Matt Griffiths goes West
Youth Music CEO Matt embarked on a tour of projects supported by Youth Music. He kept a diary of his adventures in South West England.
I've been out and about on one of my regional tours. Over the last week, my tour has taken in Bristol, Somerset and Dorset, and included project visits, roundtable discussions and a conference.
I attended the 'Breaking the Glass Ceiling' conference at Colston Hall organised by Bristol Music Trust. An exceptional day with thoughtful contributions. There’s been so much positive progress since I attended a similar conference at Colston Hall ('Fast Forward') in 2015. Progress not just in terms of a growth in the number and quality of inclusive music-making programmes, but - importantly - in terms of a greater shared understanding about what constitutes musically inclusive practice. Two years ago, a shared understanding wasn't fully apparent among the delegates and speakers. This year, there definitely was. Progress indeed.
But of course, there’s still much to do. As I said in a tweet, this work needs to be the norm rather than a novelty. It is becoming more normal but not normal enough. I want to call particularly upon the big players in music education and arts policy to move ahead with more action - not just in their policies and programmes, but also in modelling an inclusive culture throughout all aspects of their organisation. As I've said again and again, inclusion is a practice, a way of thinking and working. It's not a project! Inclusive practice can then scale-up to meet our Youth Music goal of a musically inclusive England. It is really possible. We all just need to keep progressing - to move away from, at best, warm words and, at worst, apathy.
Next up was a meeting with Barry Farrimond, CEO of OpenUp Music. With dogged determination over the past ten years, Barry has been working with his team to address the lack of musical instruments and repertoire for disabled musicians to play. It's really exciting to see their organisation grow - they're much in demand, winning well-deserved awards and now looking to get to national scale. With this in mind, we talked a lot about choosing their partnerships carefully as they head towards the launch of the National Open Youth Orchestra in September 2018. We talked about personal and organisational attributes of resilience, determination and appetite for giving things a go. All important qualities, particularly when innovating and driving change in the music education sector (which can often be tied up in orthodoxies and outdated ways of working).
I met up with Stuart Wood who is the Executive Director of Boomsatsuma, a Bristol-based Community Interest Company we've been supporting over the last few years. They're focused on particular areas of need in North Somerset, and the programme we're funding is working with young people in challenging circumstances who live on the Bournville Estate in Weston-super-Mare. North Somerset is an area that often loses out due to its relative close proximity to Bristol (although as Stuart pointed it is actually further away than people think) so I was really pleased to see a concerted, targeted move to change this. I also noticed how enterprising Boomsatsuma are in achieving their business model: a mixed economy of income, a trading arm and based on social enterprise principles. They've had some pretty impressive outcomes in terms of how young people working with them on their accredited courses are progressing, including into higher education.
In the afternoon I visited Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC). The centre is approaching its 21st anniversary and is a significant success story in terms of the positive impact it's had in the local community, further afield in Bristol and in the wider region. KWMC has always focused on - among other things - the use of music and the arts as a positive tool for social action. We're supporting the centre's music-making programme for young people, as well as the XLR Collective for a group of young people interested in taking their music, production and marketing skills further. One thing I hadn't picked up on previously was the centre's commitment to their environmentally sustainable building: the first straw bale construction of its kind in the region! I witnessed a range of music-making, digital composition and production. Everyone was made to feel so welcome right from the off and the young people were given the right environment to pursue their own personal, musical interest, knowing that they had the guidance of music leader James Kennaby and the team every step of the way.
A day in Somerset: a county which has had a really tricky time arts-wise over the last few years, including the complete withdrawal of funding for the arts from the County Council. This has required arts organisations to think really carefully and entrepreneurially about their sustainability. Strategic partnerships between organisations have played an important part in this, which was evident during my visit. I saw an early years session at Taunton Opportunity Centre for children with special educational needs (many of them recently diagnosed with autism). The session included a combination of creative play, singing together and more focused music-making in small groups expertly led by music leader Jenni Parkinson. The aim of the session was to help the children follow instructions (start/stop etc.) and to work well together. It was great to see the progress being made by each individual child and the shared understanding between the centre staff and Jenny regarding what they jointly wanted to achieve.
After lunch, I popped into the Actiontrack studio in Taunton with Ralph Lister, the Director of Take Art, to meet with the team - Nick, Tim and Nathan. I also got to observe a one-to-one session between Tim and Richard, a young person who attends a local Pupil Referral Unit. Richard is working with Tim to produce a range of tracks using Logic software. They played me a track which included samples from The Chainsmokers, with Richard playing all the instrumental parts and singing the vocal lines. It sounded great - here’s a clip of it on Twitter.
I was really struck by the respectful relationship between Tim and Richard. They were working together as musicians. The welcoming, creative environment and one-to-one support provided to Richard are clearly helping him fulfil his potential and overcome the challenging circumstances he's experiencing.
Last up on Wednesday was a visit to Somerset Rural Youth Project, specifically their Rural Music Network community guitar programme taking place in Taunton library. This has been devised by James Brookes and Youth Music has supported it over the last five years. One of the features of this programme is that it is deliberately intergenerational: local young people and adults working together in group music-making sessions, playing guitars. The programme provides a supportive environment where the participants of all ages not only learn from each other, but can also work independently then join together to play through the tune they’ve been working on. We did ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol. For some reason, I find it far more difficult getting my hands around a guitar fret than I do holding some drum sticks!
My South West tour ended with a visit to B Sharp, based in Lyme Regis. They work in schools and community settings in West Dorset, East Devon and beyond. B Sharp was formed ten years ago by Fran Williams, Jacques Verhaeren, Ayvin Rogers and others who were increasingly hearing first-hand from young people in the town that there was nothing to do, that they were being ignored, and actually being treated as a problem! Yes, Lyme Regis might be beautiful - the setting of many films, Broadchurch filmed down the coast, second home territory for Londoners - but this hides the underlying issues young people are experiencing in a coastal town.
Through the passion and commitment of Fran and the team to do something about it, and in the true spirit of social action, B Sharp offers a range of music-making programmes, live gigs and progression opportunities for young people - many of whom are experiencing challenging circumstances. I visited St Michael's Primary School for an early years session involving singing, dancing and actions. The music leaders created a relaxed yet creative environment and I was struck by the very positive and co-operative dynamic between them, Mandy the teacher and the other staff.
The day ended with a roundtable discussion with the B Sharp team and young musicians, who expressed so personally and eloquently what B Sharp means to them. I heard so many examples of how individuals were originally participants and have now become paid music leaders - real progression in action. And also very personal accounts of how B Sharp provided a welcome, supportive environment, particularly when young people were dealing with complicated issues in their lives. This powerful combination of helping young people progress and social action is at the heart of what B Sharp does. It is genuinely at the centre of its local community and clearly making a real difference.
I travelled back on the train feeling inspired by the commitment and dedication I've witnessed over the last few days from the staff teams, and the resilience and creativity evident in all the young people I've met. Thanks to everyone I met on my tour.