The idea is to persuade those members of the public who have finally abandoned their dreams of becoming the next Jacqueline du Pré to send in their cellos or flutes or bassoons and, if they have finally given up on the mouth organ, they can become organ donors.
A man’s got to know his limitations, says Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force, although, for most of us, the struggle with reality is very hard. It is only now, after half a lifetime of consistent failure, that I am on the verge of recognising that I was not born to be a musician.
I suppose I should have seen the signs at the age of eight, when my sister and I attended Princess Road Primary School, Camden. Like most of our generation, we were issued with Dolmetsch descant recorders. She could play a tune called Hurry, Hurry, Down The Street, while my own instrument emitted nothing but a shrill peep and a worrying quantity of warm spit.
The recorder, I decided, was a girly instrument so, by the age of 11, I was grappling with the trombone – just the job to express my musical personality, I thought; and yet if anything, the trombone seemed less easy to control than the recorder.
Sometimes, you could blow so hard into the mouthpiece that you saw stars and nothing would come out except a soft windy afflatus. Sometimes, it would give vent to a horrible parp. There was simply no predicting it.
After a while, I laid the trombone aside, consoling myself with the thought that it was all a matter of practice, and it was not until I was 17 that I decided to make my final assault on the summit of Parnassus. By this stage, I was smarting from being fired from a rock band on the not unreasonable grounds that I was the only would-be bass guitarist in history who could not play the opening bars of Smoke on the Water. I knew that this had been a potentially life-changing moment. I knew it could mark the death of my hopes to be the Mick Jagger of my generation. So I decided to acquire the fundamentals. I took up the piano.
After months of brow-beading effort, in which I drove my housemaster half-insane by practising next to his study (and substantially delaying his otherwise brilliant translation of Homer), I was ready to take grade one. I had the scales off pat, more or less. With a bit of effort I could read the notes. The tricky bit was the actual tune, which was a nice little number by Bach called Lord, Do With Me What Thou Will.
Confident young plonker though I was, I remember my heart pounding with nerves as I began, and I remember my horror as the Lord began to do what he wanted with my fingers.
After three minutes, I had so massacred Bach that I became one of the first pupils in years to fail grade one piano; and still I persevered, in spite of the gentle whispering campaign mounted by my piano teacher to persuade me to give up.
To this day, if you are so unlucky as to pass our house on a Saturday afternoon, you will hear strange clanking versions of On Top Of Old Smokey and When The Saints Go Marching In, left-hand and right-hand version. Because there is still part of me that believes that with just a little more effort, and a little more practice, I could unlock the pent-up Mozart within; and yet there is another part of me that has come to the reluctant conclusion that I am useless.
The truth is that I have had abundant opportunity; I have been exposed to all manner of beautiful musical instruments, and in my hands they might as well have been sledgehammers for all the music they produced. And so it seems to me to be a sin that there are so many young people for whom the ratio is the other way around. Their hands and brains and ears are properly wired up, and yet they don’t have the opportunity – enough teaching, enough enthusiasm, enough instruments – to discover and develop their talents.
If the schools have the instruments (and many schools don’t), they are often locked away. If they have a ukulele, they may, these days, lack a teacher confident enough to play it (exactly why many prefer the online learning route!). And though the kids literally have music coming out of their ears, shishy-shishy-shishy, and though they will often have access to computers for dubbing and other modern wonders, they don’t have the basic training in reading music and musicianship to play the traditional instruments that are still the bedrock of our culture and of success in music.
That is why I want to draw the attention of readers to the many good schemes to encourage music in schools, an area where government has become commendably active, but where there is far more to do. In particular, I would like to push the cause of Julian Lloyd Webber, and his In Harmony project to teach children to play in an orchestra, and, without any shame whatsoever, I want to advertise the brilliant musical instrument amnesty called “No Strings Attached”, being run by Time Out magazine and the Greater London Authority. The idea is to persuade those members of the public who have finally abandoned their dreams of becoming the next Jacqueline du Pré to send in their cellos or flutes or bassoons and, if they have finally given up on the mouth organ, they can become organ donors. We have had a fantastic response so far, with more than 150 serviceable instruments, including a didgeridoo left on the Tube and a guitar donated by Sting.
But the need still far outstrips the supply. Some people say we should promote music in schools because it might divert kids from worse things, as though London’s street gangs will reform themselves as string quartets; some say it is all about boosting the creative economy, and encouraging nurseries of talent, like the Brit School in Croydon. Those are both excellent arguments, but as someone who has fought for so long against his own ineptitude, and who has a primitive reverence for those who can play, I believe that music is a joy and an end in itself.
So if you have a musical instrument on the shelf, and you have reluctantly concluded that some child somewhere might play it better than you, please get on our website and send it in. A good home will be found for it.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph 20 January 2009 under the heading:
‘Give me your cellos, your flutes, your abandoned didgeridoos’]