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‘Music can build bridges and provide lasting joy’: an interview with Music and Drama Education Awards twice-shortlisted Gary Griffiths

21st March 2022

Gary Griffiths has been shortlisted for two Music and Drama Education Awards

Independent Music Education consultant Gary Griffiths has been nominated and shortlisted for not one, but two Music and Drama Education Awards. These prestigious awards celebrate the contributions of individuals and organisations to the lives of others through music and drama. For the 2022 awards, Gary has been nominated for the Francesca Hanley Inspiration Award and for his creation of an Outstanding Music Education Resource.

Working in particular on the Hub Support Programme, Gary has worked on a consultancy basis with Music Mark since 2020. In that time he has made enormous contributions to both the Music Mark team and membership, not least in his authorship of Music Unlocked.

Music Unlocked is a guidance resource to help schools and music education providers keep up with the changing Coronavirus regulations. Having evolved over the last two years since it was first created, it has supported countless music educators across the UK in delivering music education with confidence in a time of great uncertainty. Now one of Music Mark’s flagship resources, it is this resource which has earned Gary a place on the Outstanding Music Education Resource shortlist.

At Music Mark, we took some time to catch up with Gary about his nominations ahead of the Music and Drama Education Awards on 23 March.


Hello Gary, firstly congratulations! Were you surprised to hear you’d been shortlisted for two awards?
Very – to this day, I only know who nominated me for one of the awards. It really hadn’t occurred to me that anyone might nominate me (let alone shortlist) me for an award.


What challenges did you face in working on Music Unlocked?
It was actually quite easy and enjoyable at first, because at the start of the pandemic there was no guidance at all for the sector. I was able to watch webinars and read research and from these, decide what made sense for colleagues teaching instruments and singing in schools. Once the Department for Education started writing guidance to schools, the job became more about interpreting their documentation, which increasingly meant triangulating positions from more general guidance, as there were, over time, fewer and fewer specific references to Music. That became ever truer when I started writing separate England and Wales supplements, as the Welsh Government’s guidance to schools hasn’t mentioned Music at all, to my recollection.

The position on singing in schools has been disappointing, as at one point it was banned in England (and actually stayed banned even longer in Scotland) on the grounds of two ‘super-spreader’ events before lockdown even started in March 2020. Both of these involved adult choirs and, as I have said countless times, children don’t make music in the same way as adults. See my published writings for details!

Another challenge has been that measures were dropped from guidance without ceremony, so we couldn’t point to where it said that schools could now allow singing: some heads were unconvinced by the argument that the restriction was lifted by virtue of no longer being mentioned in the guidance. Despite what I may have occasionally said privately to colleagues, I am sympathetic to their lack of confidence!


Music Unlocked was first created back in 2020, but could you tell us a little more about how it’s evolved over the years?
The first iteration (which Bridget [Bridget Whyte – Music Mark’s CEO] initially thought would be little more than a fact sheet – she knows me a lot better by now!) was written with the English Music Education Hubs in mind and didn’t travel well to the other nations. The music service within the Education Authority of Northern Ireland actually adapted it and released it as one of their own documents.

Eventually I overhauled the whole document to be applicable UK-wide and I am proud that we have a Welsh-language version, Datgloi Cerddoriaeth. I then started producing the England and Wales supplements as simple ‘You can…’, ‘You can’t…’ and ‘We recommend…’ statements as quick references for schools, teachers and music services. NI and Scotland (I hope) continued to look after themselves.


The last few years have been very difficult across the music education sector. What contribution have you made that is most meaningful to you?
I am so proud of my colleagues all over the UK who have worked incredibly hard to continue offering music education for children against all the odds. I have felt so deeply for them every time that they thought they knew what was what, only to have the regulations change again. When people say to me that Music Unlocked has made a difference, that they have been able to get back into a school or persuade a reluctant headteacher to allow children to sing, that has meant a very great deal. Now I am no longer managing music education provision directly, it is exciting to think that I may have had a part in supporting colleagues to help children keep making music.


You’ve been nominated for Francesca Hanley Inspiration Award, an award which honours inspiring teachers for the impact they make on musicians of any age and those who teach them. Was there a particular teacher or figure which inspired you in music education?
Oh, I was a dreadful music student. Looking back I am surprised any of my teachers put up with me! I went back to lessons (piano, viola and singing) as an adult, far humbler and with a much better attitude towards scales and exercises but by that time, my career and young family got in the way or, more honestly, I allowed them to.

I have been inspired by many colleagues I’ve worked with over the last 22 years: my tutors in Essex and Havering, with huge dedication to their students; the amazing London Heads of Service who welcomed me with applause at my first regional meeting in 2012 and were a support throughout my seven years in London; also Hub leads up and down England in the last two years. I’ve really enjoyed working with all the regional representatives and our mentors. It’s invidious to single people out but a special mention for Jon Kille’s work at the MOD Music Service on Cyprus, teaching classes as far away as the Falklands over Zoom before most of us had heard of it, and Emma Archer’s work on a National Music Education Plan for Wales: llongyfarchiadau, Emma.


And what are your hopes for the future of Music Education?
When I started at Havering in 2012, I pulled an NfER report off the shelves called Making Every Note Count, about music service funding and business models. It could have been brand new, for what it said, but was in fact written in 1991 (the year I left school). A few terms later, another report popped off the same shelves, called Music: the endangered subject? written in 1984, the year I started secondary school. I don’t want to calculate how long ago that was but it’s striking that we are still having more or less exactly the same debates. I would love to see Music’s place firmly established in the curriculum in all schools and all the way up to the end of KS3, with a genuine understanding that not teaching music properly is equivalent to not teaching history or French.

Music is neither the answer to everything in the curriculum; nor is it a waste of time compared with subjects that get people ‘proper jobs’. It’s part of schools’ role to prepare children to be fully-formed, functional citizens throughout their lives and is part of their (and all of our) cultural understanding. It can build bridges and provide lasting joy and fulfilment at all ages. The same goes for art and drama of course (and sport but I don’t think that is as threatened). It would be brilliant to see music services properly respected for the great work that they do and for their forward-thinking on righting the wrongs that perpetuate in music provision.

It would be good to see a music service in Powys, which I think is the only part of the UK without one at present.

I would also love to break this idea that music educators are out of step with their students’ musical tastes: for the most part, they are not. (Then again, adults should always be slightly out of step so that children have something that’s theirs, otherwise how can they rebel?).

It would be nice never to be told again that “young people don’t like Western classical music”. I don’t think that’s actually true, even if it’s not their first choice of listening.

I would hope too that we can get away from this idea that certain genres are ‘for’ certain people and should exclude others. Music has grown over centuries through sharing and combining, through influences, through the connection of like-minded people from different backgrounds. If I, as a middle-aged white man, want to rap then I should (but I won’t, just in case you were worried).


Thank you Gary, and good luck!

The Music and Drama Education Awards will take place on 23 March at the London Mariott, Hotel in Grosvenor Square.

Find out more about the awards and the full shortlists here.