Joined-up strategies for musical progression: what do they look like in practice?

At a meeting of the Musical Progressions Roundtable in the Spring, we looked at how joined-up support for musical progression is taking place and taking shape across England. CYP leading their own learning, liberating technology, partnership maintenance, Hubs and schools, inclusion, communications... Here's an account of we heard about and what we discussed.

The Roundtable (which I host with Awards for Young Musicians, with YM funding) met in Oxford, with participants from Kent Music Service, The Royal Academy of Music, AYM, Sussex University, National Children's Orchestra, English Folk Dance and Song Society, Birmingham City University, SoundConnections, Kinetico, South West Music School, Oxford University, SoundLincs, BBC Performing Arts Fund, Glyndebourne, Artswork, Surrey Music Service, The Garage and Youth Music.


Previously, the Musical Progressions Roundtable (MPR) has worked on a skeleton strategy for how hubs could work together. The skeleton strategy is based on seven interoperating strands:

  • Children and young people leading their own learning
  • Supporting children and young people
  • Supporting teachers, parents and other adults
  • Harnessing technology
  • Providing opportunities
  • Harnessing external forces
  • Coordinating, communicating and leading

In this meeting (18 March 2014) we wanted to explore what the different strands of the skeleton strategy looked like in practice. So participants were asked to present and discuss their experiences under particular strands (or closely related titles).

These strands encompass a very broad range of activities, strategies and approaches. So is this supporting musical progression or is it the whole of music education, or of education in general?! This question emerged in discussion. Of course, it depends on what you think progress and progression are.

If you use simple definitions, progress is simply ‘getting better’; progression is ‘moving forwards’. The important questions then become getting better at what? Why? Moving forwards towards what? etc. If the answers to these questions are relatively narrow and focussed – for example, if musical progression means getting better at playing pieces on instruments and playing in ensembles – then the answers to the other questions look quite straightforward: essentially teach students, encourage them to practice, and provide ensemble opportunities.

But the emphasis on the MPR’s work has been on looking at multiple individual journeys of musical leaners rather than well-trodden and established progression routes, on looking at ‘musical adults’ as well as adults who are clearly professional musicians, on looking at a broad range of musical careers and professional applications of musicality beyond the obvious stage performers, on looking at a wide range of different musical activities, genres and tastes and how they’re each most effectively supported, on looking at supporting all children and young people’s musical potential. And if you take this broader view of musical progression then the range of perspectives, strategies, stakeholders and approaches does need to be broad, and coherently knitted together.

Hence the purpose behind this MPR meeting: to look, through a practical and real-life lens, at some of the many things different people and organisations are doing to support different aspects of musical progression. The overall impression, at the end of the meeting, was that we could see something of the range of different perspectives, strategies, stakeholders and approaches that you need to support musical progression. And we could also see how, as a strategic umbrella grouping such as a Music Education Hub, you might set about coherently knitting them together.

Children and young people leading their own learning

Debra King presented (by proxy) a film of the Blaze festival which had been designed and delivered by young people with the support of Brighter Sound. The young people had also then run a post-festival conference to reflect on and learn from the Blaze experience. At the learning conference, young people distilled a set of methods to support young people as leaders:

  • Give young people the opportunities to experience high quality work – regionally, nationally and internationally – either through going to events or watching on the internet 
  • Put young people at the centre of commissioning and programming process- involve us in writing the brief and interviewing and choosing the artists
  • Work as a producing team identifying what each person is good at with opportunities to develop new skills and aptitudes
  • Involve young people in making decisions about how budgets are spent 
  • Provide training with professionals in key areas such as project management, event management, marketing fundraising and evaluation
  • Develop Young leaders skills further with opportunities to teach and lead other young people, such as peer mentoring  
  • Create a network to share learning 

And, from the adults,

  • Hand over responsibility to young people as soon as possible but be on standby to step in and help out
  • One-to-one coaching can be invaluable and provide the extra ingredient that a young person needs to progress

Philip Flood presented the work of the Wired4Music youth council, based at SoundConnections in London. Wired4Music has been developing for several years now and has become well established, both as a council itself and also as a body of expertise in developing meaningful youth voice, for example, to support Hubs.

  • They have recently been developing the WiredChoir – a young person-led choir for young people, looking particularly to develop musical leadership
  • They have found on several occasions that W4M young people can have a powerful lobbying influence: they are articulate, informed, genuine and represent the voice of young people directly.
  • It has been harder to engage young people from the outer London boroughs.
  • They have been training young people in Hubs to develop their youth voice work.

Other notable youth voice bodies, mentioned by participants, were the Young Writers Manifesto and the Youth Parliament, which has recently written an influential paper on the shortcomings of PHSE education in schools.

The discussion moved to focus on Arts Award, which can be a very effective vehicle for structuring young people’s engagement in the arts, including young leadership, although, as with any structure, it doesn’t suit all young people.

Liberating technology

Paul Weston presented an inspiring array of different ways in which technology can ignite, elicit, support and sustain children and young people’s musical abilities and commitment to developing their music-making.

  • There is a very wide range of free, open source software available, such as fully fledged Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) packages Reaper and Ohm Studio, and a huge array of Apps.
  • Music technology is being used very effectively with CYP with special educational needs (SEN), and also children with very high degrees of physical/mental disability. For example, eye-tracking software can be used with CYP whose controllable physical movement is virtually limited to their eye movement. One example was shown of a young musician whose very obvious musicality had remained completely hidden until they were given such a piece of eye-tracking software.
  • In several places iPad orchestras are being developed, where (young) people are using mobile-based instruments to make up orchestras. These instruments have the advantage that they are technically easy to learn to use, and sometimes to master, meaning that you can straight away develop musical dimensions such as as phrasing, improvisation, melody-writing, texture etc., without having to spend a long time working out how to play the instrument.
  • In essence: with acoustic instruments you learn technique first; with digital instruments you learn technique second.

The break-out group that followed looked at CPD for music technology. It was noted that:

  • in effective music technology CPD, you need to do with the adults what you’d like them to be able to do with children and young people,
  • and also that you need to help adults to see how technology can help them to achieve their objectives, rather than being an additional set of aspirations
  • that generally teachers need to curate / edits the apps they use with CYP

Partnership maintenance

Ruth Taylor described some of the work that Artswork (the ACE Bridge Organisation for the South East region) is involved in.

  • The South East is a large region, with around 4,000 schools and 48 teaching schools.
  • The SE Bridge supports a wide range of networking and other activities, including: supporting teaching schools to partner with local arts organisations; supporting networks of formal and non-formal expertise, such as Music8te and three MEHubs; working closely with some Hubs, for example as members of their boards, but finding it harder to engage with others; supporting Arts Award advisor forums; supporting some 1,600 traineeships working with the other Bridge organisations; developing the Strong Voices programme to help NEETs improve their employability chances through shadowing; running an advisory group for the Bridge, which includes Further Education, Hubs, Sector Skills Councils, Arts Organisations and others.
  • In general, partnership working works well, and relatively easily, when partners look outwards and broadly; whereas it is harder when they much more interested in their own work.
  • Artswork are currently working on ways to coordinate the collection of data, both to help with funder reporting, but also to help with information, advice and guidance – so the Bridge can help people find what’s on where.

The break-out group that followed examined two partnership group examples and looked at who they involved, what they did, and what was required for them to work well.

  1. The Brighton Hub (Sound City) governance partnership includes the music service, Audio Active and other music/arts organisations, local Children’s Services, NHS, the Public Board, Youth Services, Young Offending Team, Drug and Alcohol Team and others. It acts as the Hub’s board and has break-out groups, e.g. for singing and for children and young people in challenging circumstances, and is has a separate CYP reference group.

    What makes the group work well?

  • Localness
  • Generosity of spirit
  • Ability to fail
  • An open brief (around CYP music-making)


  1. The Bristol and the SW Gold Arts Award Network comprises the Knowle West Media Centre, the Colston Hall, the Bristol Old Vic and the Arnolfini. It meets quarterly and communicates over Facebook.

    What makes the group work well?

  • A shared purpose (managing Arts Award Gold)
  • Reciprocity – give and take
  • Sharing
  • Not much competition between the partners
  • Knowing each other’s strengths

Hubs and schools

How do, can and could Hubs and music organisations in general work with schools?

  • A network of schools in Brighton, working with Ally Daubney at Sussex University and the ISM, has recently published a framework for supporting and assessing musical progression within the national curriculum (
  • Some reported that in many primary schools the approach to progression was more circular (going round doing more of the same things) than spiral, as it should be (cumulatively building on and developing things)
  • In general, the exercise that Hubs had been through to develop School Engagement Plans was thought to have been positive and fruitful.
  • Similarly, whilst there had been quite widespread criticism of the November 2013 Ofsted report which asserted that Hubs should do more to advise and support schools, some participants suggested that, in fact, this had been a helpful and constructive suggestion.
  • The question of language was raised as a barrier, or at least an impediment, for successful school—music organization collaboration: schools language around music and musical progression is often different (e.g. more educational, more edu-jargonistic) from that of music organisations (e.g. more musico-technical, referring to musical abilities and skills that teachers don’t understand).
  • Certainly several participants felt working with schools needed to be a bespoke process – with each school having its own needs, and each music organization having its own way of meeting them. The key to success is to work locally to build on strengths and tackle weaknesses rather than to try to develop a one-size-fits-all package.
  • Bringing schools together with community music organisations and musicians, in local triangular collaborations, has been found to be successful.
  • Brighton-based schools have an all-schools development day, where all participating schools close for a day and do a schools swap – where teachers and staff visit other schools.
  • Several of the Arts Council Bridge Organisations, including Artswork in the South East, have been developing school—school networks, and encouraging schools to co-commission music and arts work from external providers.


How can music education be more inclusive, engaging those who don’t readily engage with mainstream music education, and working with children and young people in challenging circumstances?

  • Some participants working specifically to address musical inclusion (including through Youth Music’s Musical Inclusion funding) are finding it difficult to bring together some communities, e.g. travellers, who would benefit from specialist music, social-work and youth-work interventions. To generalize, there are plenty of specialist organisations and practitioners who are keen to engage, and some local authority representatives, but it is very hard to engage people from marginalized communities to take a role in partnership-based solutions (as opposed to delivering services at those communities).
  • Some Hub-lead participants reported that they were doing more work than previously with higher free-school-meal schools, looking to tackle social inclusion.
  • One participant reported that sometimes they had found it difficult to work and develop strategically with organisations who were more used to project-based working and funding, such as some community arts organisations: they are not so used to more long-term strategic development with sustained relationships with organisations and communities.
  • Hubs reported that they were being successful at diversifying income streams, for example, from the NHS/Healthcare, from social and youth work, from the PRS Foundation, and from School/education budgets but explained that each of these new sources came with its own set of checks and measures which need to be reported, often with different languages and terminology. Gathering the requisite evidence is a mounting challenge.


Peter Bolton described some of the communications challenges and strategies in Kent, the second biggest Hub after Greater Manchester, with 580 schools spread across a large county.

  • Unlike most Hubs, which are lead by a former or current music service, Kent Music was started as a music education provider funded mainly by parents, and now established as a community interest company. As such, it doesn’t have the established relationships with schools that most Hubs have through their music service roots.
  • They have a network of local ambassadors, communicating and working with schools: important work that continues
  • They are designing individual projects for schools to work at KS2, targeting the most ready first: going where the energy is.
  • The secondary school landscape is very varied; Kent Music are using statistical survey data to identify key areas of need and focusing their efforts there.
  • They have appointed a PR company to help with communications

The break-out group that followed looked at the intricacies and complexities of communicating with the diverse audiences Hubs have, making the following observations:

  • Many people are too bogged down, often understandably, with day-to-day business to spend sufficient time communicating and being communicated with, or to see the big picture.
  • Partnership has become an overused and devalued currency in music education land – often bringing up as many issues as it addresses
  • In many cases there are evolving and on-going discussions around the identity of the Hub, and of individual Hubs. Each Hub comes from its own starting point and all Hubs are very different, yet with their common ‘Hub’ name, there is perhaps a tacet assumption of uniformity.
  • Many Hubs want to communicate with new audiences but, without the connections or the experience, don’t always know how.
  • Hubs don’t have to start with Classical music; nothing should be immovable.


So is all this stuff really about supporting musical progression? Communications, inclusion, working with schools, partnerships, technology, young people’s councils and voices: but what about actually supporting musical progression – helping children and young people to get better at playing music? Well, it’s true that in this meeting we discussed actual music-making very little, nor running ensembles, nor pedagogies for instrumental technique, nor exams, nor making good quality instruments accessible etc.

But those things are, in many cases, the much more well-known and widely recognized aspects of supporting musical progression – strand 5 in the MPR’s skeleton strategy. One of the things that emerged through this discussion was how important are the other aspects of supporting progression: the things that help children and young people to teach themselves and each other, the things that help organisations to grow, collaborate and develop, the things that help make the most of limited resources, the things that make the most of underused resources, the things that engage different organisations and marginalized communities – together the things that can come together to help support all children and young people’s individual musical progressions.

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