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Musical directors issue stark warning over future of West End pits as access to music tuition narrows

Jamael Westman in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London. Photo: Matthew Murphy Jamael Westman in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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Musical directors working on some of the West End’s biggest shows have warned of the serious consequences for theatre if young people continue to be priced out of learning an instrument.

MDs who have helmed productions ranging from the 1991 West End revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, to current hits including Hamilton and new musical Six, have called for music tuition to be more affordable as fears mount that access to arts education is becoming the preserve of the rich.

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Research published by Musicians’ Union earlier this month claimed that children from poorer families were half as likely to learn an instrument than their more affluent peers.

The costs associated with both lessons and equipment were highlighted as the primary barriers for families from lower income bands, adding to growing national concern over the knock-on effect this could have on the range of people pursuing music professionally.

Mike Dixon, whose career as a musical director and supervisor spans nearly 30 years, pointed to government subsidy of music in schools, which he claimed had been “massively eroded” in recent years.

“The consequences are very serious,” he said, warning that fewer children from low-income backgrounds would be given opportunities to pursue music as a result.

These concerns are shared by many across the music and theatre industries, including Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is a committed advocate for maintaining music education in schools.

Dixon added: “We have to find ways to give all children opportunities to learn musical instruments and to keep our musical heritage thriving, vibrant and, most importantly, inclusive. The standard of musicianship in our theatres, studios and concert halls is currently second to none internationally. We have to keep it that way.”

In the MU’s study, 41% of people from the lowest and middle income brackets said the fact that music lessons were out of reach financially was the primary reason for not learning.

Hamilton’s musical director Richard Beadle said access to music in schools had become a “huge concern”, while the financial implications of learning music to a high standard are “obvious and very pertinent”.

“You’re not going to play a harp if your parents don’t earn more than £30,000 – it costs two years’ wages,” he said.

Meanwhile, both Dixon and fellow musical director Katy Richardson, who worked on new musical Six, questioned whether they could have succeeded in the profession without grants and subsidised tuition.

Richardson said that in the current climate it would be “very difficult” to become a professional musician without parents who could pay for private tuition, and called for additional bursaries and initiatives to help those without such support.

“If the pool of children learning instruments is smaller, surely that can only be a negative thing, as the pool of people that choose to pursue it professionally will be smaller, which can only affect recruitment negatively,” she said.

Richardson added that representation among offstage roles such as pit musicians was sometimes forgotten in the debate around diversity.

“I am lucky to have worked with and continue to work with organisations and production companies that actively battle against this, but I do think that it is an issue that is overlooked by many,” she said.

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