The Piano

The second series of Channel Four’s The Piano, in which amateur pianists play a piece in a railway station, ended last night. Less an amateur talent show than a celebration of extraordinary dedication and, importantly, joy in playing the piano. I’ve avidly watched both series and find myself wondering just why I find the programme so compelling. I’m not a particular fan of solo piano music, although I’ll happily listen to Holly Bowling, Thelonious Monk, Robin Holcomb, Rachel Grimes, Keith Jarrett, and a few others.

It’s not simply that many of the various performers on The Piano have disadvantaged or difficult backgrounds, or that they are so deeply involved in the music they play, that draws me. Perhaps most importantly it’s the rapt look on faces of some of the people who, having stopped to listen in a busy railway station. Faces that appear momentarily transformed by their unexpected encounter with music played for free and for its own sake. That’s what really speaks to me.

So, thinking back it should have been good news that, in January 2023, the UK’s Department for Education published  a policy paper called: The power of music to change lives: a national plan for music education? After all, it promotes the idea of providing: “opportunity to progress”, a “great music education”, the notion that making “music together is a vital part of a rich and rounded education”, and claims that “music plays a key role in brain development” because it “helps to develop language, motor skills, emotional intelligence and collaboration skills”, and so on. It’s a wonderful set of ideas until you remember the social context in which it appears.

A major part of that context is indicated by a report by the anti-poverty charity the Trussell Trust, which ran food banks that distributed parcels from 1,699 locations across the UK in 2023/24 and noted that there are at least 1,172 other independent food banks in Britain. I’m sure it’s hard to learn to play music if you or your family don’t have enough money to eat properly or can’t pay your energy bills. Particularly if there is no access to a piano at your school. Of course we know what the present Government thinks about this situation. When challenged about the increased dependence on food banks, the senior Tory politician Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed that they give people the chance to provide “charitable support” to their fellow citizens. Something his party clearly feels under no obligation to do, despite rising levels of poverty. Indeed, he says he finds food banks: “rather uplifting” because they show “what a good, compassionate country we are”! He goes on to claim that the real reason for the rise in numbers of people having to use food banks is that: “people know that they are there and Labour deliberately didn’t tell them”. Something only a man so steeped in his own ideology that he could accuse UNICEF of “playing politics” after it launched its campaign to help feed British children living below the poverty line could pretend to believe.

It would be easy to see the astonishing dedication of many of those appearing onThe Piano as supporting the belief that anyone who really wants to can take the “opportunity to progress” in any walk of life, not simply in music. That any child, no matter their background and with talent, hard work, and the right attitude can benefit from a “great music education”. And part of me still wants to believe that there’s some degree of truth in that. Only, for many of the young people appearing on the programme, music very clearly hasn’t been “a vital part of a rich and rounded education”. Instead I get the distinct impression it’s been something that they, with the help of biological or foster parents, have found and worked at as something quite outside their formal education. It’s certainly true that music can play “a key role in brain development” and help the development of “language, motor skills, emotional intelligence and collaboration skills”. However, for all but a tiny minority putting that into practice will still be dependent on first creating an education system based on social justice and equality if it is to have any real meaning.

At present the UK education system serves to ensure the continuation of a status quo that, in 2024, in which the lower 50% of the population own less than 5% of wealth, while the top 10% own a staggering 57%. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out, wealth inequality as an issue is inseparable from those of social and economic justice, the key principles on which an education system should be based. Glimpsing those momentarily transformed faces on The Piano was somehow a very powerful reminder of what is lost when an education system is ultimately required to serve the aims of the global consumer culture. When musical skill and creativity is treated as inseparable from economic gain. I suppose those faces speak to me of another form of education, one in which making and listening to music are experienced primarily as a transformative gift and as a celebration of the mystery of our shared humanity.