No one knows why some human beings have a musical gift and others do not, any more than we know why some are destined to solve Fermat’s last theorem and others can barely add up a column of figures. But one thing that seems to stand out among those who have become renowned in music: they started young. Whether it was Mozart penning his first compositions at six or Menuhin playing his violin at five, if you’re destined to be a musician, you probably know it from a young age. But wait a minute: is it as simple as that? Look more deeply at the famous names in the musical world, and mostly they didn’t come out of nowhere. Mozart’s father was a respected composer and violin teacher; Menuhin’s family were all intensely musical, Schubert’s less so but he was a chorister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and was leading the school orchestra by the time he was twelve.
Nurture is involved, I suggest, as much as nature. Music is a gift of nature, but it may well remain locked in a box until someone gives you the key to release it. Once it is released and you discover your gift, someone has to encourage you, train you, and watch over you until you have been given the time to develop it fully.
I go around the country leading singing days, open to all, and many of those who attend tell me it all started a long time ago with them singing at nursery school, where they discovered (as I did) that they loved it. Others tell me ‘I’ve never tried anything like this before, but I’ve had such a wonderful day’. Better to discover in your adult life that inside you there was a love of singing you never knew you had, than never to discover that love; but think how many more people there are (especially now that music in our state schools has been so savagely cut and sidelined) who have never been given the chance to discover something that has lit up their lives. And now that free instrumental teaching in state schools has gone, think how many children are not getting the chance to try playing an instrument that might become their lifelong joy – and perhaps their livelihood.
It shames us in the UK as a nation. Music education isn’t a frill to be left to the private sector and open only to those who can pay, it’s at the heart of what makes us human and civilised. Any politicians reading this?