The plumbers were brilliant, not only because they did the job of changing all the radiators and piping in less than 5 hours and, unlike other rushed jobs one is reading about in the papers, it all seems to work, but they inspired me to do something I have not done since I have lived in this flat, almost ten years. I cleaned it. If you have not done this to your own dwelling, do it. I highly recommend it. It is theraputic, almost an inner cleansing. Draws crammed with accumulated rubbish, grease behind the fidge and cooker, dust and a lot of other things under the bed. Out it all went and with it I feel lighter. My flat seems lighter and larger despite the rain filled foreboding clouds in the sky (well, where else would they be?) And so to back to work, with a greater sense of purpose and a joyful heart, or it would be if the bloody noise from the prison would allow me to think.
Encouraged after this pleasant encounter with a lonely soul, I went up to a woman who was standing alone at a tall table. “Are you alone?” I enquired.
“My friends have left me.”
We exchanged cards. She was a retired Polish diplomat who had had a long posting in Italy. We talked in Italian.
“You have lived here 10 years and you don’t speak Polish!”
As with so many people of her sort of age, it is impossible trying to explain why not. To claim that it is not through lack of trying cuts no ice.
Of course, I could have been bluntly honest. The cultural wave is against Polish. This minority language is difficult, ugly and almost irrelevant.
I could have become personal. Not speaking the language allows distance, objectivity and provides a certain insulation from the oft times absurdity of Polish thinking. But I did not. Instead, like a gentleman, I accepted her distain.
We talked about this and that until a couple from the Polish Chamber of Commerce came over to the table. At that point I thought it was better to move. The husband is always charming whenever we meet. His wife seems to detest me because of my protestations against the Beethoven Festival. A friend of Mrs. Penderecki and sporting the same retro-Mrs. Thatcher hair style, we had what was almost a screaming match last year at the American Residence as the 4th July celebrations were drawing to an end. In no mood for a repeat action, I moved to a table where an Italian businessman I know slightly was engaged alone with a drink.
“Come va?” I asked, always happy to exercise my Italian and knowing that he doesn’t speak much English and no Polish.
“Sono pazzi. Tutti!”
And he should know. He is married to a Pole.
Recently, I attended a birthday party in the garden of a villa, a house that was once a substantial middle class family home. Now, during the day it provides an invaluable refuge, a place to come for families with young children who can’t quite cope. In the evening it reverts to something of a family home. I met a young man who has come to Poland for three months to learn Polish. I asked him how he was getting on and was relieved to discover that despite speaking all 3 official Belgian languages he was not finding Polish easy. We share the same quantity of Polish blood in veins which proves a facility for Polish has nothing to do with DNA. This was confirmed the following evening when I attended a party at the Hyatt Hotel.
A good looking young man, who turned out to be a Middle Eastern diplomat, was standing alone, outside the crowd.
“Enjoying the party?” I asked as I ambled past.
“No, I am alone.”
“Then let’s be alone together. Do you speak English?”
Apologetically, he told me that his Polish was much better than his English. This was not a boast. Clearly, he thought his English was weak. Weak my foot. We chatted about the war in Afghanistan. He told me that many families have divided loyalties. It is quite usual for brothers, one who may be in the Afghani army, another in the Taliban, to eat at home at the same table. I suggested he visit the war cemeteries at Tannenberg, not far from Olsztyn. The graves of young soldiers, whether from the Russian or German armies, all have the same names. Polish. Family fighting family simply because they lived on the wrong side of the arbitrary border that divided pre World War One Poland.
He asked me if I smoked. Smoked what, I wondered. “No, but perhaps I could try.” I’ve never taken drugs but perhaps at my age it would be a good time to start trying. What was he suggesting? Before I could find out he got a text from his girlfriend and said he had to be going.
“A smoke sometime?”
Investing in human capital for innovation are buzz words. Businesses tell their staff that they are being given training because the company cares about them. Sometimes this is true. More often, companies are trying to give their staff the basic skills they should have learnt at school: team work, trust and the sharing and implementation of ideas. These are the skills they should have learnt through team sports and the performing arts.
The other deception is political. As far as the arts are concerned, Poland is still run like a Soviet state. There is little or no transparency or accountability for the allocation of public money which invariably goes into the pockets of the chosen few. There is even less confidence that the political and bureaucratic decision-makers are competent. How often can they be seen in concert halls or at performances? Rarely, if ever.
Poland must innovate but the culture of innovation cannot be created on a whim. The people in power, the politicians and the academics, must wake up to the awful reality and take responsibility. But they should not be expected to do everything. Parents and people who have an interest in the welfare of the country must bring pressure to bear for change. Poles deserve a better education system but the system cannot get better without music and the Arts as an equal partner in the syllabus. There must be an end to this cultural elitism. Innovate!
The music schools certainly contribute very little to the music industry which, in Poland, hardly exists despite the high number of trained musicians the system produces. Young Polish musicians often have to go abroad to finish their training because the approach both to playing and marketing music is so narrow. Furthermore, very few teachers, whether in academies or music schools, attend teaching courses or maintain their own skills through having lessons themselves. This has serious consequences for the way they teach and, thus, the mentality and skill base of the students they train.
The Ministry of Culture is now responsible for music education in all schools. To keep themselves busy, the politicians and bureaucrats seem to be constantly engaged in re-writing programmes that can never been implemented. These programmes can never be implemented for one very simple reason: the Ministry has no authority to require the gmina, the local authorities, to introduce its programmes to their schools. It is the Gmina who pay.
Given some of the ideas going around the corridors of the Ministry, this failure may not be undesirable. However, through their inability to engage with the problem, the political classes and, thus, the education system, are failing the country. Perhaps they don’t care? The fact that only 1% of state money given for the 2010 Chopin Year was spent on education indicates how much importance the Ministry of Culture attaches to music education for the general public. That none of the Chopin capital education projects was either finished or funded for legacy activity is damning evidence. Quite simply, music does not matter in the Ministry of Culture. Then how can the Ministry be responsible for the musical education of the nation?
Nor is the Ministry the only problem. There is the problem of the availability of qualified, quality teachers and, even more dramatic, the policies of the National Opera and the National Philharmonic. These great institutions are unique in the whole of Europe in not having any effective educational and outreach programmes. They enjoy a self-imposed isolation from the people whom they exist to serve: the general public, not the chosen elite. This is a grave and scandalous failure on the part of these heavily state-subsidised bodies and one which their political paymasters seem happy to ignore.
What can be done to save the future? Is this a lose-lose situation? Not necessarily. The question is very simple: How can the gmina be encouraged to introduce music and the performing arts to their schools when no leadership or example is given by the great national institutions in the capital? Part of the problem, but only a part, is money. The rest is goodwill, imagination and organisation.
What is needed is a National Performing Arts Educational Centre for Schools: an inspiring flag-ship example, an education power house for the whole country. The Centre would have an outreach programme for training teachers to use performance skills in the classroom; a place where model programmes would be run with ordinary school children as an example for schools and other institutions throughout the country; a place where these skills could be developed not only for the classroom but also to help management and business develop skills essential for good business practice. Obviously, developing new teaching material will be a priority and musical theatre will be a key area for development.
Why musical theatre? Because it has something for everyone: singing, dancing, acting, technical requirements and organisation. A musical theatre performance in a school enables children to work together for a shared objective and receive the all important recognition from their peers when they perform. A performance that is open to friends and parents puts the school at the heart of the community. Apart from school sports matches, when and where else is there space for this most important experience?
The initial funding should be for 5 years with a minimum annual budget of 500.000 pln. This funding should come from private sources. Since business has a vested interest in young people, building links with business and education is highly desirable. It is a staggering fact that almost no adolescents get any form of careers advice before they leave secondary school or before they chose their higher education options. Most children are constrained to follow their parents` advice and study subjects that they perceive will offer a job for life rather than develop the mind. This might have worked 20 years ago. Today it is redundant thinking. We have enough lawyers. The Centre could build links between business and the young by developing visits to business sponsors and buddy programmes between individual employees and children.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare reminds us of the importance of music:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.
It is a dire and stark warning and one that has probably not penetrated the corridors of Government or the many state-funded organisations that exist to promote music. Yet, a recent survey showed that Poles are amongst the least trusting nations on earth. 9 out of 10 Poles do not trust other Poles. Could this be a consequence of the lack of music?
Research worldwide has shown that children who have a constant contact with music and the opportunity to make music in groups tend to develop intelligence and life skills more successfully than those who do not. Music has many hidden benefits. For example, most people have probably seen photographs of Albert Einstein sitting at his piano working out mathematical problems. Others will know from their own experience that making music with other people gives a great sense of achievement and togetherness.
The claim that music is good for you must be very hard to believe for most people in Poland. Their memories of music lessons in school are probably very negative. Learning about the lives of long dead composers or trying to play out-of-tune recorders is nobody’s idea of fun. Sadly, this is what music lessons still mean for most children who do not attend music schools. Music should be fun, it should be challenging and it should be done together. Music teaching should be based on singing, movement and storytelling: the three activities in which small children engage instinctively.
Whilst it is true that Poland spends money on music education, the example of the 300 hundred or so state run music schools is not a good one. These unproductive, underfunded, unimaginative institutions should be closed down and incorporated into ordinary schools. Thus, every child would get the opportunity of some contact with instrumental music and, if they wanted to, the opportunity of learning to play. Instrumental music should be an optional extra for all children.
Usually, children from non-musical families are drawn to music by peer pressure or through chance encounters in school corridors or assembly halls. Well-meaning or ambitious parents should not be the only motivation for a child to take up music. By incorporating music into the everyday life of normal schools, music itself becomes normal as much as maths, history or biology. Thus, the education system becomes more balanced and, as a result, produces more rounded, more self-confident and more empowered adults ready and able to make a contribution to the lives of others.