Making a beautiful noise


"If you get an instrument into the hands of a kid who wants to learn it, and you provide a place and the means for them to learn it, you will see an undeniable impact in every other area of their life." – James Rhodes

Back in 2013, acclaimed concert pianist James Rhodes set himself a goal: to stop the decline of music education in England’s schools.

In 2011, the UK government had declared in the National Plan for Music Education that "children from all backgrounds and every part of England should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument".

But on the ground, James discovered a different picture.

He found teachers with tiny music budgets - or none at all. Schools where music education was only for those who could afford it. Children struggling to get their hands on a proper instrument to learn.

James wanted to show the power of music to transform children's lives. And there was only one thing for it: to go back to school.

At St Teresa's primary school in Essex music was bottom of the priority list and resources were thin on the ground. Within weeks James had collected instruments donated by local people, distributed them to the delighted children and got a local music teacher to get them playing.

The transformation was incredible. And when thousands of viewers watched the children's journey in James's Channel 4 documentary, ‘Don't Stop The Music’, their achievements really hit home.

But this was just the beginning. Over two episodes which aired on Channel 4 on 9th and 16th September, James highlighted the big issues music education is facing and called on the public to do their bit: back his campaign and donate their unwanted instruments to the Don't Stop The Music Instrument Amnesty – to be redistributed to 150 primary schools around the UK where they were badly needed.

Channel 4 helped create the website and infrastructure to make the Amnesty possible and the response was huge. Soon #DontStopTheMusic was trending on Twitter. The column inches grew daily, with The Guardian, The Telegraph, Time Out, The TES and many more picking up on the story. And the stars queued up to lend their support – including Paul McCartney, Tinie Tempah, Tom Jones and Jessie J. Some, like Labrinth, even donated their own instruments.

Across the UK – from Cornwall to Country Tyrone, Newport to Newcastle – public goodwill surged and the instruments started flooding in. Dropped off at Oxfam’s huge network of shops across the UK, they were picked up by YodelDirect and taken to the Don't Stop The Music workshop for assessment and repairs, and then delivered to the schools

By the end of the six-week amnesty, more than 7,000 instruments had been donated.

By mid-November 2014, the 150 schools who had applied to be part of the project earlier in the year began to receive some rather large deliveries ...

Although all different, the schools had one thing in common: a passion for music, a lack of instruments and/or staff able to teach music.

But that wasn't the end. James wanted things to change, not just in those 150 schools but right across England. James’s political campaign stepped up.

James collaborated with to start a petition, calling on education secretary Nicky Morgan to honour the government's promises in the National Plan for Music Education.

More than 70,000 people signed the petition. From concerned parents, to frustrated teachers, to music fans – the noise started to grow, and soon it reached the ears of Parliament.

In the House of Lords, not one but two debates were held in which music education was hotly defended and discussed – and Don't Stop The Music ("a wonderful programme introduced by James Rhodes") highlighted as an example of what can be done.

"There is a real danger ... that the arts will become a province only of the rich," declared the Earl of Clancarty.

The industry collected together around the issue. A joint letter, submitted by James Rhodes to The Telegraph , was signed by supporters from Julian Lloyd Webber and Sting to the director of the Royal College of Music and the Shadow Minister for Schools, Kevin Brennan MP.

The message was simple: "the government must fulfil its commitment and end the inequality of opportunity in school music".

The public continued to voice its support. Bombarding the Department of Education Facebook page with messages about ‘Don't Stop The Music’. Tweeting their support. Writing to their MPs. And encouraging Ofsted, as part of the Ofsted public consultation in October 2014, to make music part of the criteria by which schools are assessed.

Pressure continues to build on the government and is set to continue now the Incorporated Society of Musicians has taken on the campaign – to ensure real and lasting change.

And back at St Teresa’s, the music didn’t stop the moment the TV cameras left – in fact it’s growing, says music teacher Sarah Goldsmith. “Once we start playing, the improvement in sound and their concentration is wonderful to see”.

Or as the kids would say: “WOW!”

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