This morning, I had a rather depressing conversation with two people who, like me, are professional musicians who rely for much of their income on giving instrumental lessons to children. And I have had similar conversations with other instrumental teachers over the last few weeks. Things are not good in the instrumental teaching world.
Instrumental teaching is strongly cyclical: numbers are at their highest in the autumn, when children take up music lessons on starting at a new school, and they gradually drop off after Christmas as children lose interest and exam pressure takes over. And we have a horrible gap in August when even those who intend to continue their lessons go on holiday. Inevitably, during August we take on debt and we pay that off in the autumn when things pick up again.
Except that this year, they haven't. The number of new students starting lessons is pitiful - it is nowhere near enough to make up the losses over the last year. My teaching hours are down from 36 last October to 24, a drop of a third. The effect on my income it is catastrophic. I am now one of the many people who are UNDER-employed: I have a job, but it is not enough to occupy my time and it doesn't bring in enough money. If things don't pick up, I will have to look for something else to do.
Every instrumental teacher I know is experiencing the same problem. Existing students are terminating their lessons, some explicitly for financial reasons and others citing pressure of work. New students are hard to come by. Some teachers are teaching students for nothing in order to maintain a presence in schools and encourage talented youngsters - but not all of us can afford to do this. And cash flow is worsening: people are paying later and later, and bad debts are rising. So it seems that people either don't want music lessons for their kids, or they don't want to pay for them.
I'm not writing this in order to moan, but to point out what is occurring at the grass-roots, micro-business level, and ask some sensible questions about what is really happening to the economy. We know that the economy is in recession - but not deeply so. Official figures show the Q2 contraction as being about 0.4%. Some people have predicted that things will improve in Q3, and some have even queried whether there is actually a recession at all. Yet this is the worst autumn take-up of music lessons I have experienced in 12 years: other teachers have been in the business longer than me and they also say they have never known the take-up to be so bad. The recession of 2008/9 was supposedly a far worse downturn, but we did not suffer the catastrophic drop in lesson take-up that we are experiencing now. So what on earth is going on?
It is very clear that our customers are feeling the pinch. I have in the past been very impressed by the willingness of many parents who are by no means well-off to pay for music lessons for their children: their commitment to their children's education is admirable. But perhaps they have reached the end of their disposable income. Perhaps they, too, are under-employed and no longer have enough money coming in to pay the bills. Perhaps, even, they are losing their jobs.
But that's not what official figures are saying. In fact the UK's employment figures have been something of a success story. And, anecdotally, not many of my students' parents seem to be losing their jobs. I only know of one in the past year, and he worked for an investment bank (investment banking has been going through a major contraction since 2008, so this is no surprise). No, I don't think lack of employment is the problem. There are other factors at work.
One is inflation. I know that official figures show that inflation is slowing down, but the fact is that over the last couple of years inflation has been pretty high - and perhaps more importantly, it has been high in essential products. Transport costs are very high at the moment. Fuel bills are rising. World commodity price rises due to shortages in goods such as grain (due to drought in America, among other things) are increasing the prices of essential foodstuffs. Many people are also experiencing increases in housing costs: rents are very high at the moment and some mortgage rates have risen. Although the retail sector generally is depressed and prices are falling - just look at the number of "permanent sales" going on - in the essentials that people need in order to live, and to which they give the highest priority, prices are rising.
The second is the pressure on children, and I do think this is a considerable issue. I have teenage children myself, and I know what sort of workload they have - and many of my students have even greater workloads. I have A-level students who say they work until well after midnight every night to keep up with their A-level coursework. I have younger students who work every lunchtime, after school and well into the evening, desperately trying to meet the school's target that every GCSE must be at A*. When, pray, are they supposed to practice their instruments? And if they have no time or energy for practice, what point is there in having lessons? This, I know, is how many parents are thinking. Public examinations and the demands of the school to meet its target grades come first, and a broad general education encompassing the creative arts is less important. And if a child is overworked and stressed, I really can't blame parents for cutting down on lessons they don't see as essential. But do children really need to be overstretched like this? How does ensuring that they get 15 GCSEs at A* improve their prospects? All it proves is that they've been driven like cattle. Schools benefit, because they come higher up the league tables. But the children suffer: their teenage years are eaten up by work and stress. Until recently, some of my students at high-performing schools had singing lessons as a form of light relief: they didn't do singing exams, and we simply did interesting music and had a lot of fun. But even that has proved too much and these students have ended their lessons to give them more time for work. And yet I know that the prospects for these young people in the future get dimmer by the day: many of them will not leave education until their mid-twenties, and others will find it hard to find work that really uses their (considerable) skills and talents. They will be saddled with huge amounts of debt to pay for their tertiary education, they will find it almost impossible to buy even quite ordinary family homes and they will be forced to delay having children until they are almost too old. What are we doing to our young people?
The third factor causing the decline of music lessons is worry - and this is I think the root cause of the current instrumental teaching problem. Inflation in essential goods has been with us for a few years now, and so have overstretched kids and slave-driver schools: I can't really see that these have worsened sufficiently to explain the lack of music lesson take-up. But I have never seen such constant economic doom and gloom in the press and the blogosphere, and I admit I contribute to it myself: I do not foresee a good outcome to the Eurozone crisis, and I think that the current government's fiscal policy since it came to office has made our economic prospects worse, not better. But it seems to me that the reason people are cutting back discretionary spending, including their children's music lessons, is not because they haven't got the money at the moment. It's because they think they won't have for very much longer. They are conserving resources and saving like crazy while they still can. We have a major crisis of confidence in our economy - not (just) among businesses, but among households. And while that remains the case, they will continue to save instead of spending, and the economy will continue to stagnate.
Believe me, we have spare capacity - as do many, many businesses at the moment. And we don't need more credit - we are, after all, established businesses which were until recently doing well. This isn't about finance, it's about customers. My colleagues and I are ready and willing to teach the nation's children how to play a variety of instruments and sing. But if parents are too scared about their own future to invest in their children's, what hope is there for us - and what hope is there for the whole nation?