Cutbacks in music sound a sour note

Drop-out rates soar as government funding dries up and school fees increase

Students and teachers stage a protest against spending cuts for municipal music schools in Madrid.
Students and teachers stage a protest against spending cuts for municipal music schools in Madrid. SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ (EL PAÍS)

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."

Palau de les Arts plays out its own tragedy as budget cuts tie hands


The opera Rigoletto will open the seventh season at Valencia's Palau de les Arts on November 10. By then, however, Verdi's passionate drama will be competing with the financial farce unfurling at the opera house, a city landmark whose future depends on how the second story ends.

The regional government's budget forecast for 2013 is around nine million euros. With this kind of outlay, the Palau could pay its 300 employees, its acclaimed orchestra, and maintenance workers to keep the huge building designed by Santiago Calatrava in good shape. But that's it. There would barely be anything left over for opera productions, either in-house shows or ones on loan from elsewhere.

The announcement that the Palau's budget might be slashed by as much as 50 percent leaves the arts center close to complete financial collapse. "I don't know how much the cutbacks will be in the end, but I hope it's not that much," said Palau administrator Helga Schmidt. "But despite the uncertainty, I can assert that the artistic quality will never go down. We will have to explore new formulas."

The final budget will be approved in the coming days. Until then, a possible solution would be to try to keep general services outside the Palau's budget allocation. Just maintenance work and opening the doors to the public costs 3.2 million euros a year despite recent savings (this outlay used to be 4.5 million.) Building the center cost the Generalitat 478 million euros, including 44 million to pay the architect's fees, when the initial forecast had been around 100 million, according to figures released by the Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias, the arts and science complex in which the Palau de les Arts, with its white curves, cuts the most striking image.

Schmidt notes that the "magnificent building" by Calatrava, who also designed the World Trade Center Hub in NYC, "was not built in times of crisis" but rather at a time when its costs were manageable. She also underscores its power to attract international attention due to its high-profile design.

On top of the cutbacks to its main source of financing (the city of Valencia and the provincial authorities do not contribute anything to its upkeep), the Palau also has to contend with a general drop in private sponsorships due to the crisis, and a reduction of the Culture Ministry's contribution, set at 423,000 euros. The Valencian government, ruled by the center-right Popular Party (PP), never managed to reduce the difference between what Barcelona's Liceu and Madrid's Teatro Real get from the ministry - 8.3 million euros and 8.7 million, respectively - and what the Palau de les Arts gets. It didn't happen when the Socialists ruled Spain under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and it hasn't happened now under the PP government of Mariano Rajoy, although public complaints about "injustice" are no longer being voiced aloud.

Only the conductor Zubin Mehta, who has had professional ties to the Valencian opera house ever since its creation, continues to criticize the great schism between what the Palau and other opera houses receive.

He also underscores the artistic quality of the programming and the critical acclaim earned by its young orchestra, founded by Lorin Maazel. While it is true that the Palau de les Arts, which will offer six operas and one zarzuela this season, lacks the tradition and the critical mass of the Teatro Real (10 operas, four concert operas) and the Liceu (nine full operas and six concert operas), it has achieved operatic milestones like the Wagner tetralogy put on by Fura dels Baus and conducted by Mehta himself.

The lack of liquidity has also caused delays in payments to suppliers and artists who performed at the Festival del Mediterráneo, which ended the last season. Although part of the debt was paid in December, as one prestigious artist told this newspaper, the delays hurt the opera house's credibility. Another consequence of the current financial situation is greater dependence on box office takings, which pushes theaters to put on productions that they know will be more popular with audiences.

And there is one more problem to add to the above: the regional government is planning to reduce its 45 public corporations and 30 foundations into six umbrella groups in order to save money; the move will mean firing around 3,500 people. Under this system, the Valencian opera house, which answers to the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía Foundation, will become part of a new group called Culturarts, and predictably lose its legal entity.

Helga Schmidt stresses the importance of "reducing costs in times of crisis but also of safeguarding culture and heritage, which are part of the life of a nation." She insists that the Palau de les Arts is built on "the excellence of its orchestra and choir" and in the participation of a few major names like opera singer and conductor Plácido Domingo and conductor Riccardo Chially, along with new talent.

"It is more important to have and improve our own orchestra than to hire the Berlin Philharmonic for three performances," she says.

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