AH: Hello, before we start the podcast, I just wanted to let you know about three short resource-packed online courses that I’ve developed to help you or your team to win hearts and minds for music and grow your reach and impact. If you work in music for education, wellbeing or social impact, you’ll know how important communications and advocacy are to your work. But you often can’t afford a dedicated person to devote themselves to this area. And it’s difficult finding the right way to upskill yourself or your team. Many of the courses available are all about traditional arts marketing, putting bums on seats and getting visitors into museums. That’s why I’ve developed these courses based on my experience of working with people like you. The courses available so far are in communication strategy, written communications, and social media. They’re all available on-demand online and there are options for individuals, as well as great value for organisations, because you can pay one price for up to six team members who can learn at their own pace, or even use videos and resources in team workshops. I hope you’ll take a look. Just visit www.writing-services.co.uk/courses. And now on with the podcast.
AH: Hello, and welcome to the latest podcast it’s Anita here and today I’m joined by Mark Robinson, the founder of Rocksteady Music School. If you haven’t heard of Rocksteady, they’ve been quietly taking the music education world by storm, bringing in School Rock Band lessons to primary schools across the UK, and also importantly, ensuring they’re accessible to everyone. Welcome, Mark, and thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I’ve been in touch with the organisation for various reasons over the years, so it is really great to talk to the person who started it all.
MR: Oh, thanks, Anita. And thank you for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be here.
AH: So first of all, I’d love to hear a little bit more about your background. How did you end up where you are today? And what is it that drives you?
MR: I guess it’s a long and winding path, as I’m sure all of us have in the background. I mean, I started learning music when I was seven or eight years old, we had violin lessons on offer at primary school. So I did those dutifully until the age of 11 and got to my grade three. And then I discovered, I’d say I discovered my passion for music, playing music shortly afterwards, when I discovered the guitar. And I took that up and then just sort of took off with my learning really. And a couple of years later, one of my mum’s friends had a younger child who was seven years old at the time, he wanted to learn guitar and asked if I would teach them. And I thought that’s really exciting. And I loved teaching and the rest is a lot of detailed history.
AH: So how old were you when you started teaching?
MR: Fourteen. By the time I was 16, I’d built up a roster of most evenings in the week and Saturday mornings as well. It was great because it meant that when a lot of my other friends were going out to supermarkets and shops to get jobs. I was doing what I loved, which was playing music and teaching other people to play.
AH: That’s amazing. So how did you take that forward when you left school?
MR: So I did a gap year where I worked for a small music school in the local village that I come from, and I got my first experience teaching in primary schools then. I then went off to university [where] I studied philosophy and again established a teaching business where I was there. And then when I left university, I thought I’d try and bring a few of the things that I’d seen and learned together and really try and make some changes in music education from the things that I saw were working and the things that I saw that weren’t.
AH: So you went from university to do philosophy and built your teaching business there. And then what happens sort of straightaway after you left uni?
MR: At the weekends, I set up a function band to go out and play weddings and corporate functions and that sort of thing. And that left me quite free during the week to, I’d say do more experimental things with the education side. I started a company called Rocksteady and then I went into schools with the aim of really getting to the bottom of how to help younger children’s first experience in music go well. Because you get so many adults who say things like, ‘I’m not musical’. You know when you’ve got a talented child, their parents will often say things like, ‘I don’t know where they get it from, none of us were musical’. And you get a lot of children who start music, do it for a little bit and then give up. And I really wanted to get to the bottom of that and solve that problem. And then back in my gap year, when I was teaching in a school, I inherited a few kids from a previous teacher. And I started teaching them in a way that I thought they would like to learn that would work very well for my private students. And I got a phone call that night from music school, saying, ‘It seems you were trying to teach them a song, you shouldn’t be doing that, you should be working from their sight-reading book’. And I was, ‘Er, okay’. And as I was working with somebody else, then that’s what I did, I went back to the sight-reading book. But it did, I mean, it turned out to be a real challenge to solve that problem and to improve things for the younger children. Specifically, in the four to seven age range, there was a lot that needed evolving to make music education and learning instruments suitable for them. So after I left uni, I went on a journey that was probably about four or five years trying to solve some of these problems. And I was teaching both peripatetically and I was teaching classroom music in primary school. So I was in one school for four out of the five days of the week, and then a couple of other schools on the side. I was teaching every single child in the school, which was really helpful to give me a really broad range of different responses to different music education, different ideas. And then I was also teaching peripatetically in that school, but I did lunchtime clubs for the kids and I asked them what they wanted to do. And at the time, it was unequivocally we’d like to play in bands. So I found ways to enable them to do that, and developed what is now the Rocksteady, and pedagogy and all the methodologies from that. And the thing that really hit me once I started to get it working was that these were children who didn’t have instruments at home. And some of them weren’t having any lessons besides the half an hour at lunchtime per week with me. But they were progressing a lot faster than the children that I was giving instrumental lessons to, despite the fact you know, I was teaching multiple instruments at the same time. And the one that really made me think I’ve stumbled across something here that I really want to get out there and grow was I had a couple of kids who were not on such a good path at school. I had one particular child who was probably on a pathway towards exclusion. And through doing the band sessions, after a very up and down start, he really started to find himself. And then within a year, he was a school prefect and was in the top maths set. And I just thought, ‘This is really powerful, I feel almost like a moral duty to get this out as far and wide as possible’. And the mission from then on was we want this to reach as many children as possible. And that’s been our guiding light ever since.
AH: That’s really interesting. So it’s a very different pathway for a music educator isn’t it, than the majority of music educators. And do you ever get questioned about, or did you at the time? So I know that Rocksteady has a really strong pedagogy now, because obviously, you’ve scaled up and that’s been essential. So I want to ask you a little bit about how that pedagogy evolved. But before I ask you that, did you have any criticism or any concerns from either classroom teachers or parents, about the fact that you haven’t got a music degree or an education degree or you haven’t been through teacher training?
MR: Erm, no, because they saw the results. The results were very, very strong, you know. I could have a group of five year olds for half an hour and put them on stage and have them playing a song after about half an hour. So it didn’t seem important to anybody at the time. I mean, I’ve got a grade eight in guitar, not that that really counts for much. I mean, I think my specific role that I can play in music education comes from the fact that I haven’t got that background. And that means I’m free to reimagine it as I see fit based on the children that are in front of me, not based on historical best practice. I don’t mean historical, necessarily, in a bad way. I just mean, I’ve never got taught how to teach, but I have been teaching continuously since I was 14.
AH: So absolutely classic informal music learning. You know, you’re sharing with kids what you’d learn in a band anyway.
MR: Yeah, yeah, sometimes, but I think my strength is probably more teaching than it is music. I’m endlessly fascinated by how children learn, how all people learn to be honest, but specifically children. I mean, I’ve felt since I was very, very young, that it’s important to get that right. And, and this is kind of unusual, but I’ve got memories of being a kid at school. I can remember my first day and I can remember having thoughts really early on about how our teachers were teaching us and being aware of what they were doing, why they were doing it, when they were doing it, and building maps of that in my mind. And I remember being at secondary school thinking some of the teachers were really getting things wrong by a lot of the kids in the class. So walking home and imagining how to make those things better. And I know that’s not at all a usual thing for teenagers to do, but it probably makes a little bit of sense if you think about what I’ve done since I guess.
AH: Yeah, absolutely a real calling then.
MR: Yeah, I suppose so. Yeah, it’s always been there.
AH: So Rocksteady was just you originally then?
MR: Yes, it was me and a few other musicians that I persuaded to come and work with me to try out some of these ideas, you know, people I played in bands with. One of my students who I started teaching – I would have been 18 at the time, and he would have been 13 – and then, by the time we started with Rocksteady, I was 23 and he was 18. So he joined us, and he’s still with us now. So yeah, so just me and a group of musicians.
AH: Yeah. So that’s when it sort of started to grow. And then how did you take it to the next level? So I’m guessing this was local then, was it, for you?
MR: Yeah, it was very local. It was all based around Portsmouth and the school was Northern Parade in Portsmouth. That was where we made all of our discoveries, and really hit upon something that we felt was worth growing. And from there, I made a couple of key decisions, which I think really helped with the scaling of it. I mean, it’s a classic entrepreneurial story I suppose, and it involved quite a lot of risk. But I gave up doing the bands at the weekend to focus on Rocksteady full-time. I got a team of five people and took them from being self-employed to being full-time employed, and I think we had a few months worth of my savings that we could run off with that. And I said, ‘Well, we’re going to have to make this work’. And the other thing that we did, which was supremely helpful, was changed – because the kids were learning term-by-term at the time, and they were paying term-by-term – and we changed that to month-to-month and so there’s no minimum commitment. You can cancel at any time, and we’ll refund the month if you didn’t like it. If anything was wrong with our teaching, we felt it immediately. So we created the conditions to rapidly develop and then we were either gonna survive that or we weren’t.
AH: And so at that time, was it still in a reasonably local area?
MR: Yes, it was, it was. We were working out of our living rooms in Portsmouth, we then grew it to Hampshire. Yeah, I mean, it was all in Hampshire. And then we’ve started expanding beyond that, once we had the resources to do so.
AH: That next stage was, I guess, quite the biggest leap for you, perhaps because I know that you work all over the UK now don’t you. So did you have support from a business organisation or something like that to scale it?
MR: No, no, absolutely not. The way that we did it was every pound that we earned from it, we put back into it. It really hinged on our teaching going very well and it being very successful in schools. And then something that I was really, really proud about at the time was we did some early research to see what was the number of children or percentage of children in a school doing music before Rocksteady turned up and what was the percentage afterwards. And it was jumping from between 3-4% to an average of 15%. It really hinged off the teaching and what we were delivering going really well. And then that gave us the fuel to keep growing. No, we’ve never had any support from a business organisation, never had any funding from anywhere. I really wanted to be able to do this self-sufficiently, I suppose. Because I felt that was the way that I could keep all of this pure and on track with what the intention was.
AH: It sort of stands or falls on its own merits.
MR: Yeah, absolutely. And I was going to some music conferences at the time and hearing all these organisations that were doing absolutely fantastic work, who were putting a lot of their energy into raising the next round of funding. Because funding was being cut and some of my early experiences when I got schools to pay for a larger proportion of the teaching, you know, you’d have a round of funding cuts, and then you wouldn’t be able to deliver the music to the kids the next year. And that was heartbreaking. So I really worked hard to try and find a sustainable model that could grow and wasn’t going to be subject to those sorts of things.
AH: So can you tell me more about what Rocksteady looks like today? And actually, we haven’t talked about what Rocksteady actually is. So can you just sort of describe what a typical lesson is like and how it works?
MR: Yeah, absolutely. So I mean, Rocksteady is a peripatetic music service at its heart. We specialise in primary school age children 4 to 11. And what we do is instead of teaching them the instruments separately, and sending in a specialist guitar teacher, a specialist drum teacher, we follow more the model that most primary school teachers follow, which is you’re expected to have capability across a range of subjects. So we send in a teacher who can teach drums, guitar, keyboard, bass and singing, and they learn in a band from day one. So they learn the instrument in a context and I think the thing that really works about that is most children want to start learning an instrument, because they heard something on the radio that excited them, or they saw something on TV or YouTube. And they think I want to do that, that’s great. Now, if they then take up an instrument, and they’re sat down age six in front of a musical score, which is a grid system, and then playing pieces that don’t seem to have much to do with why they were inspired to do it in the first place, that’s not a route that’s going to suit most children. It will suit some children, and you’ll get some extremely talented performers coming out at the top of that system. But I really wanted the benefits of this to reach as many children as possible. So playing in a band, we can get them playing in time with each other, we can get that feeling of playing a song or a version of a song that they’re really interested in straightaway. And then we can build the skill sets that are going to be useful to them as musicians off of that. I mentioned reading music as something that might not be the ideal first experience. It’s not that I’m anti-reading music at all, I can read music, I still write music in school, but it’s just that I don’t think it’s the best first port of call for most children. I think there’s other ways into music that are just as valid and will reach more children more accessibly.
AH: So how does it work in terms of, if I’m a young person, and I come to my first lesson with you? How long can I expect to be taught by you? And what happens afterwards? And I suppose, wrapped around that question is who funds it?
MR: If you’re a young person coming to the lessons, if it’s our first time in that school, we’ll be setting up a bunch of new bands, and you’ll sit down with the new bandmates, and decide on a band name together, which is always a lot of fun. Up the stairs in our main building, where all the office stuff are, there’s all these band names everywhere. And yeah, so it’s quite fun to see what some of them come up with. Tyrannosaurus iPad was a great one. They had just been learning about dinosaurs in their lesson, and then they saw an iPad. So Tyrannosaurus iPad it was. I had one year a band who were called Lunch. And that was, that was the only thing that came to mind. But they pick a band name. And then they will listen to a selection of songs, they’ll pick the song that they want to learn. And then we’ll get on with learning it. I mean, in the very early days, when I was teaching, I would just ask them what they wanted to learn. And then I’d go through Spotify, and we’d work it out together, and they get to see me working it out as well, which was a good learning experience for them. And then I’d simplify it. So they see the simplification process as well. And it did actually teach them a lot. But now we’ve got a bank of approved songs, because we’re working at scale, you never know what’s going to be in a music video or something like that. So they will get a choice in terms of what they want to play. And then it’s all about getting them playing that, playing a version of it as accessible to them as quickly as possible. And they will be playing something that sounds like the song within the first lesson. And then how long can they expect to do it? Well, there’s no limits on the programme. We teach up to, if you’re thinking in terms of traditional grading, something that’s equivalent to grade two. So we do have extensions beyond that that’s suitable for the right child. And we’ve had some children start with us one year and go right through to year six. But there’s no, they can join at any point along that journey. In terms of who funds it? So we found that the best way to reach scale with this was to go to schools and say this is free to the school and start with a parent-funded model. But from there, once impact starts happening, and we start seeing some of the life-changing stories and the impact that it’s having on the children, we then go back to the school and talk about pupil premium funding, or any other funding methods that they might have available. And we also offer a free bursary space to every school. Sometimes it’s more than one free bursary space, depending on the needs of the school. And so we fund a lot of children directly as well.
AH: And so that’s not from a sort of separate foundation or anything else, it’s from your profits.
MR: Yeah, yeah, that’s just from us.
AH: The other question would be, where are the instruments from?
MR: We bring them in, and then set them up. So we’ve got mobile stations. Again, it’s all about self-sufficiency. They’ll go to a school and teach a number of bands at that school, depending on the demand and you know, the size of the school, could be a morning could be a whole day, I think we even got some schools that are two full days that we’re going for. So really, the school needs to be able to provide a space that we can work in. And again, we can be quite flexible. We’ve got minimum space requirements that we work in libraries, schools, spare classrooms, so all about being flexible.
AH: So do you find that sometimes schools start with one class in a year group and then the other classes want to join and it expands within the school like that?
MR: Yeah, it can do, and it’s really a big mix. Sometimes it starts off really small and then grows. Sometimes there’s quite a lot of interest straightaway. I think one thing we learned early on is it’s important just to approach it with the right intentions, which is to really up the level of music engagement in the school, and then work with the school to make that happen.
AH: And you mentioned that it had a knock on effect on lesson uptake. Are you still finding that?
MR: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. And it makes me really happy just to think there’s so many more children that are now learning music, and instead of having a sort of crash with music, and then going, ‘Oh, I’m not musical, I can’t do it’, they’re coming out the other side of it going, ‘Yeah, music’s something that I can do. I know how to do that. I had a lot of fun doing that. And I performed on stage that went really positively as well’. And it’s not necessarily about everybody has to be a musician for the rest of their lives. It’s about the kids getting maximum positive benefit out of that while they’re learning with us.
AH: And if kids do want to carry on making music by having lessons, do you support the school to talk to them about using pupil premium funding?
MR: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we have ongoing conversations and relationships with schools about that. Every school is different in this regard, so it’s about finding what the right solution for the right school is. And often it’s a blended mix. You’ve got parent funded, you’ve got pupil premium, and then you’ve got our bursary. And we try and get the right blend working for the school. There are some instances where charities or funding groups of different sorts have said right, here’s a pot of funding to fund a whole term. And we’ll go and do something like that. But there is no one fixed model. I guess it’s like a lot of music services, you have to be flexible, because every school in every situation is different.
AH: Yes, certainly. I guess when schools have been working with you for a little while, and you’ve talked about pupil premium and other ways to fund a wide range of young people take part in lessons, then when those young people, as you’ve said, it creates more interest in peripatetic music lessons, I guess the school is almost primed to be ready, and to be in that mindset to support those young people.
MR: Yeah, absolutely. And I’d say what we do is not necessarily a replacement for peripatetic individual instrument lessons. I mean, if you want to really pursue skill on an individual instrument, we’ll take you up to about grade two, or equivalent. But there are children under 11, who want to and need to go further. And a lot of them do both individual lessons and Rocksteady lessons and find the two to be quite complimentary. Because in one, you’re learning ensemble-based skills, you’re also learning the skills of being able to play something very quickly with oral awareness. Whereas with the instrumental lessons, you’re typically learning a different skill set albeit on the same instrument. So the two can fit together in a very complementary fashion.
AH: And we were talking about pedagogy earlier. So can you just tell me really briefly about how you developed your pedagogy for Rocksteady alongside sort of scaling up?
MR: Yeah, sure. I mean, it’s big. I think we could probably fill 10 podcasts quite happily. At the centre of it all, is making sure that we’re taking care of the child’s experience. And that’s their cognitive experience, but it’s also their emotional experience and social experience, you know, within a group. And what we try to do is, make sure that what we’re teaching is related to something that they’re already inspired by and interested in, potentially outside of music and music lessons. And then make sure that the skill we’re trying to teach them, or the ability that we’re trying to teach them, is taught in the simplest and most effective way possible. And that we’ve got these very, very small building blocks, that you can then build towards more complex skills. And that each of those building blocks feels like meaningful progress to the children. Because children should come out of every lesson, as far as I’m concerned, saying that they’ve had fun, and that they’ve learned something. Now in order for them to have fun you need a teacher who’s right on top of managing the energy of the whole group. The most popular seminars that we do at education events are ‘Manage energy instead of managing behaviour’. So that’s absolutely crucial. And then the actual curriculum that they’re learning from needs to be built in such a way that it’s flexible, so that you can do planning in the moment and you can see the needs of the child in front of you rather than your lesson plan and make decisions based off of that. But it still needs to build in a meaningful way towards an outcome that that we can all see and agree is a good outcome for that child. All of these things rarely just emerged from wanting to take care of the child’s experience to the highest possible degree. I think if you get that right, everything else falls in place.
AH: Yeah, and that’s often so much what people in the DfE don’t think about sometimes. It feels sometimes as though that’s lost with some of the policies.
MR: Yeah, it is. And it’s because it’s approached from an angle of, I guess, well meaning people sitting around and going, ‘What are the things that children need to know, right, they need to know these things. Let’s develop that into a curriculum. Let’s take that curriculum down to the level of lesson plans. And then let’s go and deliver it to these children’. Let’s figure it out, you know, from that way, and then it’s the child’s job to mould themselves to be able to prove that they have absorbed this curriculum, which is based around largely knowledge. Whereas if you take it from the point of view of the child in front of you, and these children are going to have different points of view, it’s not like there’s one universal point of view called the child’s point of view, but you find something that they’re energised by. And then instead of pushing information or skills or curriculums on them, you find a way to pull on that energy, then you end up with a very different result. And like I said, I could talk for absolutely hours about different ways of doing this. And because our teacher training works in stages over, you know, four to five years of development. But I’m very proud of what we’ve done and that there’s a lot of teachers out there delivering in this way. And we’re really working now on trying to share that knowledge as widely as possible so it can have an impact on children who are not necessarily learning through Rocksteady, but could be in a maths lesson in a different country or something. But because, you know, some of these energy management techniques or approaches to pedagogy have been absorbed by that teacher. If that reaches one extra child then it’s definitely worth it from our point of view.
AH: It sounds really very similar to the inclusive practice work that’s been done over many years, and often funded by Youth Music. And they have a mnemonic that was evolved from the Alliance for Musically Inclusive England, which is that a young person’s music learning experience should be heard. And it’s holistic. I’m going to forget this now holistic, equitable, authentic, relevant, and diverse. I think that’s it.
MR: They all sound really, really good. I mean, we had ‘relevant’ in our building blocks as well. It’s absolutely got to be relevant, otherwise you’re teaching them to your ideals rather than theirs. And that’s not empowering. That’s the opposite of empowering.
AH: Yeah. You call that the Rocksteady way don’t you? It kind of encapsulates that. So your tutors all go through that learning process? And you just mentioned it’s four years?
MR: Yeah, there’s four, it will soon be five years’ worth of learning in that programme. Because there’s a lot of layers to it, as it relates to all teaching. I’m sure teachers have been through this where you struggle on a problem for a bit, and then you think, ‘Oh, I’ve cracked it’. Because you’ve, you know, cracked that problem. And you sort of build it and start noticing other problems or other ways that you could improve and ultimately reach more children or make the experience smoother for a particular child or something like that. And then you go on to another phase of development. So yeah, it’s all about supporting our bandleaders, which is what we call our teachers, through that process until they’re in a place where they’re exceptionally confident in their teaching.
AH: So they’re clearly all inclusive practitioners, and inclusion is a thread that runs throughout your organisation and your model. Is there anything else in your way of working that is particularly inclusive, you know in terms of making sure repertoire is suitable for the group and culturally diverse?
MR: Yeah, absolutely. The repertoire is largely driven by what the children are interested in. So I mentioned when I was the teacher I would just ask the children what it is they want to learn. And then we would figure out a way of doing that on the spot. And what we do now is we’re still taking feedback from the children all the time about what they’re hearing that they’d like to learn. And you’d be amazed at some of it you know, you get children who come in who’ve been listening to, they’re probably their grandparents’ now ‘old’ rock collection, you get all sorts of different inputs. And then we go through them, we make arrangements out of the ones that are going to be suitable. And yeah, we do have a filter that we put over it, making sure that there’s diversity in our song selection. So yeah, we cover all of those angles and in terms of inclusion, it’s always been a big thing for us. And one thing that I’m very proud of is the Rocksteady Foundation. We take, officially, we all take two days a year as staff to go and work with charities, special schools, other organisations that support children, who for whatever reason, might not be having it easy in life. And we find ways to adapt our teaching to those environments. I think that’s something that’s very energising for everybody. And then within our teaching in schools, we never say no to anybody learning music. I mean, I heard a wonderful story the other day from one of our teachers, Scott, who works in the Devonshire area, and had a pupil who has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair and really wanted to be a guitarist. Now, the easy option would have been to say to Aidan, ‘You know, how about keyboard?’ and persuaded Aiden into playing keyboard, but no he really wanted to be a guitarist. So the band leader Scott came to us and having tried out a few different things he found that if he used the whiteboard marker on the guitar, he could use it as a slide. And you could lay the guitar across Aiden’s wheelchair and he could still play in the band, but it was causing some trouble with the band because they wanted to be more guitarists. So we bought another guitar and got a proper slide. And now Aiden is playing in that band and he’s very proud of it. So we do things like that absolutely everywhere in the organisation. We start from the point of view of yes, we can make it work.
AH: That’s so great to hear. And do you know the OHMI Trust?
MR: No, I don’t.
AH: They used to be the One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust I think. But now they are a charity that just works to adapt instruments for individual young people.
MR: That’s very cool.
AH: They’ve been around for decades, and now they work a lot with hubs and music services. I don’t know a great deal about them, but heard them talk at conferences that are fantastic. So it just occurred to me that I bet they’d be up for working with you.
MR: Yeah, absolutely. And I think we’d be very up for working with them. Because, you know, there’s no reason why differently abled people shouldn’t be able to play music. I mean, because we do free assemblies for schools and workshops all over the place. And I always just used to have this principle of just saying yes, in no matter what, and I did assemblies in a few special schools, where I was going to be prepared to give my assembly and workshop and they’d say, you know, something like 80% of the children here are nonverbal. So would you just put on a gig, it’s like me put on a gig, not solo. But yes, I will. And I did. And it’s amazing the different ways you can reach people through music, it doesn’t have to fit one narrow paradigm.
AH: So we’re coming to the close of our interview, actually. And I’ve still got loads of questions to ask so I’ll have to keep them really short now. So you’ve obviously expanded a lot in the last few years. How extensive is your reach currently across the UK? And how large are you as an organisation?
MR: We’re teaching all around England and Wales. We’re employing 172 teachers currently full-time, by the time this gets aired it will be a little bit different. Counties, I’m not entirely sure, but I would say probably all of them, or most of them. We’re teaching as of today, we’re teaching 33,000 children a week. But again, that’s constantly moving. So depending on when you’re listening to this, hopefully more, because you know, our job is to reach as many children as possible.
AH: Yeah. And do you know roughly how many schools?
MR: It’s, I think, over 1300, and again, that’s constantly growing.
AH: So obviously, music services and music education hubs are also working in schools across the UK. Do you have good partnerships with them?
MR: Yeah. So we’ve had a good relationship with Surrey Arts. I mean, I’ve done some training for them or their conferences. And we also did something that helped them with their funding, where I think what we did was just give them some information about the children that we’re reaching within Surrey and I think that helped them out. And we’ve got a few informal relationships with different hubs where they point some schools in our direction where they think that we’d be able to help and vice versa. So yeah, it’s all relatively informal, we don’t have formal partnerships with hubs at the moment, but very happy to have any conversations with anybody who would like to do that sort of thing.
AH: That’s really interesting, because it would be great to see you as a hub partner in all these places where you’re working because it makes sense, doesn’t it? You’re delivering on hub outcomes really?
MR: Yeah, absolutely. And we don’t, you know, necessarily need anything for that. That would probably be one thing I put out there. Because I imagine, it could be easy to see why you’d think that if we were a hub partner it would be a drain on resources or whatever. But we’re very self-sufficient, and that has always been very important to me. So if there’s a partnership that means more children can be reached, and there’s better outcomes for more children, then we’re definitely up for it. So just give us a call. We’re very friendly and very happy to talk about possibilities.
AH: That’s really good to hear. And I’m sure some of the people listening would be interested in that, a lot of good work could happen there. And I guess a music service or hub lead that doesn’t know you very well might just be a little bit worried in terms of, in fact I’ve heard it from somebody myself, who said, ‘Well, they’re competing with us’. So what would you say to a music service or a hub lead who feels that you’re competing with them and that they lose school customers as a result of your work?
MR: I think the thing to do is to take the focus back to the children and go, you know, how can we organise things to get the most amount of benefit to the most amount of children? Usually, the things that we’re doing are complementary to what music services, you know that are associated with hubs, are doing, and let’s just have a conversation about it. I mean, we’re very friendly, non-competitive people [Laughs]. Interestingly enough, we’re just driven on a mission to reach more children. So if you align with that, and you think that we could help in any way, then we’d be more than happy to help.
AH: That’s really helpful. And you’ve already demonstrated that for those music services and hubs that offer peripatetic lessons, you’re possibly increasing their market in some way.
MR: Yeah, absolutely. Because if you get more children interested in music in the first place, then I suppose using that competitive analogy, then there’s more to share around. But we’ve just got our job to do, which is to reach as many children as possible.
AH: Oh, that’s great. So just as we come to the end of the interview, has Rocksteady developed as you expected? Was this how you thought your dream would play out all those years ago when you were in your early 20s?
MR: I mean, when I was in my early 20s, I definitely didn’t foresee this. Back then I guess I had curiosity and I had an intention to try and work on this and solve some of the problems for younger children specifically. Once we got into the’ reach as many children as possible’ mode, and pass the early risks to any organisation that’s going to try and scale then yeah, I mean, it’s been playing out definitely how I hoped it would, and you keep looking at where you’re at at any given stage. And then you try and make the best decisions that you can to keep moving forward. It helps that we’ve got that single guiding light of reaching as many children as possible with this methodology. It means I can filter all of our decision making through that and keep working on it.
AH: Finally, do you have anything you’d like to share that other music education and youth music organisations can learn from?
MR: I guess, we’re all on our own journey towards whatever we’re trying to accomplish through our organisation. But one thing that I really value, and that I’d like to see more of is a theme that’s been running throughout this is putting the focus on the child and their experience. We just launched an award, a Rocksteady award for progressive and inclusive music education. I was sitting on the panel for that and it was wonderful to see all these projects coming through where the education and the pedagogy had been moulded to the needs of the children and was flexible enough to change depending on what the needs of the child was. And it’d be really cool if you know, in the next couple of decades, that became the standard in education. You started from that point of view, rather than the point of view of the deliverables in the curriculum. You still need to have both but which side does the pedagogy evolve from? That’s what I’d really like to see more of.
AH: Oh, that’s a great point to end on, thanks so much Mark. It’s been really lovely talking to you. I could fill six podcasts with this.
MR: Yeah, absolutely. I’m always happy to come back and talk more.
AH: Thanks so much for coming on Mark. And if you want to read more about Rocksteady, I will share the link to their website in the show notes. Thanks for listening.
MR: Thanks, Anita.