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Time for a reality check? Ciaran O’Donnell on two new studies into instrumental learning

New research shows more children in the West Midlands are learning to play an instrument. Ciaran O'Donnell, Head of Music Service at Birmingham's Services for Education, asks is this music to our ears?

New research shows that more children in the UK than ever are learning to play an instrument for the first time. While this is cause for celebration, Head of Music Service at Birmingham’s Services for Education, Ciaran O’Donnell, asks where are all the intermediate to advanced learners?

First the good news…

Let’s start the year with a spring in our step, a song in our heart – and with something that is music to my ears.

Research shows that more children in the UK are now learning to play a musical instrument for the first time – and today’s Secondary school children are more likely to learn an instrument than their parents or grandparents at the same age.

As someone who believes that the benefits of learning to play music go well beyond the ability to play an instrument itself, I am really heartened by two studies that have recently come out of Birmingham.

First, research by Birmingham’s Town Hall Symphony Hall shows that two-thirds of 11-16-year-olds have learnt or are learning an instrument – compared with 61% of the generations before them.

There’s good news for the West Midlands as well. Outside London, the region is the UK’s ‘most musical group’ where 3% of children can play the cello and where you are most likely to find a bassoonist, oboist or organist.

Hot on the heels of that research, Birmingham City University conducted a nationwide online survey and interviews with music education leaders, discovering that almost 460,000 schoolchildren learnt how to play a musical instrument for the first time in the 2015/16 academic year. The majority of musical learning takes place in Key Stage 2 of Primary school and Key Stage 3 of Secondary school.

Clearly, we are doing something right.

There is no doubt that music services and music education hubs have been hugely successful at increasing access and participation.

Here in Birmingham, Services For Education, a charity that does so much for young people, has been quite literally playing its part. Since we became a stand-alone charity in 2012, we have helped more than 60,000 children to pick up an instrument and learn to play over that five-year period.

But before I get carried away, there has to be a touch of reality. We now regularly teach 18,000 intermediate to advanced instrumentalists… so what has happened to the rest?

Starting to learn to play is one thing but we must also ensure that we have progression to enable our young musicians to fulfil all their potential. The evidence seems to point to a pyramid where the base of early learners is increasingly wide but the top is increasingly thin as fewer and fewer children progress.

I have still got the spring in my step but ensuring that more children can learn to play music for longer is not going to be a sprint – but a marathon. It’s up to all of us who have benefited from music education to make sure that we do more in the future.