Improvising on a Theme

The story of the Birmingham Music Service

Paperback / softback, 200 pages, 234 mm x 156 mm
14 Sep 2020

Price: £23.99

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The Birmingham Music Service has been a beacon for music education through performance for over 50 years. Collaboration between educators and top-flight musicians has nurtured new talent and opened doors for all children to experience the joy and discipline of music. 'They found and sang their songs', says Sir Tim Brighouse in his foreword to the book.

Improvising on a Theme tells the story of the Birmingham Music Service from its embryonic beginnings in the 1930s to the present day. Drawing on interviews with managers, teachers and students, and on the author's experiences within the organization, it describes the huge impact of the service on children's music in Birmingham. Analysis of developing pedagogy reveals how collaborative group work increasingly replaced one-to-one teaching, while more diverse musical styles and wider access arrangements resulted in greater equality of provision. Key leadership figures stride through the book, their styles dictatorial or collegiate, but all of them shaping the service as they went. Concluding with thoughts on how the UK's dramatically changing political landscape is shaping music education across the country, this is a unique case study of the genesis, management, delivery, evolution and future of an English local authority education service.

  • Cormac Loane

    Following his graduation from the University of London Goldsmiths College, Cormac Loane worked as a saxophone player 'on the boats' and at the Empress Ballroom, Blackpool, during the late 1970s. In 1980 he started his career in music education, teaching woodwind instruments for music services in the London area, including the Inner London Education Authority. In 1984 he was appointed Head of Woodwind for the Birmingham Music Service and was later promoted to Deputy Head of Service - a role he continued to occupy until his retirement in 2013. Loane is co-author of the series of music tutor books Team Woodwind.

Foreword by Sir Tim Brighouse; Preface; Dramatis personae; 1. The embryonic years; 2. Birth of the Birmingham Schools' Symphony Orchestra; 3. An emerging philosophy; 4. Music for all; 5. From crisis to confidence; 6. Wider leadership in the new millennium; 7. Wider opportunities in the new millennium; 8. Exit from the local authority; Afterword: Improvising in an unfamiliar landscape; References; Index.

'Cormac Loane’s book is inspiring and it’s a revelation – with lots of wonderful anecdotes and a great sense of the huge change which has taken place in Birmingham over the last 50 years at least. The book comes out at just the right time, as it demonstrates what a crucial part music continues to play in our society – especially at a time like this.'

Julian Lloyd Webber,

'The book is a great resource, documenting so well the story of this unbelievably amazing music service that I owe so much to … It gives an insight into the history of the music service - all the hard work, the ups and downs and the stories of all those individuals who contributed to the service’s development … And it’s very difficult for me to imagine where I’d be now had it not been for the work of those amazing musicians and mentors.'

Xhosa Cole, BBC Young Jazz Musician 2018 and former Birmingham Music Service student

'The book is a terrific achievement … It does so much more than provide an interesting piece of local history – it uses this history to document the shifting ideological patterns of music education over the last 50 years, as well as the shifting attitudes towards music services and instrumental teaching. I’m full of admiration for the way Cormac Loane has kept these three elements skilfully in play and, at the same time, written one of the few music education ‘page turners’!'

Gary Spruce, Subject Leader for Music PGCE, Birmingham City University

'The book is a credit to Cormac Loane in the way that it charts the development of the Birmingham Music Service over time. It’s a recognition of the contribution to a great city through the highest level of music provision, plus the service that can be offered to youngsters in their schools and beyond. Bringing these three elements together – the city, the music and the service – has been done beautifully in the book. What comes through is the way that the Music Service, throughout its history, has addressed the needs of the changing city. Civic pride has been at the heart of this, and the idea that, through music, we can bring people together – bringing comparative harmony as the city has grown into the multicultural, multi-ethnic community that we all enjoy.'

Mick Waters, former Director of Curriculum for the QCA, and Professor of Education at Wolverhampton University

‘There is much more to this book than a study of one music service. It is rooted in a specific context in time – Birmingham, the place and the people – though not limited to that. Cormac Loane uses his case study as a lens through which wider developments in education are perspicaciously analysed and reflected on.’

Richard Hatcher, Professor of Education, Birmingham City University

'The title says what the book is all about but it doesn't convey the beautiful way Cormac tells it. ...You don't have to live in Birmingham - it's a story that could, or rather should, relate to music services anywhere.'

Bebop Spoken Here Blog,