In the run-up to Give a Gig Week, our CEO Matt Griffiths embarked on a tour of projects supported by Youth Music. He kept a diary of his adventures in the North West and the Midlands.
I'm always keen to make proper time to visit projects we invest in across England. There's nothing better than seeing the diverse range of music-making we support first-hand, and to really understand how it’s helping children and young people experiencing challenging circumstances. I also get to see the music leaders in action and talk to them about their practice and future plans.
My week in the North West and Midlands last week was no exception.
I started with a visit to the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool for a concert led by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO), celebrating eight years of In Harmony. There were 250 children on stage performing their hearts out, supplemented by members of the RLPO and watched by a packed house of proud family and friends. In addition to some orchestral classics, there were performances of Katy Perry's 'Roar', the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean, and a piece of music written specially for the children. During these three performances I noticed even bigger smiles on the children’s faces! The choice of repertoire is always such an important decision when working with children and young people.
Tuesday – 9.30am
Next, to Leicester, kicking off with a project organised by Spark Arts in a great partnership with Leicester City Council, running music-making sessions in children's centres and nurseries across the city. My first visit was to Netherhall Children's Centre for a music-making session with Dave ‘Stickman’ Higgins, supported by Liza and Lou from the council.
Around 15 young children attended with their mums and a few dads. From the moment I arrived I could tell it was going to be an exemplary session. Dave had arrived really early to get the room looking welcoming and creative. Lots of visual imagery on the walls, plenty of space, a big rug in the middle and lots of beautiful drapes covering the instruments for the all-important 'reveal' later on.
The session incorporated a wide variety of activities including lots of rhythm and word games, songs, playing with Boomwhackers and other percussion instruments. We were beautifully led by Dave through a series of stories including landing on an island, feeding the elephants, doing the bangle jangle and creating our very own percussion cushion mountain. Huge imagination from Dave, with the perfect balance of a carefully planned structure but leaving lots of space to respond to the ideas and playfulness of the children. The energy and playfulness that he, Liza and Lou brought made us all feel comfortable to act in the same way. Turns out Dave is a jazz drummer, actor, storyteller and was originally a construction manager. He’s also appeared in Dipsy's tummy in Teletubbies!
The second session was on the other side of the city, taking place at a nursery within the Brite Centre in Braunstone - a community centre built about ten years ago as part of the regeneration of the area. Adel, the Director of Spark Arts, came along with me. The workshop was led by jazz musician Arun Ghosh, supported by Juliet from Leicester City Council. It was the third part of an 11-session programme. Arun and Juliet encouraged me and Adel to get totally involved.
This workshop had a different feel to the morning session. There were six children involved, supported by a similar number of staff. Arun's approach was fascinating to watch. Adel commented that Arun approached the session as a band leader (which is what he is) - leading his band to compose new tunes. Except this time his band were a group of 3-5 year olds! We worked together on their composition, called 'Brite Suite' which they’ve been developing each week. The tune involved lots of different sonic textures and the opportunity for the children to play different types of percussion instruments and sing too. Playing together required lots of co-operation, watching and listening from the young children, keeping their eye firmly on Arun throughout the piece and remembering what came next. It was lovely to watch and be involved in. We went from short, sharp percussive ‘stabs’ to a chilled middle section with chime bars and vocals, a new shaky-shaky section with actions and ending with a rousing rhythmic song, complete with bowing and applause at the end.
As we were driving between venues, Adel and I discussed how the choice of music leader for this work is absolutely crucial. Dave and Arun bring something to the table not just as professional artists but with a thoughtful, reflective approach that forms a central part of their practice and career. I also observed a very positive sense of partnership between Spark, the music leaders, the support staff from the council and the early years settings. Everyone understands what they want the end goal to be and I really look forward to see how this work develops in the future.
After a quick break, I visited Soft Touch Arts. Joe, one of the Directors, showed me round. The place was full of activity - guitar tuition, rock guitar recording, a group of lads finishing off their 10 track album, and a bass guitar practice. The staff team see themselves very much as enablers - they're on hand to help whenever needed, but they give the young musicians the space and freedom to create. Until a couple of years ago, Soft Touch Arts had always been based outside of the city centre, which made it hard for some young musicians to get there. Two years ago they moved into a building right in the city centre, which means they are now able to operate an open door policy - young people can hear about it, turn up and get involved. The spaces in the building are already full - they're going to need an even bigger place soon!
Soft Touch Arts were formed in 1986 and have just celebrated their 30th anniversary. They've learnt so much along the way and I was struck about the positive vibe the team create, primarily due to their ‘can-do’ attitude which you can feel right across the organisation.
My last visit of the day was to Pedestrian Arts, also based in Leicester city centre. They're running a project called Concept for young people not in education, employment or training and it's based on two sites (the other one’s in Corby). Tuesday evening was the first drop-in session and was attended by four local young people. They all choose to be there and the project offers a range of music-making activities to attract their interest. In addition to some communal African drumming to help them get to know each other, the young people were individually working on production, DJing and music technology.
I met with Kate Rounding, the project manager, after the session. Kate explained that this project has required careful planning and they've worked hard to target the project at young people experiencing challenging circumstances who would significantly benefit from being involved. Kate has considerable experience of this type of work in the East Midlands - her connections and network in the region have also helped to make the project work well.
On Wednesday, I visited Northern House in Castle Bromwich, Solihull, for a mac birmingham workshop. Northern House is a primary and secondary special school for children and young people with autism, ADHD and associated emotional and behavioural difficulties. The music leaders for the session were James (who works for mac Birmingham) and Phil (who works for Solihull Music Service). The session formed part of an ongoing programme of activities, due to culminate in a performance at mac birmingham in the main theatre the following Monday. The session I attended was the final rehearsal. Due to illness, many of the young people usually involved were unable to attend so James and Phil worked with two young people, the first on his keyboard playing and the second on his lead vocals for the two songs they were performing. James and Phil showed themselves to be very skilled at thinking on their feet, and responding to the changing behaviour of the two young people – both vital traits to be able to do this work successfully. It was also great to see a good partnership between the two music leaders and a shared understanding as to what they aim to achieve.
Thursday was the last day of my tour. I started with a visit to Chadsgrove School in Bromsgrove, which is a special school for children and young people with physical disabilities and other complex needs. Musicians from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) are working there as part of the ‘Music & Ability’ project. One of the project’s intended outcomes is to develop the knowledge, skills and experience of the orchestral workforce for leading music education programmes. This can be quite a challenge - orchestral musicians don’t necessarily have the skills and attributes required to lead music education programmes, but the CBSO players were very keen to learn!
I observed two sessions for children and young people with PMLD (profound and multiple learning disabilities): the first for a young KS1 class and the second for the older pupils. The music leaders were Jackie (cello), Rachel (cello) and Helen (oboe) - all musicians in the CBSO who are developing an increasing interest and experience in this area of work. The strong collaboration with the class teachers and support staff was great to see. In the reflection sessions, everyone spoke about how the music programme is having positive benefits for the children and young people in their care. Progress for each pupil is being tracked using iPads. This means the school staff can observe how the programme helps towards achieving the overall school targets set for each individual e.g. being able to successfully hold an instrument, being able to take a lead, being able to stay in time with the group for the whole session.
My tour ended on Thursday evening with a visit to Malcolm Arnold Academy in Northampton. The academy is part of the David Ross Education Trust, which consists of 32 academies based in the East Midlands and East of England - the trust has a strong emphasis on sport and music as a powerful way of supporting young people’s wellbeing, health, personal development and wider educational achievement. I had been invited to be the interviewer for an event called ‘In Conversation with Nick Mason’ - Pink Floyd’s drummer and a supporter of the school. As a drummer myself, an invitation not to be missed!
Nick had been at the school in the afternoon for a Q&A session about the music industry and a drum workshop. My conversation with him was in the theatre for parents, students, and fans of Pink Floyd and progressive rock (the ‘proggers’ as I called them!). We had a great hour together. I loved seeing how the audience members young and old were talking about the same things, all connected by a love of Pink Floyd: their history, their classic albums and live shows. That’s what music does.
I headed back to London for the start of Give a Gig Week – 117 gigs across the country in aid of Youth Music. Another week of adventure begins!
Thank you so much to everyone I visited on my tour – including the project staff, music leaders, teachers, young musicians, families and carers, and inspirational role models. Everyone made me feel so welcome, and it was a real privilege to see the impact of Youth Music’s funding in action. I can’t wait to get out on the road again soon.