Why does James Rhodes want your old instruments?

The classical pianist on his new scheme to get kids playing music


Where Basildon leads, can Britain follow? James Rhodes thinks so. The country’s most unconventional classical musician – a man who has overcome abuse as a child and a period in mental hospitals to build an international career as a solo pianist – recently went into a primary school in the Essex town and found music completely absent from the curriculum.


It compelled him not just to make a series for Channel 4 about the despair he felt at this discovery, but also to launch a campaign to address it. Get ready to raid your lofts for unwanted instruments.

Rhodes is putting out a nationwide call for people to donate instruments they no longer need. He has planned this “amnesty” with military precision, too. “I have partnered with Oxfam and Yodel, the courier company,” he says. “So if you have an instrument that you or your children no longer use, no matter what condition, you can take it to your local Oxfam shop. Volunteers will package them up and Yodel will deliver them to a warehouse in London, where a team of specialists will clean and recondition them and make them playable.”

Then the instruments will be dispatched again – to the hundreds of primary schools that, Rhodes says, have made desperate pleas for them. “We’ll take any instrument as long as it’s not electronic – or a piano, for obvious reasons,” he says. “But clearly the instruments by themselves are not enough. There has to be tuition and space in the timetable.“

So after the amnesty, which runs from 8 September to 17 October, Rhodes plans to launch a petition, through change.org, to persuade the Government to implement and fund properly the National Music Plan, published in 2011. “It’s a brilliant document,” he says. “But when I started to explore the reality of what’s going on in schools, I realised that it was so inconsistent, so much a postcode lottery.”

For the TV series Rhodes went into a primary school serving a poorer part of Basildon. The school was only recently out of special measures after a damning Ofsted report, so you could say that he was loading the dice against finding flourishing musical activities. But that’s his point. He believes that working-class kids from poorer families have as much right to musical opportunities as private-school pupils.

“How many potential future Simon Rattles, Elgars and Adeles don’t get the opportunity to see if they have any talent?” he fumes. “I heard the National Youth Orchestra at the Proms recently, and it was fantastic. But we are heading towards a situation where it will consist only of privately educated children.”

Some schools that Rhodes visited while researching the series had music budgets of around £2.20 per child per year. “The Basildon primary didn’t even have that,” he says. “It had no budget, no time in the curriculum, no teach- ers with musical training – no music at all.”

How did that occur? Didn’t Ofsted’s inspectors notice? “Ofsted doesn’t particularly inspect music,” Rhodes claims. “In fact a lot of schools deliberately don’t do music because Ofsted doesn’t check. Literacy and numeracy is what the inspectors care about. And if you are a head teacher struggling to get a good report that is all you will care about, too.”

Rhodes decided on shock tactics. “I found the kids didn’t even know the names of any instruments,” he says. “So at 5am one morning I smuggled the London Sinfonietta into the school gym. At 9am the kids arrived. Five minutes into their lesson, bang-bang-bang-wham! They hear Beethoven’s Fifth blaring out of the gym! They all file in, are literally five feet away from a symphony orchestra, and totally speechless.” Then Rhodes set about finding instruments for them to play. It was here that he hatched the amnesty idea. “Basildon has a rich musical heritage, so I reckoned there were hundreds of instruments lying unused in attics and cupboards. I was overwhelmed by how many were donated.”

Rhodes approached the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and found “four or five fantastic volunteers” to teach the children. “Within ten days we had the kids playing Beethoven in assembly,” he says. “Then we moved onto Strauss and Dvorak. Then I thought: ‘There’s no reason why this can’t be emulated in schools around the country.’”

The 39-year-old Rhodes has had an unstable life, to put it mildly. While he was at prep school he was sexually abused by a gym teacher. “It went on for five years,” he says. Music was his salvation, though he didn’t begin piano lessons until he was 14 and at Harrow School. “Ridiculously late to start, and then at 18 I stopped for ten years.” Instead of taking up a scholarship to the Guildhall, he studied psychology, then worked for a financial publishing company, all the while consuming a lot of drugs and alcohol.

At 28 an agent heard him playing Chopin for fun, and put him in touch with a top-class teacher. Inspired, Rhodes gave a recital. A month later, he had a mental breakdown. “It sounds like the two things were connected, doesn’t it? But it had been building for a long time.” Following a suicide attempt in 2006 he was sectioned and spent nine months in various mental hospitals. Despite this, his career as a pianist has subsequently taken off – though he prefers unconventional venues and concert formats to the “stuffy” atmosphere of conven- tional classical recitals.

Is he now in a good place, mentally? “How kind of you to ask!” he replies, a touch ironically. “I don’t think I am ever more than two bad weeks away from being back in a locked ward. Things are brilliant right now but I don’t take any of it for granted. I’m getting married next month. My first marriage was a car crash. My fiancée this time is the first person I’ve ever met who has shown me what the phrase ‘safe haven’ means. She is kind and talented, far hotter than I deserve, and puts up with my tantrums.”

How to get involved with the instrument amnesty

Step One: Find an unwanted musical instrument (pianos and electronic instruments are not included in the amnesty)

Step Two: Take it to your local Oxfam shop between 8 September and 17 October.

Step Three: It’s really that simple.

Full details here


Don’t stop the music is on Channel 4 tonight at 9.00pm