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Music and Internationalism: celebrating international partnerships in music education

By Stephen Wild, Head of Music at ArtForms

Leeds is a musically rich city. The music lives in the institutions of the city, whether they are schools, professional music ensembles, venues or music hubs, in the minds of individuals, and in the lives of families and communities.

Leeds is proud of its international links. Music is a key part of this, and youth music is at the forefront: there are strong musical partnerships with Europe, and further afield. We can celebrate close links with schools and young musicians from the city of Durban, South Africa and Chemnitz, Germany, as well as many other cities and countries across the world.

Culturally, the world risks turning in on itself. At the time of writing (January 2019), the UK is facing Brexit; other European countries are seeing the rise of nationalist politicians; the USA is putting ‘America First’. It is often said that music is an internationally understood language. But is it?

Up to a point, definitely. There can’t be anyone in the modern world who is unaware of the harmonies and rhythms brought to their shores through rock and roll. The familiar cadences of missionary hymns can be heard in songs from all corners of the globe. Our pupils in Leeds schools come from many cultures and bring into school many languages and cultures. They will all share some aspects of musical culture. But each and every child brings three cultures with them wherever they go: the global, the culturally specific and the individual.

Global culture in music is evident in the commercial music world. Pop culture bridges all continents, and pop music is produced in many, many languages. Classical music from Europe has spread into most parts of the world: there is an avid market for western classical music in China, as I found when playing there with a touring orchestra in 2018. These are the music of cultures which are seen as of high status or value: they extend their reach widely, and few can be immune to their influence.

Yet specific cultures and the music they produce survive and thrive alongside the global brands. The indigenous music of many cultures are growing, while others are threatened. Within Europe, we have seen folk music within England rise and fall in popularity in a series of folk revivals in recent years. Each generation reinvents music in its own image: the ‘Bellowhead generation’ was very different from its predecessors. Each generation shows the influence of other musical styles current at the time.

Individual cultures are complex. No child comes to school without an exposure to music. This comes from the family, from the community, from television/radio, and from a wide range of sources. This might be entirely ‘mainstream’, but can be distinctive and individual. (As an example: I spend a lot of time with my grandmother when I was a child, who was born at the end of the nineteenth century and lived all her life in Wales among Welsh speaking communities. The songs she sang me were those of her youth: folk songs in two languages, music hall songs and the songs of the First World War.) Leeds children bring with them a huge range of eclectic, distinctive and utterly unique mixtures of musical cultures. This is a huge richness for the city.

Music in education is for all. One size does not fit all, of course, so the richness of the cultures of Leeds gives those of us in music education the opportunity to deploy a really wide range of styles and genres: steel pans, jazz, classical, opera, South Asian styles, folk music, rock and pop and much more. And for all individuals, the richness of this cultural diversity enables a unique kaleidoscope of musics to fill each and every learner’s mind with sounds and possibilities. Meeting musicians from outside their own geographical and cultural locality is a wonderful thing to do. Hearing them perform broadens the experience, and sharing performances takes this exchange of ideas to a new depth.

In March the young musicians of Rock ‘n’ Strings will visit Leeds, to renew friendship and partnership with young Leeds musicians. They are a group of teenagers from the city of Chemnitz, Germany, who play an exciting mix of pop and jazz on string instruments, with a singer and rhythm section. They’ll feature in the City of Leeds Youth Music Prom Concert at Leeds Town Hall on March 12th 2019, performing alongside some of the finest young musicians from Leeds.

City of Leeds Youth Music Groups offer young musicians from Leeds the opportunity to sing and play to the highest level. One of our groups, Roots Alive, performs folk and traditional music from this country and beyond. They visited Chemnitz last year to play at the Stadtfest to a huge audience, alongside their German friends in Rock ‘n’ Strings. Sadly, the event was curtailed due to far-Right activity in the city, and it was not possible for the main performance to take place. For young people’s music making to have been cancelled due to the actions of a group of protesters was deeply regrettable, and it is wonderful to welcome our German friends to Leeds. We have the chance to build understanding, to share ideas and reinforce a collective, shared culture of musicianship between the young people in the two groups.

To reserve tickets for the the City of Leeds Youth Music Prom Concert, please email Catherine at catherine.lloyd@leeds.gov.uk