Opinion Julian Lloyd Webber

Julian Lloyd Webber playing the cello with a child

Julian Lloyd Webber with a young In Harmony musician

This week, cellist and music education activist Julian Lloyd Webber announced an agreement between In Harmony Sistema England and the Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar, Venzuela. The aim is to spearhead social action through music, as demonstrated by the work of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and its celebrated figurehead, conductor Gustavo Dudamel. He talked about it to Amanda Holloway. 

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'I came from a very musical background – my mother, Jean Johnstone, taught piano and my father, William Lloyd Webber, was a professor of composition at the Royal College of Music – and this is why I feel so strongly abut music education and why I got so involved in it. I’ve always believed that every child should be able to have access to classical music.

It’s a complete myth to say that people will find music for themselves; if they’re not exposed to classical music, they won’t be interested

'I was very fortunate that I had music all around me from a very young age. It’s a complete myth to say that people will find music for themselves; that if they’re musical it will happen. That doesn’t follow at all: if they’re not exposed to classical music (and I say classical because there’s so little of it on the media – you don’t see it on TV programmes that children or teenagers watch), they won’t be interested. The only place children can get access to music if they’re not from a musical background, is in school. That’s why I feel so strongly that it should be part of the National Curriculum – it’s wishful thinking that if it’s not taught, it will happen outside school. Children don’t want to hang around after school for something that they’ve never really been introduced to.

'The whole In Harmony approach, based on the Venezuelan El Sistema, is that children are working together, not just having individual lessons and feeling locked away all on their own. It’s made to be fun, and actually they are worked very hard and that’s important; it becomes fun because they become so good. The standard is very high. Sometimes I think we’re too easy on our children – let’s face it, they’re not going to learn unless they work hard, and I think they enjoy that.

Sometimes I think we’re too easy on our children – let’s face it, they’re not going to learn unless they work hard, and I think they enjoy that

'In my own case, my mother tried to teach me the piano, which was a disaster! Rostropovich had cello lessons from his father, so being taught by a parent can work, but when I was told to practise I almost rebelled against it, until I got the bug myself. It was when I was 13 that I decided I wanted to be a soloist. It wasn’t an ego thing: that’s how I heard the cello in my head, as a solo instrument. I went to a fantastic teacher called Douglas Cameron although I went on to study with Pierre Fournier I regard Douglas as my teacher. The year I started with Douglas I saw Rostropovich for the first time, in London, and he made a huge impact on me. I stopped doing my school work and started practising the cello all the time.

'There was no real competition between my brother Andrew and me – he was always into theatre and composition, although he played the violin and the French horn – pretty well, actually! But unlike me, he never thought of himself as a performer.

There was no real competition between Andrew and me - he was always into theatre and composition

'I’ve always been interested in music education, and in 2003 – when music in schools had reached an all-time low – I formed the Music Education Consortium with Evelyn Glennie and James Galway. We went to see Charles Clarke, then the Education Secretary, and bullied and badgered until he admitted there was a problem, and David Miliband was dispatched to produce the Music Manifesto. We didn’t back it because we thought it was all talk. But when Gordon Brown came to power, £332 million was ring-fenced for music education, and when that happened a lot of things came together at the same time. In 2007 I heard the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra at the Proms for the first time and I was blown away, just like everyone else. I was sitting next to Vanessa Thorpe, arts correspondent at the Observer, and we said ‘something like this should be happening here’. She published a big interview with me in the Observer; after that education minister Andrew Adonis got in touch and said: ‘Would you like to lead such a project?’ So we set up In Harmony Sistema England.

'The Coalition government deserves huge credit for not pulling the plug. We survived a regime change – the Sistema in Venezuela has survived many regime changes – but it shouldn’t be a party-political thing. The children are what’s important. Our funding will continue until 2015, which is pretty good in an age of cutbacks. We have to argue our cause and keep demonstrating that it is working – it’s having a positive effect on children’s lives and their achievements. If we can prove it’s cost-effective then we’ll succeed in keeping it going.

I’ve played all over the UK and seen a huge amount of poverty, both material and spiritual. This country can be a very depressing place and we really need something like In Harmony

'I’ve played all over the UK and seen a huge amount of poverty, both material and spiritual. This country can be a very depressing place and we really do need something like In Harmony. It’s heartening to see the results in schools, like Faith Primary School in Liverpool, where an Ofsted report said the school had been totally transformed in academic achievement – and it’s these stories that that made the Coalition continue with the manifesto.

The question is, are they doing enough? Well, I would like to see In Harmony all over the country. There could always be more, but I think that the current government has maintained the excellent ending of the Labour government. They have tried to bring music back into school and are continuing to do so. When they got in, there were only three In Harmony projects and now there are six. We have to keep making our case as strongly as we can. Music in schools has improved since 2007 but it’s always very hard to bring something back – it’s easier to destroy it. I’m optimistic but not at all complacent.'

In Harmony Sistema England

To donate, get involved or find out more about the In Harmony Sistema England project, visit www.ihse.org.uk. Want to know how local In Harmony groups could benefit your child? Call regional managers Gerry Sterling (Lambeth) 020 7091 1250, Jayne Garrity (Liverpool) 0151 210 3791 or Marcus Patteson (Norwich) 07590 052 656.

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