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When we started in the Teddy-Bears recorder class in the mid-eighties, everything was free. One of England's poorest boroughs offered weekly lessons in every conceivable instrument to every child that wanted them, absolutely free of charge. Needless to say, that did not last long. Fees were gradually introduced. But low-income and large families remained protected, and the ethos of the Academy was not fundamentally altered. They worked with schools and communities, they provided music lessons for disabled and behaviour-challenged children, they performed concerts in old folks homes and sang carols in the High Street.
For 13 years - the whole of my school education - I enjoyed recorder class every Tuesday, viola lessons at my school, recorder ensemble on Monday nights (well, 'enjoyed' might be the wrong word for recorder ensemble). And on Saturday mornings, hundreds of children would assemble in the gorgeous, shabby old red-brick building in East Ham, to spend three or four hours of their weekend rehearsing orchestras, brass bands, choirs and generally hanging out. As a small child, the weekly visit to their fantastic Tuck Shop was my favourite treat: back in the days when Penny Sweets still were Penny Sweets. On winter evenings we would play chase around the rambling staircases.
Years later, the academy became a social hub for me. We would roll each other cigarettes, sitting on the steps at the front of the building, grumble about our hangovers, and flirt constantly. Those were the days of the Youth Orchestra, led by the memorable Mr Sibley. Through 'Sibelius' boundless enthusiasm we were introduced to the magic of playing Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Debussy. Although the horns didn't always come in on time and in the viola section we often only played only one note in four, (a useful skill in itself) the energy and the passion in the rehearsal hall would be electric. The feeling of being a small part of a big orchestra is unlike anything else, and every child should have the opportunity to experience it. With 'Sibelius' and others; the wry Ms Carr, the mellow Ms Mason, the enchantingly camp Mr Rudell with his side-splitting and often filthy stories of touring with a big orchestra, the gorgeous Mr Goff; I was introduced to a world of classical music, composers and theory. More importantly, it was a world where the importance of music within every part of life and society was recognised, which didn't necessarily happen at school.
For me, and no doubt many others, my musical training didn't end in a career. For others it did: we all remember the outstanding musicians who awed us; the gifted violinists, the young composers and conductors. A classic Academy story (I may have partly misremembered it) told to me by Ms Mason was that of a young Eastern European boy with an extraordinary gift for the piano. After his family sought asylum in England and he came to live in East Ham, he spent nights practising the piano on a keyboard his mother had painted onto the kitchen table, until a school teacher got in touch with the Academy who were able to help him. I wonder where he is now?
I never had the discipline or the raw talent. We were advised to practise for half an hour a day: for me this was probably more like an hour a week. Now I love karaoke and sing-songs and I played viola in my university orchestra. That's as far as it goes. But the confidence I gained, the ability to stand up in front of everyone and sing - or speak- the unyielding belief in the magic that the arts can perform; these will never leave me. They've made me more employable, more socialised, more attentive to detail, braver in my choice of career. And this is what they have done for thousands of Newham children, year after year.
As well as termly concerts at the Academy and in churches and community centres around the borough, I ws lucky enough to perform twice with the massed orchestras and choirs of the whole borough in the Albert Hall as part of the huge Newham Goes To Town venture. No amateur night, this was a huge performance, and I played the recorder in a spectacular rendition of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde. Not only did we raise the roof on the Albert Hall, but for many performers and spectators this was the first time they had seen the inside of the impressive building.
And this reveals a side to the Newham Academy of Music that is even more impressive, and shows that we must protect it at all costs: the relationship between culture, class and social mobility. I now tutor kids from Newham and the surrounding boroughs for a living. They're as smart as any other kids. Smarter, even: they amaze me with their knowledge and wit. But they will be faced with a handicap when they apply to Oxbridge, when they want to become doctors and lawyers and architects and MPs. And a large part of this handicap is cultural. Now I'm no fan of grammar schools. I don't think we should be changing the ways that poor kids talk or behave in order to play the public school children at their own game. But it has long been documented that sports can be a route for disadvantaged children to gain the skills, confidence and solidarity they will need to overcome social barriers. Newham Academy of Music has taught me that music can help not just to overcome these barriers but to question them. In addition to the useful cultural knowledge that we just don't provide to Newham kids in any other context, music is an equalising force in society. The Newham Academy of Music is an outlet for artistic talent and energy, a source of the crucial skills that will allow our kids to make the most of all their talents, musical and otherwise. As such, it is one of the main things that makes me proud to come from Newham, and its closure would be a catastrophe for the entire community, and a betrayal of the highest order.
Sign the petition at http://www.petitiononline.co.uk/petition/save-the-newham-academy-of-music/2650
and join the Facebook Group at http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_214767008540496.
Also, please write to Newham mayor Robin Wales at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sir Robin Wales
London Borough of Newham
1000 Dockside Road