Many of Germany's public music schools are facing financial insecurity at a time of widespread spending cuts. But teachers are still trying to uphold basic musical education for tomorrow's talent.
Youth ensembles like the "violinos" provide key learning experiences.
The toy donkey sitting in Lea's opened violin case at a music school in the western German city of Duisburg is all ears. Eighteen beginners are bowing and plucking their string instruments, coached by music teacher Joachim Schaefer. The 'violinos,' Duisburg's junior ensemble, comes together once a week, viola and cello pupils included. Playing as a group enhances the individual tuition they each need to eventually master an instrument.
Lea's toy donkey listens in.
"That was pretty good," Schaefer tells his lively bunch of budding musicians, "but you can play it better! Always remember to play cleanly with your fingers on the A and D strings." He tests them on whether the melody is in a major or minor key. "It doesn't sound at all sweet, does it? "Sour," comes the reply. "Good!"
Waiting in the corridor is one of many parents, Monika Dick. She's thrilled by the violinos. "They also give small concerts, so they learn how to perform in public. This is an extra service of the teaching personnel. It's great."
Behind the scenes - deep uncertainty
The educational vitality at the Lower Rhine Music and Art School is, however, deceptively endangered. Duisburg, a city of half-a-million residents, comprising 170 nationalities, once made its name with steel and coal. The city has now amassed debts of 2.7 billion euros ($3.3 billion). That is symptomatic of budgetary dilemmas facing many German municipalities - whether to keep or drop public services, from theaters to swimming pools. Many are in "intensive care" warns the German Association of Cities and Towns, mainly because the recession has shrunk their share of tax revenues.
Lena-Aylen fine-tunes Prokofiev melody with teacher Ute Steffens.
In March, Duisburg's City Council rejected Mayor Adolf Sauerland's suggestion that the music school be privatised or outsourced after a public outcry.
Parents like Tanir Aday, whose daughter learns the flute, are still worried about the fate of this decades-old public institution with 3,400 pupils and 110 tutors. "It doesn't look so good," he said. "Many parents and teachers have joined together in order to seek clarification of the situation, because it its so important. Making savings in the schools should be the very last option."
Wrangle over funding
Local authorities are historically the financial mainstays of Germany's 1,000 public music schools, where parents also pay fees for weekly lessons.
Overseeing a newly reformed nation-wide curricula is the German music schools federation, the VdM, which recently demanded that Germany's 16 regional states contribute far more funding and recognise that music schools are essential institutions and not just "nice to have" cultural entities vulnerable to austerities.
Under Germany's constitution, the federal states have long had a big say in culture, which in German law subsumes education as well. Only in the former East Germany does the regional state funding for local music schools approach 10 percent.
"In North Rhine-Westphalia, where the regional state only contributes 1.7 percent, the whole burden lies with the communal authorities, who're finding it increasingly difficult," said Sybilla Stachwitz, the federal chairperson of the parents' branch of the VdM.
Complicating the scene in North Rhine-Westphalia is JEKI. "Every Child, an Instrument" is a special trust-funded initiative for 45,000 children. Music tutors visit more than 550 primary schools, teaching classes instead of giving individual lessons.
The concept is controversial among music educators but it's seen by some as an answer to several challenges: How to ensure musical equality for all, including children from poorer families, and how to integrate musical tuition into all forms of schooling. Music schools, which traditionally open their doors after lunch, must now cope with the fact that many primary and secondary schools have extended their periods deep into the afternoons, in part to assist pupils' working parents.
Demise of music know-how lamented
This drive toward integrative musical education follows warnings from renowned musicians such as opera singer Edda Moser, now a music professor in Cologne. She recently told German radio that too many children lack first-hand musical experience.
Percussion teacher Markus Kreiger with Sam Schwarzer
"That begins at home, with the parents singing with their children. And, that doesn't exist any more, unfortunately, because of the media usage," she said.
"There's a generation growing up that has hardly ever heard classical music, except for when it pops up in advertising," adds Markus Kreiger, a trained symphonic percussionist who has taught for two decades at Duisburg. He offers lessons in Timpani (orchestral kettledrum) and Vibraphone. "99.5 percent only want to play the drums."
Cutbacks tempt cities to casualise employment
In Dueren, an hour's drive past open-cast brown coal-mines from Duisburg, a dozen teenage guitarists round off a public forum on the plight of music schools by performing a classical piece from the Venezuelan composer Alfonso Montes.
The forum was organised by the friends' association of Dueren's music school to highlight the impact of cutbacks on teaching personnel and how the prevailing circumstances hamper pupil-teacher continuity. More than half of Dueren's tutors are on so-called casual 'freelance' contracts. Ten years ago the city of Dueren, and many other cities, largely ceased to recruit music school teachers as salaried staff to save on costs.
"Casuals are (seen) as cheaper and, for the administration, as the flexible alternative," said podium chairperson, Dr. Gisela Hagenau. "But they don't have any protection against dismissal. They don't have income during school vacations. They are liable themselves for retirement arrangements. They haven't had a fee raise for 10 years."
Conducting the young guitarists is Christian Ulrich, who lacks a salaried position despite his qualification as a music conservatory graduate. "The everyday situation for us as casual teachers in Dueren, or casual teachers generally, is that our dedication to the work that we do is exploited through the social necessity of us having to earn money. Therein lays our greatest dilemma. I had never anticipated that this job would be so precarious."
Speaking out in Dueren: Music teachers Peter Reiser (left), Ina Hagenau and Christian Ulrich
Peter Reiser, also a qualified guitar teacher, once taught members of the guitar ensemble in Dueren. He told Deutsche Welle that he got fed up with waiting years for his casual work to turn into employment. Instead, he left, when offered a salaried job as music school teacher in Moenchengladbach.
Gone are the days when people asked him, "what do you do for a real job?" He says he has job security, including pay for preparing lessons, attendances at staff conferences and school concerts, and, not least, recognition as "a person with a qualification."
"Because of the casual work situation, I often had to give up. That was a painful experience for me and also for the pupils," he said. "When do children in our society have the opportunity to build such close relationships? When does an adult devote 30 or 45 minutes only to this child? That hardly happens, often not even in families."
Ulrich too says he was once asked by a pupil, "do you have enough money to eat?"
"Working with children gives me incredible enjoyment. We believe, however, it can't remain like this, because you cannot skimp in this area," Ulrich told Deutsche Welle. "Take the youth centers, take the music schools; take the whole educational sector. It's unacceptable!"
Duisburg lobbys for its music school
Likewise in Duisburg, parents and pupils remain determined to safeguard the financial viability of their communal music school.
Teenage saxophonist Leah Lorke says "everyone is scared that it's not going to be what it always was anymore. It used to be ... it is still such a great school, and it's not very expensive - great teachers and lots of kids."
With her two sons, aged 6 and 10, Maria-Teresa Martin-Lopez is even more insistent: "There are thousands of children here, and hundreds of teachers, who work here. That would be a catastrophe if the children couldn't come here any longer. Where would they go? They need this! It's important for the children that they learn to play at least one instrument!"
Author: Ian P. Johnson
Editor: Rob Turner