IN A recent interview for Classic FM, Sir Keir Starmer revealed that, at school, he had played the recorder, flute, and violin — and, on the strength of his flute-playing, won a junior scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He gave up thoughts of a musical career only when, as he put it, he realised that his skill came from diligent practice rather than natural talent.
Music remains important to him, though, and he is determined to champion it in schools, not only for the enjoyment of playing, but also because he believes that musical competence opens up other vital skills for young people. Sir Keir believes that schools should also teach “oracy”: the ability to speak confidently in public.
Sir Keir’s advocacy of music and self-expression is a useful corrective to the Prime Minister’s insistence that maths should be the educational priority (13 January). And Sir Keir’s call is perhaps especially important for those children who missed out on so much during the pandemic, when education and so much human contact went online.
It also addresses a deeper cultural problem with the online world in which many young people live. To communicate well and to engage with others requires us to take the plugs out of our ears. It is all too tempting to spend time listening to our individually curated noise, and to lose touch with what is really going on around us. The result can be a reluctance to engage with others, substituting assertion for genuine debate. My rights, my preferences dominate. Oracy should be much more than that.
What Sir Keir did not say, but what is also vitally important, is that both music and oracy develop from an earlier skill: listening. “Listen, my child,” are the first words of the Rule of St Benedict. The voice of God is discerned in silence, and attentiveness to the sounds of the outside world, to music, and to others’ voices is fundamental to our development as persons.
And, although this may be harder for the deaf and hearing-impaired, think of the percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who taught herself music through distinguishing vibrations, transforming her entire body into an ear. An elderly friend of mine who had lost her hearing used to play the piano, reading the score and hearing it all in her head. The point here is attention. Listening involves a displacement of the ego, the anxious, driven, needy self, which all too easily dominates our waking hours.
If Sir Keir heads the next government, I hope that he will be able to put music and self-expression on the agenda for our schools. In the mean time, he could do worse than to attend to his own speaking habit. Like many politicians, he has a rather monotonous delivery. I hope this does not mean that he does not listen.