My first job in the mid-1970s involved a lot of train changes in Basingstoke, and that’s how I’d remembered it, a railway town with shabby old buildings falling down a steep hill into the Hampshire countryside. I felt like Rip Van Winkle when I visited it this month, walking through miles of flashy shopping malls (which were very useful – I too need to visit The Shops). The civic planners have obviously been very busy here in the last 40 years and there are some less attractive sights, such as the chasm in which has been sunk the bus station and an arterial road going through a tunnel.
My walk was worth it to reach Queen Mary’s College, a sixth form college which has a spacious campus and a fine new music block opened just this year by Evelyn Glennie. Composer and QMC music teacher Alison Willis had invited me to meet a sizeable group of college music students – the college supports both A-level and BTEC courses. I was interested as I always am to find out why the students have chosen their courses, what they think of the curriculum and how they got into music in the first place. I would like to thank this patient group of people for agreeing to be personally interrogated by me about these questions.
After a busy year of asking the same questions, I still find it energising because every answer is in some way different. There are themes that emerge: people mention musical parents, but in this group the one student with a professional musician parent had been discouraged from music (not impossible to imagine!) An early experience of enjoyable music at primary school sets many people on the path, but one of the group had only decided recently that he wanted to be a drummer, and was putting himself through a detailed BTEC course in order to play full time. It was pleasing to meet a student who had so enjoyed the composition element of GCSE Music that she was planning to study it at conservatoire level ‘because it’s all I want to do’ – really the crucial qualification for becoming a composer. I tire of generalisations about some imagined monolithic ‘Music Education’ and cherish the opportunity to experience the variety of what it actually means in practice.