Endangered Instruments - Where are they now?


Director - York Music Service

Does anyone else remember the Endangered Species initiative, launched through Youth Music about 9 years ago? It was supposed to encourage young people to learn instruments such as oboe and bassoon, French horn, trombone and cello, and get these instruments back into our orchestras, starting from the initial stages.

At the time, a lot of money was put into stocks of instruments suitable for beginners, and cases to protect current instruments. Many music services came up with schemes to get youngsters to take up endangered species instruments, and manufacturers developed new versions of ‘regular’ instruments, with smaller bassoons and horns, and oboes with less keywork.

I’d be really interested to know what difference there is now in the numbers of students playing these instruments, and whether the initiative made the hoped for impact.

The reason I ask is because it seems to me that Local Authority Music Services are finding it increasingly difficult to exert any control over who learns what.

LA Music Services usually work in one of two ways: -

Number one – selling time to schools, who then decide what instruments are taught and to whom. Problem – often schools only offer instruments that are seen as relatively ‘easy’. Some schools turn into Samba Band, or Jazz Band only ‘ghettoes’. How many schools do you know that still have an orchestra? You may be luckier that we are, but around York, they are few and far between.

Number two – selling directly to parents. Problem – parents and children choose the instruments they are familiar with, or that their friends play, therefore, once again, the range of instruments learned shrinks.

Although both of these methods mean that lessons are still happening, my concern is around the lack of choice available for pupils. Here in York, we have worked with model two for a number of years. While numbers learning strings have remained fairly stable, the proportion of guitarists has gone through the roof, with wind and brass playing in a slow and steady decline.  We have plenty of kit drummers, but not enough tuned percussion players in our orchestras and bands.

To me, there is still a problem, 9 years later, with how young people choose which instrument to learn. How are they going to decide to play the oboe, if they have never seen or heard one? Why would they learn the bassoon, if there is nowhere to go and play it?

I certainly don’t want anyone to be prevented from learning the instrument of their choice, and the increase in numbers of young people playing less traditional instruments is great, and needs to be celebrated, but somehow we still need to encourage a good balance of live music into schools, with real – enthusiastic - musicians providing a good model for these endangered instruments.

We need to be able to subsidise lessons to encourage take up, and we especially need schools to understand what their role is in all of this. Rather than making that lonely bassoonist or cellist feel like an ‘uncool’ outsider, let’s incorporate them into an ensemble, and let’s celebrate the diverse range of musical instruments that ought to be available for learners.