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Music, money and politics

Yesterday I attended a most extraordinary and very moving concert. It was given by about two dozen pupils at the local primary school in Bréau.

Until recently music has not been taught in most schools in France; the only way children have been able to learn an instrument is to go to a local école or conservatoire of music, pay for lessons and in many cases buy an instrument. There are subsidies, but inevitably the practice of learning music is a restricted activity.

I don’t really know the details, but a couple of years ago the Pays Viganais – the collection of local communes here – became part of a national project to get music into primary schools. Three schools, including the one in Bréau, joined in. The instruments are provided free, the courses are heavily subsidised, but stil the local commune has to pay for the teachers’ time and I think parents may have to pay a small sum.

The instruments being learnt in Bréau have been the violin and cello. The children have had a weekly lesson learning musical theory, a (group) lesson on their chosen instrument, and have been playing together once a week. Now – after two years broken by periods of lockdown, the children were playing in public for the first time.

And what playing! They presented a series of pieces, starting with old familiars like Frère Jacques and ending with a rousing rendition of Bella Ciao. They played with discipline, watching the conductor – Fanchon (the violin teacher), playing in time, tuneful and IN TUNE! Stringed instruments are hard and these kids have come from nowhere to a really good level, despite all the setbacks of the past two years.

The concert took place in front of the Mairie in Bréau and the place de la mairie was absolutely packed with the children’s families and other locals. I have never seen so many people in the village, even at fête times.

Chloe, the main teacher in the school, made a good short speech saying how much learning music had helped the children in other aspects of their education like French and maths. (Unlike the music teachers and children making announcements, she showed her teacher pedigree by making herself well heard by all!)

Then it was the turn of the mayor, Alain Durand – never at the best of times one of the most gifted speakers. He was hard to hear and anyhow gabbled in his local accent, so I found it difficult to follow. But rather than congratulate the children – and their parents and teachers – on the incredible achievement, he gave a long, detailed account of the many ways in which the Conseil Municipal contributed financially to the school. That is, after all, one of their main functions!

Then things got a bit nastier as he launched into an amazing complaint. Apparently until now it has only been the top two classes of the school that have benefited from this new music project: CM1 and CM2.(The five primary school classes in France are CP, CE1, CE2, CM1, and CM2.) Alain Durand said he had heard rumours that people thought that he had made a decision that there was to be no funding for music for the third class down. But no, he said, he had simply said that it would be difficult to find the extra money (about 2,000). Well, I think that is what he said, but he went on for a long time. He said, it would be the whole council that decided and he would listen to what parents and others had to say. At this point someone heckled (but was shushed up), saying he never listened. Anyhow an inappropriate and very negative end to an otherwise wonderful occasion.

This morning, after my cello lesson, I bumped into Fanchon, the violin teacher, Nathalie, the directrice, and Nathalie, my fellow cello player. I learnt that CE2 families should have been offered lessons all last year, but had been blocked by the mayor, and the parents’ association was not happy about this. Alain Durand had apparently claimed that there other primary schools did not include CE2 in the project but this is not true. If they did not have lessons now, the Bréau school risked losing participation in the whole primary schools music project. Already the autumn is going to be a challenge with half the existing pupils leaving to go to collège.

Nathalie (the cellist – and the other teacher in Bréau) then told us about the letter that Chloe (the main teacher) has written overnight to the person in the Pays Viganais responsible for musical education, spelling out exactly what has been happening in Bréau and very diplomatically seeking greater clarification and communication between the pays viganais and the participating schools. In other words, she wants them to sort out Bréau and Molières (where they teach CE2 but their mayor told Alain Durand that they didnt!).

It’s all about money, the fact that we have a mayor who doesn’t like spending it, and certainly not on culture . (His great passion is hunting rather than music or art.) I’m going to try to follow this story and to understand the funding situation better.

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