Some reflections on education and an educational memoir

In my research on operatic culture in the 1920s, I have read many interesting things about attitudes towards arts education. There were numerous calls for children to be given as good a grounding in music as they were in literature, maths or science. Imaginative strategies were devised to introduce children to opera in particular: touring opera companies put on special performances for schools and pupils were expected to write an essay about the opera afterwards and compete to win a prize. There was much discussion about the ways in which new technologies (gramophone records and radio broadcasts) could be used as teaching aids. It was also suggested that opera libretti could be discussed in English lessons, although there was an awareness that this might prove problematic, since the subject matter of so many operas was deemed to be ‘unsuitable’.

Although music education during the 1920s was often said to be in a poor state, there was a huge appetite for standards to be raised, encouraged by a broader enthusiasm for music appreciation and self improvement. It is also clear that, despite the weaknesses of formal music education, the level of cultural knowledge of many children was already considerably higher than we might expect to find today. A magazine of the era observed that children could surely be encouraged to attend the opera because ‘many children [already] attend recitals, some of which are free’.

Music would go on to play a larger part in the school curriculum in the following decades but it is depressing to observe that the question of music education should once again be so contested today. Many schools are dropping Music as an option at GCSE and A-level and matters are not being helped by the exclusion of music from the Russell Group’s list of ‘Facilitating Subjects’. For those who do take the exams, the curriculum is narrowly focused, even at A-level, with its focus on small musical case studies (a few years ago it was fragments from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, the Tristan prelude, a bit of jazz and the music for Titanic), which gives pupils little understanding of the broader history of music, let alone of the historical contexts that shaped the works.

Opportunities for children to receive instrumental tuition are also not what they were a few decades ago and in parts of the country county music services are under threat. In some schools, furthermore, a general philistine attitude seems to prevail. A couple of years ago I was shown around a local primary school by a head-teacher whose chest was puffed up with pride at his ‘outstanding’ Ofsted report. The school was evidently doing well but culture seemed to be a blind spot: when asked if there was a school choir, the headmaster retorted that there was absolutely no need for one – ‘rock band’ would suffice.

The question of exposing children to culture and encouraging a spirit of genuine intellectual curiosity lies at the heart of Michael Volpe’s new memoir, Noisy at the Wrong Times. Volpe, now General Manager of Opera Holland Park, was the fourth son of Italian immigrant parents. His ne’er-do well father abandoned the family and his mother (a larger than life character in the story) worked her socks off cooking in a nursery in order to support her four young sons. Life for the family was undoubtedly extremely hard, and Volpe’s account of life on a London council estate is both vivid and visceral. One of his elder brothers, Matteo, was in and out of borstal as child, an experience that set him on a particular course for life. Michael Volpe is open about the fact that his own life might have been similar had it not been for the fact that he received an exceptional educational opportunity.

In the mid 1970s, at the age of 11, Volpe was given a place at Woolverstone Hall school for boys, an unusual state boarding school that took bright working-class boys and gave them an education similar to that which they might have received at Eton. The book is in large part a traditional school days story of boyish high jinks, whether in the classroom, on the rugby pitch or in the dormitories. But Volpe also writes passionately about the education he received, and particularly about the fact that culture was presented to the boys without apology and without dumbing down: this was a school with the balls to put on a production of Der Freischütz.

This, then, is the story of the transformative nature of education, but there is a twist in the tale. Although Volpe revelled in taking the lead in school plays and was a star sportsman, he more or less deliberately abandoned his academic studies, arrogantly assuming that he didn’t need paper qualifications and not bothering to revise for his exams. It is clear that he can now hardly bear to write about such an opportunity wasted: the chapter that concludes his school days ends with a four-letter expletive and the subsequent chapter is simply entitled ‘idiot’. Predictably enough, Volpe’s opportunities upon leaving school under such a cloud were not great, but initiative and an entrepreneurial spirit would take him places in the end.

Even though Volpe would fully admit that he squandered many of the formal educational opportunities that were offered to him, an enthusiasm for learning had evidently got into the blood-stream. His book is a passionate plea for schools to take the arts seriously. He writes: ‘Children, including those from impoverished backgrounds, have the facility and the capability to understand the tenets of Roman society, or the wonders of ancient Greece and the glory of Renaissance painting, or any number of things that seem to have been given only cursory presence in the classroom’. Rock band most certainly will not suffice.

As well as being an impassioned manifesto, this book is an enjoyable read on many levels. It is by turns laugh-out-loud funny (anecdotes about swearing in Neapolitan dialect, recognising the sound of the policeman’s knock on the door, writing a rude letter to a girlfriend who had dumped him) and highly moving (Volpe’s response to his brother’s death at the age of 52; his aching regrets about screwing up at school). Volpe is as interesting and thought-provoking when writing about the immigrant experience as when writing about education, and the passages about family holidays to Italy are highly evocative. Volpe admits to not paying attention in English lessons, but when it comes to grabbing the reader by the throat and holding their attention, this man sure can write.


Noisy at the Wrong Times is available to buy here.