Tell us about your musical background.
I had piano lessons as a child but really got into music when I started learning drums. I grew up in Manchester and my first experience of jazz was when I attended an open day at Chetham’s School of Music (where I later studied). It really opened my eyes to the genre. I had lots of great experiences at the Academy but the ones that really stick in my mind are the workshops and sessions with visiting artists – in particular, a workshop with Hermeto Pascoal. He didn’t speak a word of English and the whole workshop was communicated through music. It seemed such a pure form of musical interaction. I took a lot from that and I think my favourite musical scenarios are ones where music is left to do the talking – words can only get us so far!
Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve been up to since you graduated from the Academy in 2007?
I came to the Academy with a very specific idea of what I wanted to do (jazz drums) but studying here really broadened my view of music. I left as more of a generalist, keen to understand music as a whole. It's a work in progress. After I left, I played jazz on a ship in the Caribbean for a couple of years, and when I decided to come back to London I applied for a PGCE. It taught me a lot about organisation and hard graft! I then worked in an inner-city secondary school but decided that primary education was where I could really make an impact. After experiencing the whole spectrum of music education (peripatetic teaching, ensemble coaching, classroom teaching) I started to form my own ideas about how children should learn. Muzingo represents the crystallisation of 20-odd years of playing music and 10 years of teaching it.
Why did you start Muzingo?
There is a misconception that you have to have structured lessons and get to a certain grade before you can start playing music with others. I want to show children what it means not just to play music but to be part of a musical community. It's a social as well as a musical thing. For thousands of years, humans have made music together in groups. I want to empower schools to create musical communities and offer children a different way to play, enjoy and create together.
You worked with Barrow Hill Junior School for the first Muzingo project, why did you choose this school?
There had been internal and external pressures at the school to improve standards which had squashed the art and music provision. Although the school was following the national curriculum, it lacked joy, spark and creativity. When I pitched the idea of creating a musical together with the school, they were really keen and supportive. They invested in lots of new instruments and gave me the time I needed to make it happen.
I asked children at the school about their musical experiences and found that a large number of them – nearly 40% in one class – had taken up a musical instrument but had already quit. That means that by the time they were just eight years old, many of these children had decided music wasn’t for them. The reasons they gave behind this were a great starting point for the project and were built into the story.
Tell us about the project.
Our challenge was to create a musical in three months. I decided on a musical because it gave the children the chance to exercise their creativity and imagination, and it was a format they understood. The story focused on a child who didn’t like music but, through an experience on Muzingo Island, learned to love it. I worked with the children to develop the story, script, characters and music. A Year 6 class worked on the story and each class in the school was given a song to work on. All the children in the school were involved, and even the accompanying music was played by them. I also got the teachers to perform alongside their classes, which helped to build their musical confidence. At the end of the project the children gave four performances, each one better than the last. I was very proud of them.
What’s next for Muzingo?
The state of music education in the UK at the moment means that primary schools are having their budgets slashed and arts are in a precarious place in the school system. I've been busy turning the musical story we created into a curriculum that transforms classrooms into bands. It also acts as a stimulus for children to create their own musical adventures and stories. Next year I am working with more schools and will continue to work with Barrow Hill Junior School. I’m also looking for funding and sponsorship for the projects – I would love to offer the programme to schools for free and remove the financial barriers to music that prevent so many children from getting involved.
What advice would you give to a student or new graduate?
First of all, explore all your options and go with what you love rather than what you feel you should be doing. We are very lucky as musicians –music is a naturally collaborative and communal art form, so it makes starting new projects relatively easy (compared to, say, a theatre production). Make sure you spend time in your early career experimenting and trying lots of new things. If you're not doing something you love, start something that you do! Second, as I've already mentioned, community is so important. Seeking out and connecting with like-minded people is vital. Being surrounded by friends, musicians, teachers and colleagues who inspire, challenge and support me is everything, really.
Watch the Growing Musical documentary here.
Find out more about Muzingo here.