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 Morpeth School, Tower Hamlets – a long-standing Musical Futures Champion School – and regained that clarity of purpose within moments. Morpeth has been applying and adapting Musical Futures approaches for 7 years, and even though we cannot claim credit for the inspiring work of Peter Romhany and his team, the ethos and value of what Musical Futures stands for is ever present throughout the department.

I whizzed around with my iPhone capturing snippets and talking to students, asking the question ‘why?’ a lot. It was like walking around a series of rehearsals with coaches, rather than Lessons with Teachers. Year 8 students rehearsing their own versions of a piece of classical music, mainly through self-directed learning. Year 7 and 8 students rehearsing with professional musicians from The Barbican’s Drumworks initiative. Year 12 BTEC students rehearsing a piece of Cuban music. All practical. All musical. All real. No sitting in rows being told what to do, but all able to articulate what they were learning, how and most importantly why.

So why is this important? Why do we do this job? For many students, this is their escape. Playing together, with friends, collaborating, communicating, enjoying, learning, feeling inspired, refining, laughing, arguing. Being musicians. Music in school classrooms remains vitally important to provide all young people with not only these learning opportunities, but to support their overall sense of wellbeing and happiness within their daily lives. That is why.

But don’t just take my word for it – they articulate it much better themselves:

Edited on 5th December 2016





Welcome to the Music Learning Revolution

Music Learning Revolution, 23rd October 2015, The Brewery, London

I am here because I will leap outside of my comfort zone if it helps to get more kids playing MFWeb2015_EmileHolba-164music. I passionately believe that every child and young person should benefit from the value of participating in music. It is because of them that I do my job, and I remind myself of that every day.

I am not alone. I represent Musical Futures, which is a movement of thousands of teachers worldwide who have stepped outside their comfort zones to transform music education in their schools. This moment marks the launch of our new Musical Futures.

We have gone from being a special project of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, to a not for profit organisation with ambitious aims to extend our successful pedagogy, professional development and resources into new areas – within and beyond schools – and to ensure that the many, not the few, benefit from meaningful music making opportunities.

I’m excited to be able to share our newest programme Just Play, an initiative for any teacher or hackney primarypractitioner who wants to make music with students, particularly targeted at primary, generalist teachers. Musical Futures is stepping outside its comfort zone of working mainly with music specialists.  We are testing our theory that with the right pedagogy, tools, resources and a community of support, facilitating creative practical music making opportunities for young people is something that any individual can do. Today, you can experience Just Play in three workshops delivered by our partners Musical Futures Australia.

We are a changing organisation. We will keep core elements of Musical Futures open source, and freely available. But we have to find ways of sustaining our work in challenging times. Once again, we must step outside of our comfort zone. We are committed to not only finding innovative and creative ways of engaging young people with music, but seeking out innovative and creative ways of sustaining an organisation that is ‘owned’ by so many thousands of people.

We stand on the shoulders of inspiring individuals. I want to pay tribute to our extraordinary Claus Moser Editpatron Lord Claus Moser who we sadly lost last month. Claus created Musical Futures due to his drive to reshape music education, and millions of young people have benefitted as a result.

Also to David Price, who steered Musical Futures through its formative years, and helped create and shape the Music Learning Revolution. David is unwell and cannot join us today, but his creative input is present everywhere. We have in the room many of those who took a risk and were instrumental in forming and developing the pedagogical approach that Musical Futures represents – including Professor Lucy Green, Ian Burton, Sean Gregory and heads of music who were our early adopters, plus highly valued teachers and colleagues from overseas – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA, Finland and South Africa are joining us today.

But critically, we have all of you. You are an audience of experts. This conference is filled with 400 changemakers. Collaborating and learning from and with each other is key to making what we do in our working lives more effective and sustainable.

We created the Music Learning Revolution in direct response to what teachers told us they wanted: professional development; debates around key issues; bringing together education and industry; and showcasing young musicians from UK classrooms.

We listened, and here it is. This is your space, and your time. The Music Learning Revolution is an opportunity to turn words into action, to learn from each other, to test and try out new ideas, to talk, maybe to argue, to make some music, to create some memories, to laugh, to feel good and to be inspired.

The Music Learning Revolution also represents a call to action around Musical Futures. Be part Music Learning Revolution logoof our solution. Collaborate with us, help us shape new programmes and professional development, sign up to our website and join our emerging, evolving, diverse community of practice. Tell us what works and what doesn’t. Point us in the direction of solutions that we might not have thought of yet.

My title is Chief Executive. But behind this, I am simply a musician who passionately believes that learning music positively benefits people’s lives. Please share with those around you the passions and motivations behind the titles on your name badges, and join me and Musical Futures in stepping out of our comfort zones, and making a positive movement into actions that will help ensure the sustainability of music education.


Relationships matter

What is it about music that brings people together? As my esteemed colleague Ken Owen from Musical Futures Australia would say: ‘It’s all about relationships’.

When you collaborate with others through music – whether it’s a group of students directing their own learning in a practice room, a load of girlfriends belting out a Take That song in a stadium gig, an orchestra playing a Beethoven symphony, or a teenager uploading sound files to an online collaborative remix website – you are not necessarily just doing the activity for the sake of it, you experience something alongside other people, and form relationships through doing so.MFWeb2015_EmileHolba 14

We see this with students in Musical Futures classrooms on a daily basis – communicating, working and learning from each other, building trust, respect, analysing, reflecting.

But we also see it with adults through our professional development programme. Musical Futures has delivered more than 600 professional development courses and workshops in the UK and overseas since 2008. While one purpose is to share our informal learning and non-formal teaching pedagogy and resources, and to support teachers with adapting it into their classroom situations, it is rarely the glowing evaluation forms that tell us whether we’ve achieved this that you remember – instead it is the relationships and the interactions.


I was struck by the power of this  on a trip to Canada in 2015 where we facilitated an informal learning session with a group of elementary school teachers who would not claim to be ‘music specialists’. When we described the task to ‘go off into rooms and try and recreate a popular song on instruments you are unfamiliar with’ the usual gasps of horror echoed around the room. However, they all rose to the challenge and sure enough the relationships started building, the support and collaboration began occurring, all to the tune of Meghan Trainor’s ‘All about that Bass’.

One group had a teacher determined to play the drums. He was profoundly hard of hearing, hadn’t played an instrument before, and despite his energy and enthusiasm was struggling to internalise the beat. One of the other group members, who even though would not claim to be ‘musical’ was an incredible singer, stepped away from the keyboard she was trying to learn, walked behind her colleague and started tapping out the drum beat on his shoulders.  Within moments he locked into her rhythm, and began playing in time. They remained like this for the whole session, with her singing and cueing the rest of the group, and him playing the drums, and their performance was tight, musical and incredibly moving.

No directions had been given, no worksheets handed out, no music leader stood over them until they got it right, instead two people instinctively connected and communicated through the shared experience of a musical activity.

Musical Futures professional development courses bring people together. They start with handshakes and end with huge. Music making will always be about relationships, professional development should be the same.

Post updated 5th December 2016


Classical versus Rock: just whose debate is this?

An article by Nicola Benedetti in the  Telegraph involved the professional violinist imploring that all children should be exposed to classical music, ‘whether they like it or not’.

Nicola: wouldn’t it be preferable to expose children to classical music in a way that they are guaranteed to like it? And not only to like it, but to have some of the barriers broken down so they can continue with enjoying it into adulthood?

In other news, Andrew Lloyd Webber reflected on the fact that in America young people are much better connected to the rock tradition than those in the UK.

The debate among the great and good rages on in the media. But I feel it’s the wrong debate. Type ‘art education’ into google and you get presented with ‘creativity, design, sculpture, painting, illustration, portfolio’. Type ‘music education’ and you get a load of politics, organisations all claiming to own a bit of it, and debates around how poor it is in general. What impression is this giving to young people? That if you want to be creative, express yourself, experiment with different tools and techniques, as well as being given time and space to explore and invent, be exposed and inspired by other peoples’ work you choose art in school, not music.

Music for the majority of young people is a passion, not a ‘subject they are compelled to learn’, and whether schools, celebrities, parents like it or not adults cannot nor should not dictate young peoples’ musical culture. They will make it anyway, anywhere – what a school can offer is universal entitlement, so we should be doing all that we can to encourage this.

The role of music educators of course is to expose young people to a wide variety of great music, the National Curriculum supports this and many schools provide this in an accessible way. However we have found through Musical Futures that if you want sustainable engagement with music you have to construct a creative, exploratory environment that is co-designed with young people, and that focuses on the approach to learning first, the musical content second.

Post first published May 2015, updated 5th December 2016