Fast Forward Festival – Bristol, 2015

Black and white photo of Jonathan Westrup smiling into the camera.Jonathan Westrup is Educational Manager for the Drake Music national team and is also an Associate Musician for the South West region. He recently attended the Fast Forward Festival at Colston Hall in Bristol and has put together the following report:

July 2nd – 3rd 2015, Dick Hallam suggested, may be looked back upon as a significant couple of days in the drive towards a musically inclusive Britain.

That may sound on the face of it a grand statement, but after 10 years of working in the SEND music ‘world’, last Friday’s Fast Forward Festival at Colston Hall in Bristol felt significant to me, and an enormous encouragement to the work already happening in the UK.

Electric Storm Ensemble playing live at Colston Hall in Bristol

Electric Storm Ensemble

There are probably many reasons as to why the day felt important and people who attended will have taken different things from the day, so the following brief discussion is just based on my own personal impressions.

Firstly, the Inclusive Excellence Conference had an eclectic and authoritative panel that helped to promote debate both open and reflective in nature.

Inviting a dance organisation, Candoco, with a track record in inclusion was an effective way of inviting the music sector to look in on itself from a more detached viewpoint. I can’t think of a similar panel being put together at any major music education conference I’ve attended in the past ten years but hopefully this will begin to become the norm.

To boot, the Music Education Council (MEC), led by Dick Hallam, chaired the conference with the identified aim of taking shared messages to the government as part of MEC’s remit. So, on a strategic level, the interests and needs of disabled musicians are now benefitting from increased support from the national umbrella organisation for music education.

During the debate, Doug Bott questioned why music seems to be so far behind sport in terms of inclusion. Another delegate seemed to touch upon one possible answer when she said that the debate around music and inclusion is linked to the question of which repertoires, instruments/ technology and activities are deemed ‘musical’ or not.

Some of the more established methods, reasons and destinations for a musical education that are commonly seen are creating barriers to disabled young people participating in music (and continuing to enjoy access beyond the age of 18). Film, as Ben Sandbrook pointed out, does not suffer from these kinds of rules; diversity and surprise is precisely what accords many films their value and quality.

Sitting in a building like the Colston Hall, you’re aware of the fact that when they rebuilt part of the old building they ensured that access was woven into the new structure: lifts, accessible ramps and a whole staff team approach. Similar opportunities may exist if music education undergoes significant change in the future, to make inclusion the norm, rather than simply ‘something we do on a Tuesday’ as Matt Griffiths from Youth Music commented.

But talking and debate, although valuable, cannot match the power of music itself when it comes to making the case. So the performances in the street level lobby area of the Colston Hall by both an adults and young person’s group (Drake Music’s Electric Storm Ensemble and Absorbed by Sound respectively) was the defining element of the day, simply because the quality of the music was so good and pointed us so clearly to where we want to be.

Absorbed By Sound music group playing live at Colston Hall Bristol
Absorbed By Sound

This followed on from excellent performances by three OpenUpMusic special school orchestras the previous evening – and was then capped off by a brilliant evening concert by the musicians of the Paraorchestra (who, it was announced, will now have their home in the At-Bristol Science Centre) and the Southbank Sinfonia mixing strings and cellos with iPads, laptops and sitar, among other instruments.

Bristol Plays Music (BPM) finds itself in the unique and enviable position of being the only music hub based in an internationally renowned concert venue with quality industry opportunities on the doorstep. Equally, the Fast Forward Festival, kicking off BPM’s three-year strategic plan for inclusion, ‘A New Direction’ (funded by Youth Music), is a bold and serious project and one that can provide leadership in SEND and music.

Absorbed By Sound music group rehearsing
Absorbed By Sound music group in the rehearsal room at Colston Hall

Drake Music is also being funded by Youth Music/ Fund C over the next three years and we have already begun planning how we can work with BPM as one of our strategic partners. Drake Music’s aim is to build quality sector relationships to:

  1. Contribute to every disabled young person having the opportunity to access and progress in music making.
  1. Influence national policy and practice.
  1. SEND music provision to become an integral part of music hubs’ offer
  1. Establish and support a ‘community of learning’.

The Fast Forward Festival has enabled us to get off to a flying start with this, via lively professional debates and inclusive performances. We need to ensure that the momentum started by this Festival grows quickly and that both music hubs in England and their parallel organisations in the wider UK can gain encouragement and share practical ideas for their own strategies for inclusion and music.

If you would like to talk to us about how we can work together to improve access to music for all, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Jonathan Westrup