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If you had a one-to-one with Gordon Brown, what would you say to him? That was the question that came up during a discussion at a recent Nordoff-Robbins open day. The answer that resonated most around the room came from Dr Gary Ansdell, a music therapist and Co-Head of Research at Nordoff-Robbins. 'What about cultural democracy?' he asked. Why are we still not providing equality of cultural opportunity for those outside the mainstream?


But what made his point more potent was that this wasn't a cry only to recognise music's benefits to individuals, but to see the benefits this kind of work can have for communities and society at large. If we want to achieve social inclusion in our cities and communities, he said, why aren't we looking to the positive effects of cultural inclusion?


Social exclusion may be most frequently a result of economic factors, but that's not the end of the story - geographical isolation and physical or mental health problems, for example, can all be factors in social exclusion. And where we begin by looking at work happening on the ground we can often see how the benefits filter up.


"Cultural inclusion is directly equated with social inclusion," says Gary, "and social inclusion is directly related with other factors - things that government is very interested in pursuing in terms of preventative measures in crime, health promotion, workplace inclusion. Research in these psycho-social areas is in very early days but looking at trends at the moment, there are factors to do with musical participation and cultural activities that look as though they do have social benefits as well as individual benefits."


Can a seemingly 'soft' activity such as making music really lead to the hard results that politicians are looking for - low crime rates, a healthy society? "I'm not saying we do music in order to reduce crime rates, or bring your blood pressure down," says Gary. "We do music to make music. But the spin-offs are well proven in many areas - factors such as self-esteem, how people feel about themselves, the quality of their relationships, confidence and the ability to perform. These things can be used as stepping stones to develop the necessary faculties in order to take up education programmes, training programmes, to be marketable in the workplace. These are clear links."


Music therapists like Gary often work at the extreme end of the scale, with people living in what Gary calls 'circumstantial communities' - which might be the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital, a care home or a special school - with little access to the kind of cultural resources the rest of us take for granted. The work that music therapists and specialist community musicians can do in these areas can be life-changing - and yet is nowhere near widespread enough.


However it is sometimes once Gary's work is over that some real holes in provision are revealed. "People get rehabbed and they get better and they move back into community living. And at that point they need a different kind of provision and that's what we find, as music therapists, is really sadly lacking. There's no way of people handing on to other forms of music work in the community, with a learning aim, or a community aim or to meet people."


There are plenty of examples of music work helping to create more cohesive communities, from Billy Bragg's prison project, Jailhouse Rock, which has cut reoffending rates among participants, to the famous El Sistema in Venezuela. But according to the Music Manifesto's Marc Jaffrey, this is a conversation that needs taking into the mainstream.


"This aspect of the role of music, while widely talked about among cultural practitioners and educators, is almost invisible in the wider civic debate," says Marc. "Compare that to the common sense discussions in a pub or a taxi or homes up and down the country about the role of sport. There's a populist language in sport that says yes, it's about winning and the pursuit of excellence but its wider benefits are seen to be in the domain of healthy, productive communities that benefit from the collective endeavour of sports participation. That's still seen as marginal in the debate about music education, which is all about learning an instrument."


Excellence and inclusion are in no way mutually exclusive, quite the opposite. Real democracy would mean that whether faced with a child with special educational needs or an exceptional young instrumentalist, both could have access to the kind of specialist support they need in order to flourish - musically, personally and socially. Would you vote for that?

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