A School Assembly These Fourth Graders Will Never Forget

British pianist James Rhodes has the answer to reviving music education in primary school, and he is spreading the message on TV.

Michael Handelzalts
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James Rhodes. Creating a better society.
James Rhodes. Creating a better society.
Michael Handelzalts

In the usual order of things in writing this column, I scour my sources, find information about a new series or TV program to be hurled at innocent viewers in the week to come, and proceed to present you with some necessary (and many redundant but showy) details that should – and hopefully will – make your experience of watching it somewhat richer.

But life, as we all know, happens when we have other plans. So, after having explained to you and myself at length that one does not need a TV set and programming schedule to savor the abundance of TV creativity, I found myself in bed one morning in a hotel room in Amsterdam, with my tablet still in my travelling bag and my smartphone charging for the day, at the mercy of the hotel TV system and screen.

I resigned myself to my fate, and knowing no Dutch, zapped onto the BBC channel (every hotel all over the world has it on the remote), for the morning news, gearing up to hear about Gaza, Ukraine, ISIS, Ebola, Scotland’s possible secession, the decline of the Euro and other stories of mayhem and carnage.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when the first item on my watching agenda happened to be an interview with a British classical pianist, James Rhodes, who was invited to promote and present his new two-part documentary “Don’t Stop the Music” (it went on air last Tuesday, on BBC Channel 4). I’ve decided to tell you about it although you can’t watch it (yet?), as it is part of a larger story, apart from its value as TV viewing fare.

Rhodes, 39, started out as a musically inclined and talented kid, but his life story was sidetracked by sexual abuse, to which he fell victim, this leading to psychological problems. He spent some years in a mental institution and was prevented from studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on a scholarship. After jump starts and mishaps on the path of a musical career, he finally managed, in 2008, to record his first CD, “Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos” (the title does tell you a lot, if you are properly attuned), followed in 2010 by “Now Would All Freudians Stand Aside.”

What Rhodes managed to do, brilliantly, was to harness the incredible energy that is the core of classical music to his own vulnerability, and leverage his trauma and mental problems into a creative, enriching and inspiring cultural experience.

Among his many achievements, he tackled head-on the notion of classical music being presented and performed by stuffy penguins in white starched shirts and black tails in front of a hushed and reverent audience. He started to include his own program notes in the performance, presenting them in a stand-up mode between the pieces he brilliantly performed, at informal venues, as well as at the Roundhouse concert hall and the Ambassadors Theatre in London (last Tuesday and Wednesday). 
By the way, we in Israel have an 
incredibly inventive and talented exponent and champion of such music-making in Astrith Baltsan, who deserves a TV 
series (and a column) of her own.

On TV, Rhodes brought a grand 
piano into a mental institution for a semi-autobiographical documentary, “Notes from the Inside” (last year on Channel 4) which naturally highlighted the healing faculties of classical music for body and the soul.

With his new series he aims much higher. He told interviewers and viewers about the dire straits of musical education in the primary schools of Britain (and most probably in all the world, Israel included). Instead of bemoaning the lack of resources, Rhodes decided to demonstrate a new way of doing things. First, he declared a “musical amnesty” by calling on everyone (viewers of the morning newscast included) to look for any of their unused musical instruments and bring them to Oxfam branches to donate them. These instruments, refurbished and serviced, will then be sent to primary schools so that pupils can experience music first-hand, mouth, ear and body.

But much more important than that, Rhodes chose a venue to perform and present his first experiment in public musical education: St. Teresa’s primary school in Basildon, which was recently found academically wanting, with a budget for music education of 
precisely zero.

In a trailer for the series, viewers were shown an amazing scene: Rhodes managed to sneak a full symphony orchestra in concert attire into the school gym. By nine in the morning, when pupils started arriving at the school, they were greeted by the blaring sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. One could see the 9- and 10-year-olds filing into the gym, having the lush, rich and structured orchestral sound engulfing them, and almost literally sweeping them off their feet. The surprise, awe and joy on the little faces could not have been faked. They were – and they said so readily afterward – bowled and won over, by and to (classical) music.

But that is just the beginning of the story. In the series, Rhodes introduces pupils, teachers and viewers to the idea that within five weeks, with musical instruments available, and passionate musicians with teaching skills on hand, the pupils will be able to perform an orchestral piece by Beethoven themselves. The series supposedly proves his case to all doubting Thomases.

But according to Rhodes, wonderfully informal and very casually dishevelled in a T-shirt on the BBC morning show (in contrast to the anchor’s suit and tie), it is not only about music, classical (he hates this soubriqet) or not. He believes that by giving people the ability to make music together, which means listening to your fellow-players and being attuned to others’ chords, accords and discords, makes for a better society.

That is beautiful music to my ears. And who am I to argue with beauty, 
especially on TV?