The spirit of Musical Futures and me

abi pic 2

July 7th 2005. The day of the London bombings. It was also the culmination of the first year of testing informal learning music practices in four secondary schools in Hertfordshire as part of the Musical Futures pathfinder project. 120 Year 9 school students came together in an arts centre to perform music in an event I had project managed.

Invited VIP guests and press couldn’t get to us, students and staff were becoming increasingly anxious about the events taking place down the road, and we strongly considered cancelling.

But then the first band played. A group of four boys who until 10 months before hadn’t touched an instrument, let alone had the confidence to stand on a stage and play, blasted out a tune they had written themselves. The music wasn’t polished or perfect. It was raw, real, human and it was theirs. Band after band played that day, on a professional stage, to their peers, and it was the gig of their lives. The final act was a 14-year-old boy who stood up, solo, and sang Natasha Bedingfield’s Wild Horses with passion, conviction and intensity. Listen to the original, and you’ll understand why there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. On a day where nobody could quite fathom what was happening in our world, we found comfort and strength in music.

FredLongW_JustPlayMarch2016_LowRes_EmileHolba-93 Since those early pathfinder years, I have been privileged to witness hundreds of thousands of students benefit from Musical Futures. I’ve worked with some of the most dedicated, passionate and committed music teachers and practitioners who have taken a leap of faith and adapted and adopted Musical Futures in their classrooms, often battling against resistance from senior leaders and disgruntled colleagues who have asked them to ‘turn that bloody noise down’. And I have been one small part of an increasingly global community of practice that has spread innovation and who are united in a shared commitment and belief that music has the power to change lives.

Today I step down from my post as Chief Executive of Musical Futures, after 13 years. On one level, I am leaving a job, I’ll get my P45 next week and will hopefully move onto new and exciting ventures. However, the spirit of Musical Futures will never leave me. The core ethos, the values, the belief in people and the strength of community forms a significant part of who I am and what I do.

This spirit has been created by an infinite and ever increasing list of incredible people – from David Price OBE and Professor Lucy Green to teenagers in schools across the UK and the world, teachers, educators, academics, policy makers, and of course the fantastic MF team, past and present.

Emile Holba

I wish Fran Hannan, who is taking over as Managing Director, and the team of teachers who continue to pioneer Musical Futures ongoing development the very best.

Musical Futures has been life changing for me, and I know will continue to be life changing for many more in the future.

It’s been an incredible journey. Here are some of my best bits….

2005: Seeing the late Lord Moser in a practice room of one of the pilot schools virtuosically

MFWeb2015_EmileHolba 92performing a Mozart Piano Concerto to a group of awestruck Year 9 boys, after they had played him Greenday’s ‘Holiday’ on electric guitars.

2006: Schools Minister Andrew Adonis backing Musical Futures and the teachers involved: ‘I am delighted that Musical Futures has been so successful in encouraging children to continue with their musical education into GCSE and beyond. This shows personalised learning can pay dividends’.

2008: Watching Musical Futures students rock out in the foyer of London’s Southbank Centre at the AP_175_12Musical Futures In Your Hands conference. 400 teachers at the event were officially ‘handed’ Musical Futures as theirs to grow and develop, in a mass festival of professional development, debate and music performance. Musical Futures was subsequently heralded as ‘the most significant initiative in secondary music education since the turn of the century’.

2010: Musical Futures launched in Australia: hearing and eventually seeing students in classrooms on the other side of the world benefitting from informal learning practices in exactly the same way as in UK schools was inspirational, and confirmed the transferable and sustainable nature of the approach.

2013: Being sent this performance of a group of students from Canada who were inspired by Musical Futures programme ‘Find Your Voice’. This was the culmination of an innovative pilot to test new approaches to singing and technology in the classroom, involving a global community of practice as developers, and these students nailed the essence of what we had hoped to achieve – proof that student voice is immensely powerful, in so many ways.

2015: Organising the Music Learning Revolution conference where 400 educators and young MFGroup-2people came together to celebrate innovative music learning. Lord Puttnam opened the day, and a group of students from different schools collaborated with beatboxer Shlomo to create a new vocal piece and closed the day with a massed beatbox choir performance.

2016: After years of advocating for the power of playing music, but having lost the confidence topianothon play myself, performing the piano for 12 hours in a ‘pianothon’ at the Yamaha Store in London to raise money for instruments for a new Musical Futures project in Kent and Medway

2017: Musical Futures being selected as one of the top 100 global innovations in education in the Hundred awards.


I am indebted to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation for the commitment to music education they have provided since 2003, and the support and encouragement they have tirelessly shown.

Photography by the legend that is Emile Holba


Musical teachers create musical students – why CPD events matter

What is the point of music teachers attending professional development events when online learning is a cheaper, convenient and time saving option? From the comfort of your laptop or mobile device you can increase your subject knowledge, keep on top of the latest trends, learn what the experts are saying, debate in forums and save having to brave the roads or railways and justify a day out of school or the office.

Here’s why. Because musical teachers help to create musical students, and an implicit part of ‘being musical’ is coming together and having the opportunity to connect through music.

All of Musical Futures professional development – is deeply connected to and derived from how students learn music, and is almost entirely experiential and collaborative.

Workshops are practical, hands-on and will place delegates in the position of their learners – putting instruments in their hands and unlocking their voices – and showing how a range of informal and non-formal teaching and learning strategies can be effectively applied in the classroom.

Professional development is above all about connecting with like-minded individuals, participating in a shared experience, and building relationships that last way beyond a one-day event.

Good professional development helps you to stay interested and interesting, inspired and inspiring, and provides a critical opportunity – in our increasingly digitized world – to learn from and with each other.

An ongoing refresh of mastery for your subject is critical, but it can and should be engaging and fun too. 

Edited on 2nd December 2016



There’s no I in theory

I had a clear out recently and decided to tackle the four huge boxes of school and university work that have been sitting in various attics for years.

I was amazed at how much I (in theory) know! Hundreds of essays on pretty much everything from early Renaissance composers through to South Indian Carnatic rhythm patterns. History, analysis, theory, harmony, counterpoint, technique: all handwritten in fountain pen on reams of A4 lined paper. Those 6 years of intense work earned me three certificates (which are buried in another box): A level, BMus and MMus, which of course have informed and supported my ongoing career in music and music education.

Out of those four boxes I only kept the pieces of work that showed a glimpse of creativity: a portfolio of compositions from A level music; a folder of newspaper clippings I spent hours collecting at the British Library for my BMus dissertation on Weill and Brecht; personal notes on my experiences working in music communities in South India. Everything else was binned – if I need that knowledge again, I will go online rather than climb up a ladder to retrieve it.

But I was struck by how little of my personality was in those boxes. There was little evidence of my own opinions, values, and creativity. And absolutely no sense of the energy, vigour, inspiration and commitment of those that taught me.MFWeb2015_EmileHolba-164

I don’t contest the importance of theory, history, analysis for one moment. But that knowledge doesn’t necessarily stick (it didn’t with me) unless you learn how to apply it. And it certainly doesn’t equip you with a set of skills needed for a career, particularly in our rapidly-changing, increasingly digitised world.

Teachers are under so much pressure for students to achieve the outputs that will, one day, probably end up in boxes – essays, certificates, numbers on spreadsheets. But it is everything that can’t be measured in an exam that effective teachers are really providing – the nurturing, coaching, modelling, opening up spaces to be creative, and inspiring a deep, meaningful love of a subject.

I truly believe that effective music teaching is one of the keys to unlocking and supporting students’ future aspirations, whatever they may be, and in whatever field.

Musical Futures provides training and resources based on the real-world practices of popular and community musicians, making music learning relevant and engaging for all kids

Blog post edited 5th December 2016





Forget genre, it’s the spirit that matters

In June 2016 I spent time in Los Angeles working with non-profit organisation The Music Path. Created by studio engineer Mitch Zelezny with advocacy support from The Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, the Music Path exists to ‘preserve and promote the spirit of rock and to empower and inspire young artists through education’.

They will be using Musical Futures approaches to underpin a project based music enrichment programme for 14-19 years olds in high schools who don’t engage with the current music education offer in their schools.

We had some interesting discussions about ‘genre’. Musical Futures has often been cited as ‘that rock and pop project’, and as our approaches begin with music that students identify with, contemporary music features heavily.

But I go back time and time again to the fact that the pigeon holing of music into genres is an adult construct. The term ‘world music’ didn’t exist until the 1980s when record stores needed a label to put above the section housing (at the time) mostly African music records. In its day, classical music was popular music. For young people, it is all ‘music’ until at some point they are forced to define it.

In his 2016 speech at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, the rapper Ice Cube articulated that the genre you identify with is about the spirit of the music’s creation, as much as the music itself:

“Rock ’n’ roll is not an instrument; rock ’n’ roll is not even a style of music. Rock ’n’ roll is a spirit. Rock ’n’ roll is not conforming to the people who came before you, but creating your own path in music and in life.” (New York Times)

Can’t we shift this obsession with genre wars – what music is most important, complex, valuable, aesthetic – and start discussing the spirit of its creation, heritage, culture and how that defines our own creativity? Surely a meaningful music education should be about helping students find their own musical identity through practical exploration, discovery and creation.

So I’m with Ice Cube, and would take this further to say that the spirit of rock n roll – even if not the music itself – should be at the heart of our music education system.

Blog post updated 5th December 2016


Be brave enough to try

I  attended the European Association of Music in Schools conference in Vilnius, Lithuania in March 2016 which had a host of academic presentations from across Europe on the themes of innovation and creativity in music education.

As always for me though it was the young people that provoked my thoughts. I attended a pre-conference visit to a school in the Old Town of Vilnius. It was a beautiful building, a converted monastery, where we were given a formal presentation by the music teacher about the importance of singing in their school. We watched a video of students performing to the most incredible standard in the finals of a national singing competition. We heard how students are drilled in theory, history, notation before moving onto sol-fa and then classical repertoire from Balkan and Western choral traditions. We gathered that there is no classroom music, and that a decreasing number of students elect to be in the extra-curricular choirs that the teacher is so keen to maintain. The teacher lamented the fact that the majority of students aren’t interested in their rich choral tradition anymore. Some of the choir filed in, went through a gruelling warm-up, and then started rehearsing their piece.

Afterwards we could ask questions. I asked them what music they were interested in outside of school. ‘Hard rock’ was the unanimous answer. Their teacher looked horrified. They all laughed, started miming playing guitars and jumping around. They momentarily came alive. However these students can have both – access rock music outside of school, and then sing beautifully in the choir within it. But there were less than 15 students here, and 730 in the school. If I had dared to ask another question (the glare of the music teacher prevented my hand from going up a second time) I would have asked what about them? If singing is so critical to the school, how about finding ways that engage every student with it, as they then might actually  take more of an interest in the current extra-curricular offer.

In contrast, as part of the conference programme, a group of students from another local high school performed. This wasn’t a ‘performance group’, it was a sharing of what happens as a result of their weekly classroom music lessons. The enthusiastic, lively, relaxed, confident students told us: ‘We all love music. We’re not afraid to make mistakes, because we always want to improve. We are brave enough to try’.

They performed a medley of their own creations that involved clapping, singing, moving, boomwhackers, ukuleles, drum kits, bass guitars and beatboxing.

To finish they vocalised a composition that one of the girls had written. They gathered around the piano and performed her unique composition with commitment, dedication, musicality and utter respect and dignity. The composer told us: ‘who better to sing your composition than your classmates. I trust them’.

This was classroom music at its finest. Providing students with a space for them to create, be themselves, work together, develop deep trust, and the outcome was musical, inspiring and imaginative. Every teacher should be brave enough to try. If I too find some courage, I will tell this to the teacher from the first school.

Musical Futures Find Your Voice is a classroom approach that enables all students to vocalise using their own musical content

Blog post edited 5th December 201


I cried at a gig and I don’t know why

It was Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain’s Transatlantic Sessions gig at Birmingham Symphony Hall in January 2016. During one set, I realised I had tears streaming down my face and I couldn’t stop.


It could have been the sheer power of seeing 14 of the UK and USA’s top folk musicians passionately enjoying playing music together. The mix of instruments from grand piano, double bass, drum kit, guitars to Irish pipes, fiddles and mandolins washing over me in a wave of rich sound. Or maybe a happy childhood memory the music provoked. Perhaps it was the utterly haunting melodic line of Aly Bain’s fiddle. It could have been because it transported me to a place – not sure where – of heather on mountains, sparkling blue skies and crisp clean air. Or because the sadness and pathos brought to the foreground of my mind a personal issue I had been trying to avoid addressing.

Whatever it was doesn’t matter. Music does this. It moves us uncontrollably. It forces us, often without warning, to express our emotions – to physically move, cry, laugh, reflect.

And this is one of the reasons why it is critical that music remains at the heart of schools. Music departments should continue to be places where young people can express their emotions in the increasingly pressured and tense they move in. To experience the power of collaboration, playing alongside your best friends, sharing music that has cultural meaning and relevance to them, no matter what their social and economic background.

Emile HolbaMusical Futures provides the approach, professional development, resources and community of practice to support teachers with creating and nurturing this kind of space within schools. We fight against the perception that music is for the elite. We argue with Nick Gibb over the insistence that all children must learn notation – it’s important as a tool – but you don’t get moved to tears by understanding what a semibreve is. We show how distinguishing music by genre – classical, folk, world – has little meaning for young people – it’s about participation first: broadening horizons and expanding skills and knowledge naturally follows.

It’s not just me. Listen to these students talk about why music is important to them. Read this 16 year old’s brilliant and emotional plea to the Government to keep creative subjects at the heart of school life.

I am deeply grateful to the Transatlantic Sessions musicians for whatever it was that they did, I clearly needed it. Similarly, every child deserves to move, and to be moved, by the arts during school – it cannot be taken away from them.

Join Musical Futures

Post updated 6th December 2016



A health check: Why?

I was inspired by a talk by social entrepreneur Liam Black at an ACEVO annual conference in 2016. He shared his views about what effective leadership means for today’s leaders:

1) The era of the ‘super hero founder’ is over. Great leadership is about creating world-beating teams, and leveraging talent within and beyond your organisation, not running on an ego

2) Look to create genuine partnerships – even if with ‘frenemies’ – that are creative and innovative in nature, and that make your organisation stronger

3) Understand how to use technology and data to inform and transform what you do

4) Be clear on your purpose. Why do you do your job? What is at your core?

Musical Futures as an organisation has from the outset been grassroots, outward-looking, deeply values partnership working, and strives for innovation and creativity both in terms of programmes and the way we operate. But it is number (4) that I keep on coming back to: Always start with the why (as I learnt from Simon Sinek in his great speech about Apple’s marketing strategy).

I am lucky in that I do a job that I adore, with a clear purpose. I passionately believe in the value of young people making music, and in finding creative and new ways of ensuring this happens. It is sometimes a challenge however for this not to get buried under budget projections, strategic plans, reporting, fundraising targets, meetings and a constantly overflowing email inbox. So when I feel myself getting a little bogged down, I go back to the why, and spend some time with young people making music.

In February I spent 1 hour in