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The Dalmellington Band at last year’s Cumnock Tryst. Participating in music brings benefits throughout life (©Robin Mitchell)

For some reason I fell in love with music as a little boy in Cumnock, Ayrshire, in the late 1960s. There wasn’t a lot of money around — a lot of people were genuinely poor. My grandfather was a coal miner, but he loved music — he played euphonium in colliery bands and sang in his church choir. He got me my first cornet and took me to band practices in nearby Dalmellington. This was the beginning of a magical life in music for me. It’s a familiar path for many working-class Scottish kids who got the opportunity of free music lessons and involvement in school orchestras, bands and choirs back then in the Sixties and Seventies, when our teachers knew how to nurture our talents and enthusiasms into lifelong vocations and careers.

This is now under threat in Scotland with the creep, creep of additional fees for hard-pressed parents, as music education budgets are being slashed by councils around the country. The effect of this is to discourage youngsters from less well-off homes from entering the world of music.  Nowadays, British orchestras are much more populated by musicians from affluent backgrounds (many of them privately educated) compared to even a generation ago, when sons of miners made up the brass sections of the great orchestras of the land.

Some left-wing politicians believe that complex, discursive music like classical and jazz isn’t what ordinary working-class kids should be doing. If someone had told me and my parents this back in the day, we would have laughed in their faces. I remember Cumnock as a very musical place, where ordinary men and women from humble homes would make music together in choirs, amateur operatic groups, bands and orchestras. Recently I established the Cumnock Tryst festival to bring the world’s great musicians, like Nicola Benedetti, to play in East Ayrshire and to encourage local people, young and old, to get involved in music-making. (This year’s Cumnock Tryst will be held from October 4-7.)

This music-making at an early age can transform lives — it certainly changed mine. Cuts to instrumental tuition in Scottish schools amount to cultural and social vandalism and that’s why I’m involved in the campaign to fight against them. Scotland must not be allowed to become an international laughing stock because of our education system, and I don’t think the Scottish government would want to see that either. But eyes have been taken off balls — we need to keep pressure on local and national authorities, not just to save our music education but to build it into something we can all take pride in.
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