Do we need government to help us sing?

Well, conference season has been and gone. It’s hardly surprising that in these times of austerity measures, bankers’ bonuses and catgate (thanks for the laugh Theresa, although – really!!) that not a lot has been mentioned about funding and encouraging the arts and music in the UK. It’s sad really, because music is not just a luxury to enjoy in good times. There is that aspect to it certainly, and occasionally it is difficult to think that music is for everyone when you see the prices for a ticket and dinner at the Glyndebourne Festival. However, music is something that brings people and communities together, often at the most difficult of times. I am reminded of a speech that my late teacher Howard Milner showed me, that was given by Karl Paulnack when he was Director of Music Division at the Boston Conservatory in the USA. A pianist by training, he was welcoming new students to the new academic year, and talked of his experiences of living in Manhattan in September 2001. On 12th September, the day after the attacks, he sat down at the piano to do his usual practice – a routine that all musicians will recognise. He opened the piano lid, sat and looked at the keyboard, and then closed the lid again, mainly wondering if what he was doing was really that important when compared to what had just happened in his own city. People found it difficult to express their feelings in the aftermath of such devastation, but they did find one way to express it. They sang. They gathered in groups on street corners and sang songs, they sang they sang outside fire stations, they sang “We Shall Overcome”. The first organised event in response to the attacks on 9/11 was a concert – Brahms’ German Requiem. Through the shared experience of music, a catharsis started. By going beyond logic, reasoning and semantics, music was able to draw the shared experiences out of the people of New York, and the wider world, and if not make sense of what had happened, at least start the healing process.

Ten years on from those events, we find ourselves in a very different global crisis. People across the world are having their livelihoods threatened not by terrorism, but by the very fragile and volatile nature of the market driven economy. In these times, we might like politicians to say that they are going to fund music and art making to bring us together, but actually we know that it’s unlikely to happen, and would probably be hammered in the tabloid press. So, it’s up to us. We can sing! We can play! We can create together! If you happen to know a banker that has had a bonus – persuade them to donate a little to a community music scheme, or to help the local choral society with new music, or to buy a set of ukuleles for the local primary school, or to help renovate the local church organ. We shouldn’t need government to do this for us – although it’s nice if they want to help! We should know that in times of need, music can bring us together, and there are some who are luckier than others and should help. If you can’t give money, see if you can give some time. Volunteer at a fundraiser for your local music centre, take the time to listen to your children’s practice, even take up a new thing yourself – has that old piano, sat in the corner of the dining room, been neglected for too long? Grab a couple of friends and a guitar or two, and remind yourselves of the community songs that we’ve all forgotten. Just remember, we got through these times in the past without the help of YouTube. I’m sure we can do it again.

The full text of Karl Paulnack’s speech can be found here