Wimblecomm Spotlight – Merton Music Foundation (MMF)

On our Wimblecomm Spotlight, we invite local people, charities or community spaces who make positive contributions to Merton to share their story on our Community Hub. Just in time for International Music Day 2020, we caught up with local charity Merton Music Foundation to find out how they use music and creativity to enrich the lives of children and adults across Merton, ensuring that they have a well-rounded education and life experience that is inclusive of the arts.

Firstly, what is the Merton Music Foundation?

MMF is a charity that delivers a wide range of music tuition, ensembles, choirs, large group instrumental lessons and music projects to children (and adults) in Merton schools and the community. Despite the challenges of the past 6 months, we currently have over 700 children receiving weekly individual lessons at home or at school, and are running a virtual Music Centre with lots of opportunities for children to improve their music skills and experience – including Zoom choirs, concert bands, string and guitar ensembles, jazz composition, ukulele, recorder, percussion and theory classes.

What role do you think music plays in the lives of the people that you work with?

MMF is centred around a love of music and the desire to pass this onto the young people and the community we work with. All Team MMF members are professional musicians and educators and our large group of visiting music teachers includes some of the most talented musicians and teachers of their generation. We strive to put our students at the heart of everything we do. For all of us, a world without music is a world without air, devoid of joy, hope and the means to express in sound what words sometimes cannot.

How does the MMF impact the lives of people in Merton?

Over the past 30 years, MMF have worked with 1000s of young people each year. Our students have performed at countless events in the borough and beyond. Many alumni have gone on to have successful careers connected to the music industry, as performers, teachers, sound technicians, composers, musical directors and more! We hope that all our pupils retain a life-long love of music, perhaps going on to join one of the many local amateur choirs and bands or become avid audience members. MMF has been described as ‘the jewel in Merton’s crown’ and we certainly try to live up to that statement!

What are some of the MMFs most notable success stories?

Many of our former students and teachers have gone on to do great things in the world of music, including Ben Lovett (Mumford and Sons), Louise Alder (Opera Singer and Cardiff Singer of the Year Finalist); Yazz Ahmed (Award-winning Jazz Trumpeter); Janek Gwizdala (International Bass Guitarist); Adam Saunders (young Jazz Composer and Educator.) Local successes include John Merriman, Founder of Crown Lane Studio in Morden, whom many residents will know for his extraordinary contribution to community life. Many former students come back to work as part of our team and that is one of our proudest achievements.

Music can be a very tough industry. How do you equip learners for the industry and life itself?

We encourage our students to take up every opportunity to work with world-class professional artists and we actively devise and deliver creative projects and programmes that help facilitate this. Anyone going into the music industry needs a large ‘kit bag’ of skills and we try to help students develop their potential as widely as possible. Musical progression and success require so much more than taking ‘grade exams’ and performing at concerts and events. Musicians need great technique and musicality but also good communication skills, discipline, flexibility, creativity, the ability to compromise, and huge generosity of spirit. They also need to have the courage and self-belief to take brave decisions, musically and in life.  As educators we try to demonstrate these qualities in our work too. It’s not an easy path!

Earlier this year, you hosted The Beat Awards 2020. Tell us more about the competition and the entries that you received…

The Beat Awards were set up by our Curriculum Leader for Percussion, Lilia Iontcheva, to encourage Merton’s young percussionists to create and perform music, whatever their level and experience. Despite lockdown we were inundated with entries ranging from body percussion to drum kit, demonstrating a wide variety of styles. The awards culminated in a virtual presentation and ceremony in July. The performances were full of creativity and humour, from players at the very beginning of their musical journey to students with advanced abilities and confidence. We plan to hold Beat Awards, the Sequel in 2021.

Speaking of events, your Music is for Life concert takes place at the Royal Albert Hall every other year. How did that concert come to fruition?

In 2003 and 2005 MMF participated in performances at the Royal Albert Hall organised in partnership with other local music services. In 2007 we decided to ‘go it alone’ and pulled in the services of world-renowned Jazz Composer, Performer and Educator Pete Churchill to help us. He’s supported us ever since, along with a raft of other ‘big names’ in the world of music and education.  We were due to return in 2021 to celebrate our 30th birthday but have postponed until 2022, when we hope that improved circumstances will make it possible.

Merton Music Foundation Music is Life Concert Royal Albert Hall Rebecca Cresta

What other events do MMF do throughout the year?

Many local events and festivals, including the Wimbledon International Music Festival and London Borough of Merton ‘showcase’ events like Windrush Day and Remembrance events; the AELTC Wimbledon Tennis Championships; a tour abroad in July; gigs at The Hideaway Jazz club…

What local groups, organisations or venues do you work with?

We work collaboratively with many including Polka Theatre, New Wimbledon Theatre, Wimbledon Civic Theatre Trust, Wimbledon International Music Festival, Crown Lane Studios and Wimbledon Community Chorus.

What do you enjoy most about working within the borough of Merton?

The diverse mix of community. We are also lucky to have Polka Theatre and New Wimbledon Theatre on our patch, with scope for working together to widen the impact of our collective work.

Do you operate in all Merton schools, and how do you ensure that your services reach the entire borough?

We work in almost all Merton Primary and Secondary schools. We have built up strong relationships with headteachers and school music leaders and go to them often for advice about how to ensure our work is appropriate and reaches more young people. We bid for additional grants to support our pan-borough arts projects and work in close partnership with other outstanding local arts organisations to further our reach.

During Covid-19, you have had to take many of your services online. What did that entail?

Patience, creativity, flexibility, compromise, more patience and a sense of humour! Within 2 weeks of lockdown we had moved all our activity online and revised our teaching offer to ensure the majority our students could continue to learn, despite the many challenges.

Moving forwards, will you continue to offer more digital services?

Thanks to the overwhelmingly positive feedback from students, parents, and tutors, we plan to keep a digital offer available. Parents gave our online lessons 4.5/5 in a recent survey so we are obviously doing something right.

Despite the success of being able to bring so many of your services online, do you think that the lack of physical interaction has been a big challenge for yourselves and your learners?

Yes, enormously. The limitations of virtual platforms mean teaching and rehearsing online are very challenging, particularly for choirs and groups. However, we are doing our best to recreate the family philosophy of the MMF and to continue to help children thrive and progress.

Creative industries have been suffering globally due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. What opportunities have been available to help you continue your works in recent months?

Only opportunities we have made for ourselves. We are regarding this bizarre period as an opportunity to reassess everything we do and ask difficult questions about the ‘what, why, where and how.’ We aim to come through this stronger and better, even if somewhat exhausted and with a few more grey hairs!

What steps do you think are needed to help MMF and creative industries survive during and after this time of huge uncertainty?

Ongoing financial support for music services, musicians (in particular the self-employed work force) and for arts and music venues.

They say teamwork makes the dream work, so who is involved in the running of MMF?

We have 13 employed staff members (mainly part-time,) led by CEO Elisabeth Wigley. Our instrumental and vocal teaching is delivered by a great team of around 80 ‘Visiting Music Teachers.’

Rebecca Cresta Merton Music Foundation

Funds are usually fundamental to the works that a charity can do, so how does the MMF raise funds?

We receive an annual grant from the Department of Education which helps to fund some of our ‘core activity’ in schools. In addition to this, we submit numerous funding bids to arts charities including Arts Council England and have received support from local foundations including The Taylor Family Foundation and some generous individuals. Raising enough funds to do our job is increasingly challenging and terrifically time-consuming, but we do it because we understand what first-class music and the arts offer as part of a well-balanced, varied, inspirational education that all young people should (and deserve to) receive and benefit from.

How can the people of Merton get involved and support the MMF?

We recently launched our #MMFDontStopTheMusic campaign and so far have raised £10K to help with the cost of tuition for young musicians whose lessons had stopped due to the financial difficulties arising from Covid-19. We continue to welcome donations to this campaign so we can help more of Merton’s young musicians. We also aim to set up a new regular giving scheme in the next few months and will be looking for support from local people to establish this fund and help ensure that MMF can continue its valuable work far into the future.

With great thanks to the Merton Music Foundation team, we hope that this piece has helped you to understand the importance of music and the Arts in both education and our everyday lives. Having explored the many ways that this local charity continuously work to ensure that people of Merton have the opportunities that they deserve, we encourage you to support the works of MMF and help keep creativity alive and well in Merton by signing up for music lessons or their Music Centre groups.  Keep up to date with their works via their website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We look forward to hearing more from the MMF in the near future, and wish you all a Happy International Music Day 2020.

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