Musical Futures has officially left the building

On 1st April 2015 Musical Futures ceased to be a special initiative of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and it is with immense fondness that I reflect back on our involvement with them.

The idea of tackling the issue of poor engagement with music in school among young people was a passion of Paul Hamlyn himself, discussed at length with his great friend Claus Moser who, after Paul’s death in 2001, made tackling this a reality.


Paul Hamlyn

Under then Director Patricia Lankester, Arts Manager Jane Attenborough (who tragically died in the Asian tsunami in 2004, tribute here) and Claus Moser, David Price was appointed as project leader following an interview where famously everybody was asking everybody else what Musical Futures actually was, and nobody really knew. Robert Dufton took over as director in 2004, with Regis Cochefert and his arts team managing Musical Futures until 2008, where it was transferred to the education and learning team under the leadership of Denise Barrows.

The way that Musical Futures ethos, philosophy, principles, approaches and programmes evolved is well documented and is summarised in an article here.

What is less well known is the incredible spirit of innovation and openness Musical Futures has always been able to work in under the PHF. This has not been a relationship with strictly imposed outcomes, heavy reporting structures, high levels of financial accountability. Instead, there has always been an acknowledgment that those working on Musical Futures (project team, teachers, practitioners, partners) are the experts, and the best course of action is to let these be the people that drive and steer the initiative. As a result it has gone in directions that nobody could have envisioned.

We have made SO many mistakes. But we’ve been allowed to and we openly share these. We’ve euphorically celebrated the highs, and been in a safe space to discuss and evaluate the lows. And through this ideas, innovations, programmes, people have emerged that may otherwise have stayed under the radar.  

One of my favourite things about the PHF is that they really understand how to highlight and celebrate great people. In January 2007 on the eve of the Music Manifesto ‘State of Play’ conference, the PHF hosted a reception at their offices in St James’ Park. It was partly to celebrate the achievements of Musical Futures, and to launch the final pamphlet. But instead of being a reception purely for the great and good, PHF invited 50 classroom teachers and practitioners who had taken a leap of faith, and had become MF ‘early adopters’. The reception was beautiful, champagne was flowing, the food was exquisite, and music teachers were in the midst of it feeling like their work actually mattered. It was the beginnings of our community of practice forming – and of teachers feeling like Musical Futures belonged to them. The impact of this led to a much larger conference-style event ‘In Your Hands’ which took place at the South Bank in June 2008 for 350 delegates, with the focus being teachers delivering workshops for other teachers on MF practice. Once again, the people out there at the chalkface felt invested in, and inspired to continue.

The decision for Musical Futures to become independent was made in July 2014. While there was much scrutiny and challenge from trustees over this decision, ultimately it felt to all like this was the most appropriate course of action to enable Musical Futures to evolve and develop, and for PHF to focus on its own new strategy for arts education (launching Summer 2015).

I personally would like to thank Claus Moser, Estelle Morris, the PHF trustees, advisors and particularly the staff for their vision, commitment, challenge and support for not only Musical Futures but for myself and the team over the years.

With Head of Arts Regis Cochefert on our last day at PHF

With Head of Arts Regis Cochefert on our last day at PHF

For the last few years Musical Futures has somewhat affectionately been referred to as the teenager who won’t quite leave home. Now with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, we have strapped our rucksack on our back, been given a packed lunch and had a pat on the head from our parents, and stepped out into the world.

And as we venture out , I know that we’ll always be welcome to pop back for a cuppa, a chat, inevitable advice, and occasionally a hug. Thank you PHF.

Post updated 6th December 2016



Just do it

I took my three-year old son Vinnie to a football session yesterday. I am generally completely oblivious to and disinterested in all things football. However, Vinnie has shown a real enthusiasm for and potential skill in the game, so I am naturally supportive and I wanted to learn alongside him. The first five minutes of the session were great. Parents were kicking balls around with their children in our local university sports facility, which is a relatively new and very inspiring space. Vinnie was so excited to show me all he could do, it turns out he is quite good, we were laughing, running, kicking balls, catching, jumping – and other parents were doing the same.

But then the main part of the session started and I experienced first hand how to completely disengage a roomful of people. The parents retreated to sit on benches around the side of the room and the children were all asked to go and ‘sit still and listen’ to the coaches – ‘sitting still and listening’ is not a natural activity of my three year old son. The two (young 20-something) coaches had obviously drawn short straws in the pub the night before on who was going to take on the pseudo-kids-tv-presenter role, and talk over-enthusiastically and patronisingly to the gaggle of mini Beckhams about how today we are all going to go on an underwater journey to find Spongebob Squarepants in his cave, and won’t that be fun children.

There commenced a convoluted physical activity , which involved pretending to be octopuses, hiding from sharks and diving on the floor, interspersed with regular moments where the children all had to ‘sit still and listen’ to the next instruction. The perfectly well-intended idea was that while the children were looking for Spongebob Squarepants (who remained elusive for the whole session) they were learning about gently dribbling, bouncing and rolling the balls. Not kicking. Not running. This went on for 50 minutes.

So while Vinnie and I dutifully pretended to be squids for five minutes or so, I could rapidly see my son losing interest, and I wasn’t far behind him to be honest. It then descended into my familiar parental angst of trying and failing to get my child to do what he was ‘meant to be doing’ where for him, he just wanted to kick a ball around with me. They totally lost him after 10 mins, and despite my attempts to reconcile the situation he spent the rest of the time running around knocking over the goalposts, lying on the floor wailing, shouting at the top of his voice how he urgently needed a biscuit, and generally the whole experience became A Bit Stressful.

My frustration was that all those coaches needed to have done was open up that incredible space, got the parents and their children to kick the balls around together, and then go round spending time with us individually showing us a few techniques by modelling (as at one point one of the coaches casually did some ball-flicking-in-the-air-with-his-feet move and it was incredible – we wanted more of that!). My son would have undoubtedly stayed engaged for the whole hour that way, and my blood pressure may have remained stable.

We see the same in music. Often, all that is needed is to provide young people with space, equipment, time with people they care about (whether friends or parents) and with some expertise in the room to model, guide and show them the way. And I would argue this applies to the earliest years as well as to teenagers. Some of the best music making and creating among young people comes out of these informal, self-led environments. Teachers aren’t redundant, far from it, they hold expertise in learning and skill in music that is absolutely critical. But the compulsion to ‘teach the class’ is reversed and the focus becomes around supporting each individual to learn.

Throughout my football experience I was internally screaming ‘just do it’. Do it, then explain. Show it, then tell. And no matter what, don’t ever involve Spongebob Squarepants.

Updated 5th December 2016

Musical Futures: Moving forward

We’re at the end of a couple of days in the beautiful cathedral city of York with our newly formed team of Teacher Associates.

It has been a time to share with our broader team how Musical Futures is shaping and evolving. So where are we at?

Our big vision?

Musical Futures believes in a future where everybody can benefit from the value of making music.

What will Musical Futures do to contribute to this?

Supply tools to primary and secondary schools to help transform mandatory music teaching. We will work in partnership to use the power of creating music to affect individual and social change.

What will never change about Musical Futures?

1) Our core values

Musical Futures learning will always be:

  • Social: people come together through shared activity
  • Inclusive: everyone is entitled to learn music
  • Engaging: learning is practical, hands-on, enjoyable
  • Relevant: it starts with the musical passions and interests of the learner
  • Informal: it is learner-led, and replicates the way musicians teach themselves
  • Varied: integrates performing, listening, improvising, composing, it uses a variety of instruments, technologies and voice, and works across a range of musical styles and genres
  • Progressive: must be clear progression routes no matter what the ability of the participants
  • Respectful: musical ability and social skills of each individual are highly valued

2) The way we work

Musical Futures develops learning models based around informal practices and provides training, support and networking with the people who are working with participants.

What will change about Musical Futures?

1) Our reach

We will be working to improve our offer to secondary/high school teachers via free training, resources and online support. But our intention is to take our core values and operational approach and adapt them into new contexts. Priorities for this are developing a model for primary schools (read our early ideas blog – more info soon) that will work directly with generalist primary teachers. Also looking at workplace learning, working with community partners, and strengthening links and exploring collaborations with international partners.

2) Our organisation

Governance, constitution and income generation will be shifting from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation who has owned Musical Futures as a special initiative for 11 years, to an independent not-for-profit organisation from 1st April 2105.

What are Musical Futures strengths?

Musical Futures is a ground-up movement driven by teachers for teachers, that has tried-and-tested approaches that are proven to engage young people with relevant, progressive music making. Musical Futures main success has been the grassroots drive and support of the teachers and practitioners who not only use the approaches but who innovate with them, and share best practice with others.
Teacher Associates vocalising

What is the role of teacher associates?

Teacher associates will be training and supporting other teachers through Musical Futures free training programme and increasingly via training provided by other organisations i.e. music hubs. Speaking from the heart, authentically and with a real commitment to and passion for increasing the numbers of young people engaging with high quality music making, our team of advocates and deliverers ensure the by teachers for teachers remains at the core of Musical Futures.

Musical Futures is a movement that must keep moving

Music classrooms aren’t just for children

In October 2014 I was fortunate enough to spend time in New York and Chicago with Little Kids Rock, a not-for-profit organisation who are very akin to Musical Futures in terms of values, principles and the desire to give relevant music making opportunities to all children in school.

Little Kids Rock founder David Wish is a  force of brilliance, kindness and vision, who has an ability to fundraise like no other, and leads a 21-strong people organisation of equally brilliant and dedicated individuals (particularly Bryan Powell our committed host for the week). My colleague Anna Gower has blogged more about our visit and Little Kids Rock unrelentless commitment to ‘doing it for the kids’ here.

However, the defining moment I will came away with was from a fairly bog-standard classroom in a school in Queens, on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

Before the kids arrived

We observed a classroom music lesson, where the teacher was using the Little Kids Rock methodology to get a whole class of students playing ‘Best Day of My Life’ by American Authors. Most were on guitars, with a few on keyboard, and one boy, Jake*, on drums. The class teacher had invited Jake’s parents into the classroom to hear him play. His parents clearly weren’t that comfortable with being in a classroom situation. I did learn from them that at their respective homes Jake was ‘always banging things’, like chairs and cushions, and they knew that in school the teacher had given him access to the drums, but they hadn’t heard him play before.

The class spent time working on the melodic and harmonic aspects of the song, while Jake sat looking bored, as did his parents. It got to the part where they wanted to play the song as a class, the teacher got his audio recorder out, and counted Jake in. With Jake playing, the whole song came together. The other kids responded brilliantly to him, he was a natural drummer, was sensitive but passionate, and very talented. Observing it as a musician I got that hairs-on- the-back-of-your-neck feeling of seeing a group come together to make some good quality music where it all ‘just works’. I then noticed the parents faces. They were beaming from ear to ear, and both of them had tears rolling down their cheeks. The pride and admiration they had for their son was so overwhelming, I found myself welling up as well.

I talked to them again afterwards and they were different people – animated, and gushing with pride and enthusiasm for what they had just seen. His mother then opened up to me about how Jake has been diagnosed with ADHD, how he has high levels of anxiety about coming to school, and often truants, but since being given more responsibility and tuition with the music he loves they are noticing an improvement in his anxiety overall. She mistook me for somebody from Little Kids Rock, and thanked me for the valuable work we were doing in schools. When Jake came over they both hugged him and told him how proud they were and, despite doing a quick backward glance to check his mates weren’t watching, Jake was clearly brimming with pride as well.

The majority of parents, no matter what their understanding of or own experiences in the school system is, want to see their children enjoying and achieving. This is an assumption, but I can almost guarantee parents evenings generally weren’t events Jake’s parents would look forward to. The moment in that classroom for them however was transformational, they could see first-hand how motivated and talented their son was, and were shown the true value of a good music education. I can guarantee they will tell all their friends and family about what they had seen, and what better advocates for classroom music could you wish for?

Performances in assemblies or concerts are also often transformational and inspirational. However, this shouldn’t be the only access parents have to their child’s music education. We should open up music classrooms to parents on a regular basis, as it is in our classrooms that these utterly magical and powerful moments happen.

It is this consideration, among others, that I will be taking back to our own Musical Futures work: good music education has the potential to impact much more broadly than the classroom, even if this is where it starts, and I would like to thank Little Kids Rock for reminding me of this.

*Name changed.

Post updated 5th December 2016

Look to the informal


This post was first published in September 2014 and updated December 2016

Whoah has there ever been so much national attention on music education in one week since the heady days of the Music Manifesto? We have James Rhodes and his Channel 4 TV programme and associated rockstar+politician supported campaign to donate instruments to primary schools; the ABRSM report which created a media battle over whether guitars are killing violins. And perhaps lesser known to the public but at the forefront of the concerns of music educators is the ISM’s Protect Music Education campaign against the current proposals to significantly change the way GCSE and A/AS level music is delivered.

The ABRSM report tells us that more children are playing instruments (76% of 5-14 year olds  compared with 41% in 1999). This is a good thing. Whether it is a recorder or an electric guitar, more children are playing instruments – that is the message.

We all have opinions on the Rhodes campaign and programme – myself included (Jackie Schneider’s excellent blog pretty much sums it up) but actually, he has brought music education to an audience we rarely reach. This is a good thing. For a week or so, people in the pub may be talking about that hairy man who played the keyboard in a lift. So when organisations like Musical Futures, ISM, Sing Up, Music Mark come forward with their next big initiative (quick MF spoiler: MF Primary will be launched early next year) parents, headteachers, policy makers may see the value of it just a little bit more than they might have done before.

I have a nagging feeling that something is missing. Oh yes, that is it, the fact that actually children, young people and adults, will be happily engrossed in making music informally (whether singing along to silent discos, beatboxing, producing music on phones, jamming in their garage with their mates, playing in a nu-folk group…the list is endless) that they love and care about, and frankly won’t care too much about all of this. No matter what the current trend, or the current state of music education in our schools, music will continue to form a powerful and integral part of the majority of young peoples’ lives. Music makes them laugh and cry, it helps make sense of their emotions, it forms a critical part of social identity, often defining who their friends are and what clothes they wear, and it is a major outlet for self-expression when nothing else does the job. Battles among music educators over who funds provision and how well coordinated it is, won’t change the amorphous, under-the-radar, autonomous life of music beyond formal provision.

Despite the positivity of the ABRSM report, students are still dropping instruments as they progress through school. And the evidence of this into adulthood is abundantly clear – a report by Music for All found that more adults than ever stated they wished they could play an instrument. The Rhodes Instrument Amnesty campaign is getting hundreds of instruments donated. Why? Because people aren’t playing them anymore. As my colleague David Price tweeted: ‘Great if you want to donate a musical instr. But B4 you donate, ask why you stopped playing it. Access is not the problem!’

I am a good news junkie, and I am genuinely happy this week that there feels to be some momentum around music in schools again, we can build on this and we absolutely will with Musical Futures. But it also highlights to me something that was a topic of discussion at a recent Musical Futures team meeting: we have lost our culture of participation. The majority of adults don’t make music for its own sake in the way that they used to. This doesn’t get passed down to their kids. Music becomes a notoriously difficult ‘subject’ in school to manage because participating in music isn’t something a lot of young people recognise anymore.

This I feel is the absolute heart of the issue, certainly at Musical Futures. This is the context we now work in, so as educators we must respond appropriately. Music education is in competition with a hell of a lot of much bigger, more complex educational issues. The value of music learning is diminishing in peoples’ eyes, and so it is our job to bridge the gap between formal and informal contexts, look directly at where all young people are at musically and build, support and progress. Whether this is on clarinets, voices, electric guitars or golden syrup cans to me doesn’t matter.



10 lessons learnt from Australia Part II

Following on from Part I

6. Resources ARE important

We know that MF can be done with limited equipment and space – the Find Your Voice approach particularly – and we have always reassured poorly-resourced music departments that they can still get something from MF. However, let’s be honest here. Students will gain so much more from MF (or any music lesson) if they are able to work on high quality equipment/instruments that don’t break every time they bash out a power chord. MF Australia works integrally with the music industry to provide heavily-discounted ex-loan-stock equipment to schools, highlighting the importance of this investment to headteachers. The set-ups we saw were nothing short of professional, and highly respected by the students as they felt trusted. You wouldn’t expect a science department to function without all of the necessary equipment, so why do we often have the resolution that music departments somehow have to ‘make do’?


Timbarra PC


Timbarra PC


Trafalgar Primary School


7. Positive attitude goes a long way

The ‘can do’ attitude of all of the teachers I met was utterly inspirational, both in the schools and at the MF2 conference. Obstacles exist just like anywhere else, but the approach was of finding ways of overcoming, rather than dwelling on them. One example is at Timbarra P-9 College with Peter Crowe and Julie Sullivan. They knew that they wanted to do MF, but like many teachers had limited resources. So they set about building an impressive case for the reasons why the school should invest – putting together a band who performed to the senior leadership team and the school council as a way of demonstrating what classroom music could look like. They had to go through an application process, and pitch their case. All of this took time, hard work and determination but their students now have the benefit of a purpose built music department full of state of the art equipment, and MF approaches are successfully embedded throughout all music teaching. Peter and Julie were two of the most positive advocates of the value of MF for students I have ever met, and this will have been a significant contributing factor to them achieving this.

8. Have a clear vision of what is important

MF is about to go through some significant changes to its organisation and structure (more on that in a future blog). It has been inspiring to see how clear and determined our colleagues in Australia are about the value of why they do what they do. Our mission has always been about providing an entitlement for all students, the many not the few, to access a high quality music education. We do this by working with teachers, with the students as the end beneficiaries. In Australia this is exactly the same. However, in the UK we have also been trying to show how what we do can fit into other peoples’ agendas, other organisation’s requirements, and our central purpose has at times been in danger of being diluted. Our by teachers for teachers approach has been the constant driver, but spending time out of our situation and looking back in has helped to reaffirm our vision for MF.

9. Don’t sweat the small stuff 

This is a regularly-used phrase in MF team meetings by our project adviser David Price, and the Australians reiterated this in many ways. I chaired a panel discussion at the MF2 conference and one of the topics was notation and how important it should be within MF lessons. Similar debates have been raging on twitter in the UK for the past few months, and everybody has got themselves tied in virtual knots, so we expected similar from Australian colleagues. However, the 80+ teachers at the conference were all in unanimous agreement that if students learn best from notation, that is great, but that aural learning holds a lot more legitimacy for the majority. As one teacher said: ‘I’ve never been to a party and someone has said how cool is that treble clef but they will be wowed by the guitarist jamming in the corner’. Are we in danger in the UK on focusing on debates that take up time and energy, without actually have an impact on the young people themselves?

10. Having fun is ok 

It is rare that I have much time and space to relax, reflect and get a bit of perspective on my own practice, and it was fortunate that our MF Oz hosts built in a lot of social time into our trip. Having fun, relaxing, drinking a bottle of wine (or two) is when the BEST conversations happened, and I have come away buzzing with ideas about how we can make MF better, and how I can improve my own work. This wouldn’t have happened sitting around a table in the boardroom – just as learning should be fun for students, working should be fun and engaging for adults as well, and the MF Oz team certainly made sure that happened!


MF Oz meets MF

Related links

My colleague Anna Gower’s detailed blogs on our Australia trip: Melbourne and Musical Futures AustraliaImmersion in one genre: the right approach?Primary music: no limits?

Musical Futures Australia

Blog post written 3rd July 2014 and updated 5th December 2016

10 lessons learnt from Australia Part I

I had the privilege of spending two weeks in July 2014 in Melbourne working with the Musical Futures Australia team through a combination of school visits and delivering sessions at their MF2 conference. The trip was an eye opener in terms of seeing how good quality music learning has no international boundaries. But more than that, it showed how the instigator of a project or programme often has as much to learn from those that implement and adapt it. Here’s what I found out…

1. Musical Futures is beautifully transferable

We were approached by Ken Owen and Ian Harvey in 2010 to establish MF Australia as its own limited company. Four years later and 200 schools are using Musical Futures with approximately 50,000 students. They have delivered 42 professional development days to more than 800 teachers, and by the end of 2014 had 15 champion schools. Their main focus is in Victoria, but increasingly schools across NSW, Queensland, SA, WA, TAS and NT have taken on MF. Step into any of these classrooms and you will see students participating in and engaging with music learning in exactly the same way as in any UK classroom. It highlighted the sustainability and transferability of MF – our strength is that we collectively have developed a deep understanding and knowledge of how young people best learn music, no matter what the context.

2. Senior leadership support is critical

In each of the four schools we visited (Doveton College, Carranballac, Timbarra-PC and Trafalgar Primary School) it was immediately evident that there was a whole-school buy-in to MF. Senior leaders demonstrated a deep understanding of the impact MF was having on their students, and had clear reasons for supporting it. There was absolutely no question that the music department was viewed as a critical and integral part of each school, and was highly valued by staff and students alike. In a panel discussion at the MF2 conference Associate Principal of Doveton College Vicki Miles gave some useful advice to teachers: 1) When headteachers see students learning effectively it speaks for itself 2) Tell other staff what it is that you do – run professional development around Musical Futures putting other staff in the shoes of students 3) Find out what your senior leaders prefer in terms of learning about impact – it may be a list of bullet points, or it may be a film of students working 4) Be public and visible with the effectiveness of MF – perform in assemblies etc.

3. The focus must remain with the students

I’ve visited many schools in the UK and witnessing a growing sense of despair around the quantity of data music departments are required to provide, often unrealistically based on literacy and numeracy targets. For even the most innovative and effective music teachers this can take its toll. In Australia I was struck by the overwhelming feeling from every student, staff member and senior leader that music in school is entirely about the students as musicians, making sure their individual learning needs were being met and their achievements were being celebrated. Of course assessment and data collection was there, but in the background. We need to keep focussed on what is important, and why we are all here.

20140626_094506 20140626_095909-2

4. Depth not breadth

One of MF’s core messages is that it can be applied to any genre of music, and that it isn’t just a ‘rock and pop’ project. However, in some cases this has resulted in MF being diluted, and trying to be all things to all people. In Australia they celebrate and focus on the music that students are interested in, and getting them to a very high standard within this. The following clip is of a group of 8/9 year olds from Trafalgar Primary School under the brilliant leadership of teacher Ben Smith, two lessons into a songwriting project where they were tasked to write a song about anything they liked. They could all play a number of chords on keyboard, guitar, could hold a bassline and a drum rhythm, were playing in time, in tune and functioned perfectly as a band. This level of performance and discussion was happening across the class – every student was working musically, creatively and could discuss what they were doing using musical terminology.

It has really challenged our concept of breadth versus depth – if all primary school children in the UK were leaving with this level of musical skill on a range of instruments, it would transform the way we could approach MF at secondary level.

5. Keep expectations high

All too often I hear the phrase ‘well my students could never do that’. Set expectations high, and students will aspire to this. Set them low, and they may fall into complacency. In the schools we visited there was a very apparent sense of high expectations from all involved (students, music teachers and senior leaders). Performance forms a regular part of MF in Australia, not just class performances but properly produced and stage managed events that the whole school becomes part of. For example in Caranballac School there is a performance culture among all students. They have a fascinating programme for gifted and talented students where teachers audition students and create a school band who come off timetable for one day PER WEEK to learn all aspects of music performance, composition, production and industry, culminating in a state-wide tour of gigs across Victoria. Are there any schools in the UK where students are allowed the time (during classroom time) and space to develop musically in this way?

Click here for Part II: Resources are important; Positive attitude goes a long way; Have a clear vision; Don’t sweat the small stuff; and Having fun is ok!

Related links

My colleague Anna Gower’s detailed blogs on our Australia trip: Melbourne and Musical Futures AustraliaImmersion in one genre: the right approach?Primary music: no limits?

Musical Futures Australia for updated stats and professional development programmes

Blog post written 3rd July 2014 and updated 5th December 2016

My musical upbringing: (bad) attitude, trust and respect

Reflecting on my own experience of music in school reiterates how deeply personal and social music often is to young people, and how building relationships and effectively supporting the needs of every student is critical.

I have always been a bit confused musically! My father is a folk musician, meaning our home was always full of interesting people playing all sorts of weird and wonderful music and instruments, by ear, in the most informal way possible (usually accompanied by homebrew). Both of my grandmothers were pianists but couldn’t be more different – my maternal grandmother played Bach, Haydn and hymns, my paternal grandmother used to tour with a band during the war playing swing on piano and piano accordion. She refused to play anything ‘straight’, had the most incredible zest for music and would yell at me to swing everything (an instruction I was frequently given as a 5 year old while playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the piano).

Despite this, from the age of 4 for some reason I went down the traditional ‘taught’ route, learning piano then flute, dutifully working my way through the graded system, which frankly I found dull, monotonous and not really music in the way I understood it. I have no recollection of primary school music, other than a miniscule amount of recorder playing, so it can’t have had a profound impact on me. At that time music for me was something that happened outside of school, in folk clubs, gigs and ceilidhs with my Dad.

My secondary school, a bog-standard comprehensive but with incredible effective, committed music, drama and art teachers, should have been the place where I thrived. However going to secondary school also coincided big time with adolescence –  music in school was most definitely not perceived to be cool, and all I wanted to do was work on my social life, not my school work.

With my friends I would listen to the top 40 charts every week, make mix tapes, and sing the songs we loved at the top of our lungs on the bus home from school. Everybody talked about music, started going to gigs, and pretty much where you hung out, what you wore, who your friends were, and how people perceived you, were all defined by the music you were interested in. I was Grade 7 flute by the time I was 13 and Grade 6 piano, but nobody found that out, I hid it completely.

Even though our music teacher used to try to make everything fun and practical, classroom music bored me – I was the insolent one at the back, chewing gum, looking disinterested (even though I was taking it all in). I wouldn’t get involved in any of the school or county ensembles, I gave up having piano lessons, I endured having flute lessons at the insistence of my parents but I refused to practice. My music teacher used to find me incredibly frustrating – I had a really bad attitude at the time, I knew it, she knew it, my parents knew it, but music for me was something I did with my friends, not something an adult told me to do.

I remember the moment when I was 14 and one of my fairly unsuitable friends somehow found out I played the piano. She marched a group of us into a practice room and demanded I play something. At the time, we were all into Beverley Craven, and I had taught myself to play ‘Promise Me’ by ear at home. I nervously played, everybody  looked at me in amazement – and then started singing. Thus began a fairly regular lunchtime slot where I would play power ballads and the practice room would be full of hormonal teenage girls smelling of cheap perfume and Hubba Bubba, blasting out the lyrics. It was a release, we related to the songs, I was able to play the piano and still be in the ‘cool’ gang…. It also was the point at which my music teacher properly heard that I could play.

Post-14, I got persuaded that I should do GCSE music, and I ‘came out’ as a musician a bit more (even though I still refused to play in the school orchestra). My music teacher tasked me to organise an evening concert so we could practice performing our GCSE work, and I got really motivated by this – I wanted something informal, so we had chairs round tables with red checkered tablecloths, candles and nibbles, a stage, lighting, and as I had put so much effort into socialising I was in a good position to persuade the various GCSE rock bands and our resident DJ to perform, alongside the more classical performers. From then on, school music improved for me. I gave more, and I felt more fulfilled because of it. I loved music in sixth form, I (occasionally) started getting my flute out of its case in public, I continued organising gigs and concerts, went onto study music at university, and never looked back.

Music was such a massive part of my life, but I only really found my way through it when I was with my friends. What was critical was that time my music teacher invested in me, difficult and challenging that I was, to build my trust and to find a way of unlocking the musicality and motivation she believed I had – which she accessed through getting me involved in a different way. She could (possibly should!) have written me off as a frustrating waste of musical talent, but she persisted, and over time discovered exactly what I needed to thrive.

This sense of trust, respect, relationship building, and connecting with the motivations and passions that young people already have for music is at the core of Musical Futures, and it is why I believe in it so much. It is all about the connections, in and out of school, and between people. The importance of this cannot be underestimated.

My music teacher, Dilys Lane, died in a tragic diving accident in 2002. I didn’t ever thank her properly for believing in a teenager with a serious attitude problem, but I made sure I was involved in her memorial concert and she would have been proud to see that I finally played.


Musical Futures is an approach to teaching and learning based on the based on the real-world practices of popular and community musicians, making it relevant and engaging for kids. It provides training, resources and an international community of practice to help teachers provide accessible music-making in their schools

Blog post updated 5th December 2016

Crafting creative environments

(c) Emile Holba

(c) Emile Holba

Blog post first published 28th April 2014 and updated 5th December 2016

Is it possible to define what a 5, 7, 11 and 14 year old musician ‘might’ look like?

This is the topic of various conversations going on at the moment surrounding the new National Curriculum for music. Something about this makes me feel slightly nervous, probably because this sort of debate inevitably opens up the much larger can of worms of what does it mean to be a musician, and that is a question that should never be attempted in a brainstorming meeting.

We all know that music is not merely a ‘subject’, it is a force that feeds through the majority of our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. It is something that makes us move uncontrollably, it evokes emotions, it is deeply personal as well as being a social activity, in many cases it defines who we are. Music learning is not just about skills, knowledge and understanding: it is about passion, energy, inspiration, creativity, all of those things that are far harder to measure.

Music learning, participating and consuming happens constantly outside of formal systems, all over the world, and in an infinite number of ways. The Internet has dramatically increased the possibilities for music listening, sharing, producing, performing, collaborating and learning. And in this very real world, your age bears little relevance.

So attempting to define what a 5, 7, 11, 14 year old musical learner might look like inside the classroom seems an impossible task. A 7-year-old self-taught drummer may have a different set of skills and experiences from a 7-year-old grade 3 guitar player. A 5-year-old beatboxer might be far more musically skilled than an 11-year old beatboxer. And in any one class there will be a huge cross-section in terms of skills, knowledge, ability, enthusiasm and engagement.

Would it not be equally as effective to try to agree on what classroom conditions might need to be in place for groups of learners in various age groups? For example: What does it feel/sound like when they walk into the classroom? What sorts of musical experiences should they have been exposed to? What resources should they have access to? What role might technology play? How often do they have the opportunity to collaborate in small groups, large groups? How often can they learn independently? What leadership styles should the teacher be adopting? How might in and out of school learning be connected? How sophisticated might their own interests be and how could these be supported?

The majority of those working in music education would (or should) consider themselves as musicians. Our job now is to craft stimulating approaches to the curriculum, designed to meet the needs of the widest range of students, and to ensure the environment they are working in fully supports their progression.

7 reasons why schools should value Musical Futures

1. It gets results

If that’s what you need to hear as number 1, it’s true. Personally, I don’t think it’s the main reason to use Musical Futures, and it certainly wasn’t why MF was created, but when students are engaged it is likely achievement will follow. 76% of teachers stated that MF improved student attainment in their Key Stage 3 (typically aged 11-14) lessons, and schools consistently see a 42% average increase in the numbers of students wishing to continue with music learning as an examination subject. Indications show that results at KS4 in effective Musical Futures schools are above the national average.

2. It encourages collaboration

Ah, now this is more like it. Music involves people coming together to participate – this isn’t specific to Musical Futures of course, but MF has collaborative music making at its heart. Apart from sport and possibly drama, where else in the school does such natural collaboration occur? Teachers consistently report on how students’ collaboration, team-work, cooperation and listening skills are greatly improved as a result of the self-directed learning strategies, particularly in the informal learning model. 86% of non-music staff in schools surveyed by the IOE (2011) stated that the encouragement for students to work together was a major benefit of MF in their school.

(c) Emile Holba

3. It evokes emotion

As an observer to many Musical Futures lessons, it is never a spreadsheet of attainment levels, or even water-tight performances that grab my attention. What deeply moves me is seeing young people expressing themselves through music in a way that many aren’t able to do through words – whether that is through creating a song, improvising a beatbox line, bashing out a rhythm on a drum kit or playing cello as part of a whole-class ensemble. A significant but often overlooked value of Musical Futures is that it provides time, space and support for students to be creative, amidst their often incredibly pressured, busy school (and home) lives. There is a lot of debate around how ‘fun’ or how ‘rigorous’ music learning should be. We should not be afraid of students’ enjoying Musical Futures. I enjoy it, teachers enjoy it, and quite frankly when delivered effectively it can become the highlight of many students’ days.

4. It promotes independent learning

Musical Futures demands that students work things out for themselves, learn from each other, understand about finding the resources they need, and how to draw on the teacher’s vast knowledge and experience. Many teachers report students’ independent learning skills are enhanced through MF and that their teaching had become more student led. Being able to think and work independently is increasingly becoming a critical skill that employers will look for, it certainly is something that is essential to work at MF HQ!

5. It stays with students beyond the lesson

79% of non-music staff surveyed said that MF had a positive impact on the whole-school, with 82% noting an improvement in students confidence and self-esteem (2011 IOE report). It’s obvious really. If students are fired up and enthused by their music lessons, they retain that energy and take it with them, wherever they are headed next. A major anecdote we hear time and time again from teachers is how students want to come back to the music department to practice, to have lessons, to access the instruments in break times, before and after school. Musical Futures therefore can make music a real presence in a school, simply as a result of enhanced engagement with music in lessons.

6. It challenges teachers

Musical Futures is undeniably hard work. A colleague wore a pedometer once and clocked up a couple of miles after a full-on day of Musical Futures lessons. It is an intense whirlwind of modelling, problem solving, learning alongside students, evidencing work as students progress, being 100% reactive to student need, as well as keeping on top of the logistics of classes of students making music simultaneously. But 1000s of teachers do it, partly because of reasons 1-5 above, but perhaps most importantly because for many MF affirms what good music teaching is all about. 81% of teachers reported that MF increased their enjoyment of teaching music and 76% that it had helped them to become more effective teachers (2011 IOE report).  As so much of MF starts from students’ interests, by its very nature MF challenges teachers to constantly innovate and re-evaluate their own practice.

Emile Holba

7. It lets everybody show what they can do

No school would deny the importance of large-scale musical productions that bring together drama, art, music departments, or end-of-term concerts that showcase students work. A core value of Musical Futures for a school however is that it unearths students who may not have previously engaged with performance opportunities, and it potentially provides a platform for any student who wishes to perform. Seeing students who are difficult to engage elsewhere in the school stand up and perform can be the most powerful advocate for the value of music you can have.

(c) Emile Holba

(c) Emile Holba

Stats taken from an internal 2012 MF survey of 102 music teachers; from Institute of Education 2008 report into the take up and impact of MF and the Institute of Education longitudinal study into MF (2011)  

Blog post published 25th February 2014 and updated 5th December 2016