Music education in Spain seems to function in intermittent fits and spurts of optimism. Beyond the genuinely Spanish folklore, it is often said that this country lacks an elevated musical tradition at both ends of the spectrum: pop music and symphonic music. In the 1960s, this gap was often portrayed as a choice between the amateur municipal bands found in every Spanish town or the Berlin Philharmonic and The Beatles.
But in later years significant efforts were made to invest in Spanish music education. Specifically, the last two decades witnessed the creation of a broad network of municipal music schools that were reasonably efficient at creating a musical culture at grassroots level. Predictably, however, the government spending cuts that are devastating the culture industry in general are threatening to eliminate these schools as well.
These centers, which teach around 265,000 students, were created in 1992 (a very good year for Spain, since it was the year of the Barcelona Summer Olympics and the Expo in Seville). The idea was not just to find new talent that might go on to higher levels of music education, but also to encourage social cohesion, raise the cultural level of neighborhoods and help students with their personal development through music learning.
Though less ambitious in scope, it is similar to what the Venezuelan System of Orchestras is doing with troubled youths who would otherwise remain trapped in crime and drugs; ironically, while that system is hailed in Spain as a magnificent tool for social improvement, within our own borders it is considered nothing more than "complementary," and perfectly expendable in times of recession. Another founding idea behind Spain's 280 municipal music schools was to encourage interest in and appreciation for music, with a view to getting younger audiences to fill Spanish auditoriums, where the average concertgoer has greying hair.
The dramatic thing is that for 40 years something has continued to fail"
"There are two major realities in music education," explains Enrique Subiela, a musician, former school owner and agent for artists such as the pianist Lang Lang and the mezzosoprano Cecilia Bartoli. "One is made up of the people who will go on to make a living professionally from music. And the other is made up of people who will have a minimum training to approach music in an amateur way. To me, this country has not managed to cover this minimum. If it had, the cultural decline we are witnessing now, this divorce between culture and education, would not be as dramatic as it is."
Subiela is referring to the absence of an educated audience at concert halls; of people who go to concerts for reasons other than to fill the long hours of retirement. "The dramatic thing is that for 40 years something has continued to fail, since we've been unable to attract audiences. We need to do some serious thinking about how our music education failed to teach the kind of appreciation that fills the concert halls," he insists.
The other aspect of music education Subiela is referring to is the training of professionals. There are growing numbers of Spaniards occupying top positions in European orchestras (and not just playing wind instruments, a strong tradition in the Valencian region). This type of municipal music school admits students of any age and therefore does not have professional training in mind, but it is sometimes a springboard for music conservatories, where Spain ironically tops the European chart in sheer numbers of them. The youngest musicians tasting success right now accessed music education before these municipal schools opened.
A case in point is Manolo Blanco, 27, one of the most talented and widely acclaimed young musicians in the country. A trumpet player for Orquesta Nacional de España, these days he is busy recording for Deutsche Grammophon and fielding calls from all the major European orchestras. He started out in his home town of Daimiel, Ciudad Real, from the bottom up. The son of a local policeman and a housewife, Blanco firmly believes in the value of public schools. "These schools are also a way for people without means to learn music, make progress and access the conservatories," he says. "Otherwise, in the end music will just be for the rich folks. Many people start going there as a hobby, then discover that they like it, and end up at the conservatory, going on to become great professionals. Now, things are going to get really complicated for families who are struggling to make ends meet."
There are many Spaniards in top positions in European orchestras
Just a few years ago, Madrid was a role model of good practices with the creation of 13 municipal music schools. Now, it is leading the way in cutbacks. Until now the regional government had been subsidizing two-thirds of the annual fee and monthly payments made by students. This year, it is not paying a single cent. Under Mayor Ana Botella (her predecessor, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, was the great champion of the school network) the subsidies are gone and the only thing the city is contributing is the physical space - the running of the schools is in the hands of private firms.
Even though the teachers have reduced their own salaries, while micro-sponsoring campaigns have managed to bring down students' fees to "only" twice what they were paying last year, the result of the cuts is that 40 percent of students have dropped out. The same has occurred in Valencia, where a 20 percent budget cut comes on top of a previous contraction of 23 percent.
"There were very good intentions in this country. This model was well thought out. But there is a fine line between those who view the matter more progressively and those who do so more conservatively," says Tom Hornsby, the academic advisor of Escuela de Música Creativa de Madrid, whose parent company runs nine out of the 13 municipal music schools in the capital. "In these crisis situations, we tend to adopt the least evolved solutions. But it's a tremendous step backward. If schools survive this year - and we private schools are struggling enough as it is - the model will have to be re-examined. There's been enormous public expenditure that cannot be wasted."
It's the same story in other parts of Spain. In Catalonia the regional government, which is the greatest contributor to municipal music schools, has reduced its contribution by 62 percent, while in Sabadell the fee has been raised 300 percent. "They see it as a complementary type of education, neither necessary nor official," explains Pere Vallbona, treasurer of the Catalan Association of Music Schools. "But there are many benefits to it. It is a proven fact that students who learn music tend to be successful in other studies. Music teaches you concentration, team work, direction skills, keeping quiet when others talk... It develops imagination and creativity. The goal is to democratize music. If this trend moves backward, it's the country that will suffer from it. Without social cohesion, it will be poorer. Other countries understand this very clearly. Switzerland, for instance, has encoded it in its Constitution."
In these crisis situations, we tend to adopt the least evolved solutions"
He is referring to a referendum held there three weeks ago, when a massive 72.7 percent of the population supported changes to the Constitution to improve music education and declare it an essential right. The cantons will now design a national plan to evaluate students and ensure that the most talented ones have access to music schools and conservatories. Spain is also at the bottom of the ranking on this issue; while in Sweden 4.03 percent of the population attends a music school, in Spain this figure drops to 0.48 percent.
In Germany there are different education systems, but all have music classes, or at least some kind of music teaching as part of other courses. In some vocational training centers, students may sign up for Musical and Cultural Sciences or Music and Plastic Arts. Some länder offer musical activities outside official school hours, like singing in the school choir, so there are no clear statistics on the number of music-related school hours on offer. What is known is that there are 47,000 music teachers in Germany, compared to 15,000 in Spain.
"Taking resources away from education will eventually take its toll," says Fabián Panisello, academic director at the prestigious music school Reina Sofía in Madrid. "But I am not so naïve as to believe that there is a direct relationship between money and quality. A lot of money is wasted on poorly oriented education." To him, proper training begins with a good selection of students, early training in harmony at six years of age, and good teachers. "And that's not easy in Spain. Anyone who undertakes a career in music either does it at a very high level or it's not worth it. [...] It's true that the performers' level has improved in Spain, but I doubt that's a result of education."