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EJN Music and Community Award winner 2023: A community-first approach

A community-first approach

​“Ultimately, what we want to be able to achieve in 10 years time is that these children are on our stages professionally."

This is the vision behind B:Music's Generation Ladywood initiative, and at the 9th Europe Jazz Conference in September, EJN was delighted to present B:Music with the 2023 EJN Award for Music and the Community.

Based in Birmingham in the UK, B:Music is responsible for two of the city’s music venues - Symphony Hall and Town Hall. As an organisation, it’s committed to creating free opportunities for young people to develop their talent and skills in live music, and its Generation Ladywood initiative shows what’s possible when you invest for the long-term in a creative music programme.

We talked to Toni Grehan, Community Engagement Manager, saxophonist and music teacher, about the transformative power of investing in the creative talents of young people.

What is Generation Ladywood?

For over ten years, B:Music has worked in Ladywood and it’s now reached over 13.000 young people. It partners with secondary schools and the music education hub for Birmingham (the local authority music service for schools) to offer free after-school clubs with creative ensembles and workshops. 

Through these, B:Music identifies each student's musical needs and brings in guest tutors to help them develop as musicians and to work with them to create jazz in an authentic way. B:Music supports young people to join other initiatives like their Saturday and Summer Schools, that continue their musical progression. 

Why Ladywood?

Ladywood is an area of Birmingham with one of the highest child poverty rates in the UK, and it’s only walking distance from both music venues. But despite being close to the city centre, local residents tend to stay in their neighbourhood.

“They’re on our doorstep, and it’s our job to share the space with all our communities in Birmingham and for them to feel comfortable here”, says Toni.

She explains that B:Music has a long-term commitment to working in Ladywood but that they are hoping to expand the initiative into other neighbourhoods with similar challenges in the future.


Community first

So how has B:Music cultivated these community links in Ladywood? A big challenge is convincing families to let their children take part and language can be a barrier here. Going through schools has helped unlock this. Each school tends to have a home liaison worker who speaks the language of the parents, and this can really help with practicalities like signing forms and applying for bursaries. 

The team tries to anticipate barriers and make it as easy as possible to break them down. “We have to always improve on our side, you know, and make sure that just getting to our venue, and accessing the project is made easier for some of our families.”

This means working closely with families to encourage the children to attend the next step. For example, after being involved in the project through their school, the next step might be attending a Saturday school or week-long summer school. 

The team also supports families by working out bus routes for them, and making it easier to claim back travel costs.

Diversifying our team

“One of things that makes us different? We really care about the representation of our freelance team.”

One of the most important shifts B: Music has made in the last couple of years is recruiting more freelance tutors from diverse backgrounds. 

“We've been working in schools that are predominantly attended by children from the South Asian community, but we've previously been a team of white music tutors. So overcoming that and having a more representative team with Black and Asian tutors has really helped develop trust and build more aspiration amongst the students, seeing professional musicians from similar backgrounds to them.”

The B:Music team also engages these tutors as consultants, asking them how they can do better at engaging young people in their communities and help to identify potential future musicians and the aspiring tutors of the future. 

This approach has helped develop trust between the communities living in the area and B:Music. Toni says: “In just one year, it’s made a huge difference to the kids staying with us and moving from our Ladywood project through to our other progression pathways. So that's been really helpful.”

A new cocktail of sound

“We're trying to build this new cocktail of sound with jazz at the core of what they're doing.”

B:Music is dedicated to developing the next generation of workshop tutors. It runs an additional project called Aspiring Leaders, where young musicians who have come from a range of different musical backgrounds shadow our lead tutors in schools. Toni explains:

“The young aspiring tutor team includes three jazz musicians who have had conservatoire training, some who have learnt music through churches and temples as well as music college and universities. It’s nice that some of our leaders also went to these schools themselves and were recruited from a range of different musical backgrounds. The trainees shadow the other tutors and are now all employed as full time tutors. This mix of formal jazz training and the musical backgrounds of community members is the ideal combination to hook the children into jazz.”

The tutors go into the schools and work with the students’ creative ideas. “Improvisation is at the heart of everything that we do in the creative ensembles. But what we're trying to do is draw on their cultural heritage as well. We’ve got to listen to their influences too. So we're not only building in the foundations of jazz, but we’re adding in their own style as well.”

Toni cites the Ezra Collective, recent Mercury Award winners (and alumni of Tomorrow’s Warriors) as inspiration. “Their music is jazz at the core, but you can hear all these other influences - drum and bass, grime, hip hop, they’ve fused it all together. And ultimately that’s what we’re trying to do now in Birmingham. We want to create a Birmingham jazz sound, one that has jazz at the core but is infused with all these diverse influences from our communities.”

Legacy and long-term impact

“It really is about being with the community all the time, not just stepping in and walking away afterwards."

Generation Ladywood is all about the long-term - the name of the project makes this ambition explicit. Toni says: “We're trying to build a legacy. We can't do that if the project stops here. We have to be working with people in Ladywood all the time. We have to be encouraging the kids to move through our different programmes. We’ve got pathways that take them through to our aspirational programme that's for 18 to 25 year olds.” 

“We want them to be progressing through these pathways and eventually, being on our stages and working with the next generation of children in Ladywood.”

The pathways don’t end when a young person reaches 18. There is lots of support for those who want to develop musical careers on and off stages. This includes a peer mentor scheme which supports 18-25 year olds to work in the schools in Ladywood. So they shadow the tutors, and they learn how to lead music workshops themselves.

Toni can share many examples of success:  "Xhosa Cole was our Lead Tutor for secondary schools. He has come through all our Saturday programmes, starting when he was 11 and he’s now in his mid-twenties and teaching music. Just this year we’ve had seven children that were part of Generation Ladywood who went on to attend our summer school, and five are now regulars at our Saturday School including children playing tabla and sitar, and their parents are coming to the shows."

Tips for others wanting to embed a similar approach

So what is Toni’s advice for creative music organisations wanting to step up their work with the communities around them?

“It's really important to talk to your communities, and although that seems quite obvious, sometimes organisations don’t do it. Get in touch with local schools, local youth groups, local places of worship - what are the needs out there?”

“When you know what your communities need you can create a programme that’s going to have the right impact and it’s really important that they are involved in how you develop it.”

B: Music always starts with the community first: “We go into the schools. We spend a lot of time building relationships with the families with the children. Long before we would expect them to come to us at our venues. We go to them and we nurture their musical interests and talents and before you know it they’re learning jazz and they didn't even know that’s what they were doing. I think that’s what’s different about B:Music.”

All this underlines why B:Music was the unanimous choice for this year’s EJN Music and the Community Award. And Toni has big ambitions for where the programme goes next: “Winning this award confirms for me that we are going in the right direction.”

Photos by Kate Green Photography