Music@Malling – bringing young people back to music

Conductor Thomas Kemp tells IAM how his Music@Malling project is encouraging children to engage with music again.  

Whether chanting at a football match or attending a concert, music gives people a shared experience and a sense of belonging. It is also a vital educational tool that acts as a liquid link to different subject areas that can bring young people of all abilities and backgrounds together. The benefits are well documented.

However, there is evidence that music is being eroded as a school subject, with a sharp decline in uptake at GCSE and A level in the UK. A decade of austerity has also meant a further undermining of music in the state sector: music is often seen as an expendable luxury rather than a fundamental right and there is still the perception that music is elitist.

I grew up in West Malling in Kent and began learning the violin in a group in the school kitchen with a teacher from The Kent Music School. In the late ‘70s there were many opportunities to learn instruments, play in ensembles and to hear international orchestras and ensembles locally.

To help recreate such opportunities I set up Music@Malling in 2011, which promotes outstanding artists in historical venues in and around West Malling, Kent. We have built audiences from scratch in an area that has low engagement and a lack of access to the arts. We did this through a festival each September and a year around outreach programme.

Outreach has been integral part of Music@Malling from the outset. Each year we engage hundreds of young people with a range of creative activities and participatory events that give them the chance to work with and perform alongside outstanding professional musicians. Primary schools are the key to our outreach programme and this is where the provision can be patchy and very much down to individual teachers and parents.

This September we will have 20 Primary Schools involved in workshops and four performances of Michael Rosen’s The Great Enormo. With music by husband and wife team – James Morgan and Juliette Pochin – The Great Enormo is a 21st century Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Set in the Great Enormo Theme Park, it introduces the instruments of the orchestra and takes audiences on a whirlwind ride through musical history. Whole class groups from each school will develop a theme for a ride that will be incorporated into the piece.

The events are interactive and fun and have become community events, bringing together different schools, parents, carers and friends. These events provide a platform that encourages people to try the other events in our programme, which includes an eclectic range of contemporary, classical, jazz, film, vocal and world music.

Crucially, these projects offer CPD for teachers – many of whom have no musical training – and the teacher’s packs we produce are full of cross curricula activities that integrate music with other subject areas. These packs prove that music can be part of mainstream education at this level rather than an add-on subject. Working in conjunction with Kent Music, the projects are designed to encourage young people to learn instruments, and there has been an increased uptake in participation and the development of ensembles at participating schools.

Perseverance and practice is a constant in our ever-changing world, and this is why encouraging young people to play is a vital part of what we do – the discipline required to learn an instrument builds a life skill as well as a musical skill. Our outreach also normalises music as part of an education and is a great way to introduce the music of living composers to a receptive and enthusiastic audience and to encourage children to be creative.

In an ideal world, these activities need to start as soon as a child enters primary school in order to reap the full benefits the arts can bring to a young person’s education – no matter what they go on to do.

Even though West Malling is only 30 miles away from London, few people will travel regularly to London to see a concert and it is particularly difficult for schools to do this. So bringing outstanding performers to people’s doorsteps and developing programmes of outreach provides access and opportunity. The festival also brings new people to the area and is great for local businesses particularly restaurants and shops – many of whom support our activities.

Music@Malling brings people together through its concerts and participatory events and, whilst I work worldwide as a musician, I see this work as important as any prestigious engagement. It is great to feel I am putting something back into the community that set me on my musical journey.