Rousing encore: 41,000 now avail of Music Generation lessons

Ambitious plan aims to provide musical education for as many young in Ireland as possible

The old Lynyrd Skynyrd standard Sweet Home Alabama is a rewarding song for aspiring young guitarists to tackle. Built around a basic three-chord structure with ascending and descending bass lines, it is a song that is both clever and simple, easy to play tolerably well, but hard to play exactly right.

In a prefab at St Cronan's Boys' National School in Bray, music teacher Tim Doyle plays the guitar solo on a keyboard with his right hand while his pupil Casey Earls traces the bass notes with his left. While they figure it out, other students on guitars are hammering out the three chords in unison.

Casey (10) is the first in his family to play a musical instrument. “I want to be a musician,” he says.

He is not alone. Of the 520 pupils in the school, 162 are learning an instrument through Music Generation, the ambitious scheme set up in 2009 to provide a musical education for as many children in Ireland as possible.


Logical and intuitive

It is universally acknowledged that learning music is good for a child’s development. Music is both logical and intuitive. It demands discipline and patience, yet until Music Generation came on board, provision for it in Irish schools was woeful. Just 1 per cent of Irish secondary school children received tuition.

For generations it was a "Cinderella subject", says St Cronan's principal Maeve Tierney.

She estimates just a fifth of the pupils in the school currently learning music would be doing so if Music Generation did not exist. The scheme has made music tuition accessible.

Lessons which would normally cost between €25 and €30 cost €6.50 through Music Generation. Students can borrow instruments or rent them at €30 a year with a view to buying them after three years at a heavily discounted rate.

Lessons are carried out communally rather individually, which creates a group dynamic. “Just to see music in the school makes it more accessible,” explains Mr Doyle. “There is no strangeness to it. Music is now part of life. Children are dying to learn it by the time they get to eight or nine.”

St Cronan's is one of 40 schools in Wicklow being funded by Music Generation. Wicklow is, in turn, one of 12 existing local authority areas in the country that has set up Music Education Partnerships.

There are now 4,000 students in the county availing of Music Generation, and 41,000 throughout the country. "The numbers will always go up. I don't see them dropping," says Music Generation Wicklow manager Ann Catherine Nolan.

Invariably busy

Music Generation is also in secondary schools. At St Kilian's Community School in Bray, the students gravitate towards a room with the mural of a rock band on the wall. It is invariably busy.

Learning music contributes a huge amount to the self-esteem of students through their teenage years, says teacher Louise O’Sullivan. She cites the example of one autistic student who took up the subject through Music Generation in fifth year.

In the space of a year he went from being socially isolated to playing in front of the entire school at the graduation concert.

Another autistic student, Ben Rowsome (17), has embraced the opportunities of Music Generation. Left-handed, he learned to play on a right-handed guitar. He plays it upside down like Jimi Hendrix used to do, and can also play a left-handed guitar. "Listening to music has helped with my own anxiety a lot," he says.

Polish-born Veronica Roszczak (15) took up drums. Her teacher rates her as one of the top two or three percussionists he had seen. "That would not have been picked up without Music Generation," said school principal John Murphy.

Following the success of phase one of Music Generation, phase two is being expanded to include nine new areas: Cavan/Monaghan; Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown; Galway City; Galway County; Kilkenny; Leitrim; Roscommon; Waterford and Wexford.

The expansion could not have happened without, once again, the philanthropic support of U2. Originally it was intended to roll out a pilot scheme nationwide, but in 2008 the crash came and the Government could no longer afford to do it. U2 stepped in with a grant of €5 million, with the Ireland Funds contributing a further €2 million.

Both organisations are providing a further €6.3 million for the second phase on a pro-rata basis, meaning U2 will have donated €9 million to Music Generation over a decade.

It is not just the money itself that is significant but the fact the band has gone public on the donation, something they rarely do. The success of it has made the band “immensely proud”, says guitarist The Edge.

“This is a really important moment for Music Generation. Our ambition is for every child and young person in Ireland to have access to tuition and this next phase of expansion brings us ever closer.”

‘Exceeded all expectations’

Music Generation director Rosaleen Molloy said the original donation was a "once-off, but the success of the programme has exceeded all expectations of everyone involved."

That success persuaded the donors to fund a second phase. The rest of the funding will come from public funding, some €2.5 million a year over five years.

“Without a shadow of a doubt this is a long-term, lasting initiative,” says Ms Molloy. “What Music Generation has achieved through public-private partnership is actually groundbreaking.

“The history of funding of arts and education projects in Ireland are stop-start. They were only as good as while the money lasts.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times