Just in case my visit to Barnsley had been running low on Yorkshire-ness, I entered the hall of Wellgate Primary School to find a giant brass band waiting for me. A numerous group of Year 5 pupils wielding mainly trumpets and cornets was being put through its paces by their outstanding brass teacher, Alex Francis, who also managed to combine the session with some instantly responsive signed singing.
Curriculum experts will recognise this as the government’s offer in English schools of one year’s free instrumental tuition for every pupil (Wellgate has two-form entry, hence fifty instrumentalists at once.) Brass instruments, being relatively indestructible, are popular in this role, and young children must be delighted to be lent these lovely shiny objects. I remember the late Alan Hacker saying that ‘you can tell a lot by the way people pack their instruments away’ ; and he would have been pleased to see the reverence with which all this brass tubing was being polished and put carefully back in cases by its temporary owners.
I asked Alex how many students carry on with their instruments after their free year – on this occasion it was five, rising sometimes to eight longer-term learners. Barnsley’s Music Services Hub generously supports music lessons, particularly in primary schools – I think I heard correctly that it costs parents £3 a lesson – but taken over a year, say with two children learning, even that builds into an outlay of several hundred pounds, the sort of sum that soon gets struck off when money is tight. These particular students are lucky though to live in brass band country, and to have taken the first steps (if they later wish) towards participating in a great musical and social tradition.