Manifest Inadequacies

An essay, commissioned as a keynote online essay for the Battle of Ideas in October 2007, that assesses the priorities of ‘The Music Manifesto’: please see also
This essay was also published in the October 2007 issue of the Incorporated Society of Musicians’ ISM Journal.

‘I teach a class called “Everyone Can Draw”’ an American artist once told me glumly. ‘It should be called “Not Everyone Can Draw Well”’. His complaint was not, of course, that not everyone can draw well – something he already knew, as an artist – and nor was he railing at the temerity of the less able in having a go. His target was the crass egalitarianism that minimizes the chasm between exploration and expertise, the prevailing fiction that only the lack of a workshop or two holds every individual back from effortless creativity. This is hard to challenge, since to do so is to be caricatured as advocating selective training in a discipline only for the able few, while the majority go without ‘participation’ – a whiff of the bad old days of selection and worse, that triggers every alarm in the missile system of modern social outrage.

Jane Austen, who knew a thing or two about social exclusion, had no scruples in attributing to one of her most hapless satire-targets, the non-musician Lady Catherine de Burgh, the delusion that art is skill-free and is mainly a matter of participation:

‘There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would [my daughter] Anne…. I am confident that she would have performed delightfully.’ (Pride and Prejudice)

But they did not, being unlucky enough to live outside the era of the ‘Music Manifesto’, and with it the wider spirit of today, of which Lady Catherine was prophetic, that we are all musicians, held back only by ‘exclusion’. The nostrum that musical, artistic or literary achievement is but a night-class away is one of today’s most seductive illusions; but it can be destructive, too, a siren hope to adults of the sort that is rightly excoriated in magazines for teenagers that gasp ‘You Can Be Famous!’. Serious artistic achievement is barely more attainable to most people than celebrity, our most popular opiate, and the ‘Music Manifesto’ is, to an extent, a participant in this game-show in being so glibly ‘can-do’: this is my first reservation, that a mania for generalised enabling leads it to avoid much sense of, well, learning. In the process it offers a parodic view, in which music is a free-for-all party; such a vision is genial, but the reality is that music is very far from open-handed with its gifts, as every young pianist or apprentice sitar player knows, and as Bart Simpson found when trying to play (without tuition or practice) the electric guitar. Homer’s rejoinder to his son, ‘remember what television teaches us: if you can’t do something straight away, it isn’t worth doing’, should alert us to the danger within the breezy insistence on involvement as an end in itself. This danger is perhaps obscured by the sort of glazed New Labour language so mercilessly ridiculed through the Blair years (‘the right “pathways for progression” must be in place – and clearly signposted. The pathways must be multiple and flexible, accessible to all…’ – that it is amazing to find it emerging, wide-eyed, to graze on the unreal pastures of Planet DCMS.

It would be churlish and, worse, inaccurate to portray the ‘Music Manifesto’ as a technique-free zone; the Singposium sounds a wonderful project, while the Practiceathlon, for example, creates fun and fund-raising out of music’s essential maintenance. Even here, though, the impression is that practising is a desirable extra, given the possibility that ‘they'll keep up their practice regime even when they're not being sponsored for it. Well, hopefully.’ An initiative like this should be surging ahead with advice on how to practise – a much misunderstood art – not simpering about if; there is an urgent need to remind youngsters that instruments do not teach themselves. We live in a can-do era, however: one that shudders at anything less than problem-free exhortation to get involved. Basic harmony and, still less palatable, exposure to repertoire and a bit of historical background are deaths-heads at this feast, though indispensable parts of the foundation for real musical ‘can-do’: literacy is the true empowerment, the real deal for ‘inclusion’. I give credit to the ‘Music Manifesto’ that the first of its five aims includes giving children a ‘sound foundation in general musicianship’; but there is no unpacking of what this might be, among the involve-speak. To become a session musician or jazz pianist without serious harmonic understanding is unthinkable, and I would welcome ‘Manifesto’ aims such as ‘to encourage teaching of basic harmonic structures to young blues and jazz improvisers’; it doesn’t have to wear classical garb (another no-go designation), but it needs to be there. Unwelcome basics like this remind me of the old ladies in Fawlty Towers who are shooed up to their rooms during the Gourmet Evening: ‘I’ll send you up a menu!’ barks Basil as they are hustled away, too frumpy to be seen at the party.

To participate as an amateur is indeed a rich experience, and if the ‘Music Manifesto’ were concerned solely with encouraging amateur fun, its positive, enthusiastic approach would suffice; however, since it sets its sights on the jobs ladder, gushing familiar DCMS-speak about music as career opportunity, more focus is needed on the demands embodied in such aspirations. Nor is it kind, though it is depressingly ingrained in today’s world of Music GCSE, to belittle detailed study, as the enemy of enjoyment: a teacher is quoted as praising a conductor because he ‘really enforced the importance of the enjoyment of singing, feeling the music and the vibe, rather than looking too structurally at the music itself’. It is a sad reflection of how ingrained the hostility to analytical thinking has become in our schools if a teacher can proffer this ludicrous antithesis in all seriousness: the activity has become about itself, about keeping children occupied, rather than about opening ears and minds to inner working through participation. Incidentally, I would be very surprised if the conductor cited on this case, whom I know and admire, was not firmly committed to structural learning through enjoyment, rather than opting for this bogus opposition between analytical learning and (shudder) ‘the vibe’.

The aims of the ‘Music Manifesto’, while genial, remain unfocused. In a way its strength and weakness are the same: a huge shove for music learning is an important initiative, but at the same time there is not, as popular correctness maintains, a single thing to pursue called ‘music’, nor is there one social function it performs. That playing in a garage band and listening to Indian classical music are both ‘life-enhancing’ does not make them the same thing. Music is many things, some of which can be seen to conflict – for example, the perennial aesthetic fisticuffs between prevailing oral ‘folk’ traditions and the notation-basis of Western classical repertoire. In the ‘Music Manifesto’, meanwhile, music is portrayed as a catch-all social surgery, a huge sonic sand-pit from which our youth might just stomp across into lucrative careers. I suspect the disparity, the awkward refusal of different musics to align, further encourages the ‘Music Manifesto’s’ thinking away from artefact to process: in this mind-set, music becomes an activity – and we all know activities are ‘a good thing for kids’ –
when in fact it is a result, one of infinite possible results, which the activity generates. Is this distinction important? Oddsbodikins! It most certainly is, because if we concentrate on the activity, the result matters less and less; without an end-result, any music activity becomes as good as any other – a means of ‘taking part’, ‘getting involved’ and the whole lexicon of education-as-child-minding – when it is not. Any child who has sat in different youth choirs or orchestras with various conductors knows that some activities are enhancing, while others are dire. Their parents tend to forget this as they drink at the well of benign platitude. It is not forgotten by trail-blazing organizations like Contemporary Music for Amateurs (, which has commissioned numerous new works for its non-specialist music ensembles around the UK, in recognition that if the end-product is crafted and stimulating, then the amateur performers will raise their game accordingly.

The ‘Music Manifesto’ needs to proclaim music’s central truth: art changes your life, and the more you know about it, the more powerfully it does so. It is not primarily a means of making friends or of getting a job, though both of those might occur (more often the former); people like me do not devote our careers to writing, playing or recording music to create drop-in centres or youth employment, but to contribute to the collective imagination. The ‘Music Manifesto’ needs to make clear not only that music has a positive social function, but that the goal of all this effort is the blazing power of the art-form itself.