of attending two of the legendary Jane Cowan’s residential courses at the International Cello School in the Scottish Borders. Among the many things she taught us was that, whereas the athlete or ballet dancer’s body might fail them and oblige them to abandon the pursuit, music can enrich, for life, even the vast majority who are unable to pursue it as a profession.

Music tuition should be a blessing for all, not simply the preserve of the blessed. This country has a unique system of music scholarships through its cathedral choir schools, which was once of huge benefit to children from less well-off backgrounds. These life-changing awards are at risk of being hijacked, like the similar academic scholarships at public schools, by parents with the money to have their children coached and the social confidence to know to apply. But there should also be pervasive, inclusive music tuition for all, on a simpler level than what’s on offer in our cathedral schools. It was desperately short-sighted that regular music making – especially the virtually cost-free pursuit of singing – was not made a core element of the national curriculum, at least for the very young.

I know from my own experience how music builds confidence in a boy who isn’t remotely sporty or competitive. And it is self-evident that music also teaches non-musical lessons: psychologically, about the joys of collaboration and cooperation in the literal creation of harmony; physically, in the importance of good posture and how to support your breath, which helps with projection. Rehearsals and performances also give invaluable discipline in time management, consideration for colleagues, and how to face down stage fright. As Jane Cowan would point out to anyone who cared to listen, music is not a luxury, but should be to us as air and water.

Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing With You is published by Tinder Press on August 21. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit the online Telegraph Bookshop