Hugh Morris discovers the sense of social purpose driving the Olympias Music Foundation into the new decade…

‘Never mind the ink not being dry on the page, the ink wasn’t even on the page!’, says Jo Yee-Cheung, director of the Olympias Music Foundation (OMF), about the first performance of their mammoth project, Making Manchester. But like the migration stories celebrated in the piece, fixed endpoints are a small part of a bigger journey, of secondary value to adapting, adjusting, and veering off-course. OMF’s short history joyously embraces these potential setbacks.

OMF are a Manchester-based charity who run participatory music projects primarily aimed at getting primary school children playing instruments and writing their own music. Among the many questions OMF addresses is a pertinent one for many musical organisations: why large groups of disadvantaged young people aren’t playing instruments. Their dedicated grassroots approach to music provision in Manchester is already winning plaudits.

Founded in 2015, OMF are, as Jo puts it, a ‘baby charity’, which partly explains their pragmatic infancy. ‘We had no idea we were even going to become a charity’, clarifies Jo. ‘There was no real long-term plan, it was more of a happy accident’. After discovering some left-over money at the end of a local primary school’s summer term, Jo and a small team arranged the delivery of a small, sustained programme of flute and violin tuition on a 2:1 basis, setting it apart from similar Wider Opportunities schemes which reach wider (at around 30:1) but less comprehensively and for a shorter period. The scheme expanded and diversified, and three years later, by the time the children had reached Year Six, a small orchestra of beginners could play together. Carroll’s Music Club (after Mancunian music educator Walter Carroll) was born.

Similar happy accidents punctuate OMF’s story so far. The practical and financial strain of small-group music lessons on primary schools in some of Manchester’s most deprived areas meant, in July 2017, the three Carroll’s Music Club schools all pulled out within days of each other. Then, just weeks later, another happy accident: an email out of the blue from The Maingot Charitable Trust offering OMF £10,000 to continue the project for another three years. Rebranded as Maingot Music Scholarships, 2020 sees the Maingot Scholars being prepped for their first ABRSM exams by students from Chetham’s School of Music.

But the visibility of nationally recognised centres of musical excellence in Manchester like Chetham’s or the Royal Northern College of Music is never a straightforward benefit, as Jo explains. ‘The Maingot kids used to perform at Chet’s, but then they told us they got sad because they couldn’t go there, so we stopped doing concerts at Chet’s because maybe there was an issue with being too directive. You think you’re doing a good thing, saying “we can take these kids from Moss Side and put them in Chet’s”. But in fact, you’re creating a divide, with the kids saying “this exists but I can’t go there; this isn’t for me”’.

Through such setbacks, OMF have strengthened their core aims. ‘The gap we’re plugging is not reach or breadth, but something more complex’. Jo’s command of data on music education shines through as we talk, and her ability to cut through noise from larger musical institutions with data partly explains the national recognition OMF are beginning to gain – they recently won the ‘Creativity in the Community’ Award at the BeProud Awards 2019, adding to their growing collection of accolades and grants.  ’What we’ve found is a reasonable amount being spent on First Access opportunities, and a reasonable amount on endowment schemes for kids who get into Chet’s but can’t pay for it. But, unless you get to a certain level, which you will never be able to get to on government money alone, you will never get to a point where you can go there in the first place. Students need support to get there, and the current, top-down approaches aren’t working’. OMF’s mission has strengthened with time, making quality participatory music provision indivisible from the fight for social justice and educational parity.

2019’s Making Manchester, by far the Foundation’s most ambitious project to date, tackled both of these goals head-on. A two-and-a-half-year project that started as the oral history documentation of migration stories from Manchester’s immigrant communities, its artistic potential was realised by OMF and director Emma Doherty. Working with a 28-strong team of creatives from across poetry, world music, improvisation, electronic music and dance, Making Manchester offering a platform to amplify these voices, letting young people shape the way their families’ stories are presented on stage.

This sense of social purpose is at the heart OMF’s approach to new music. Given that 90% of the children OMF work with are from BAME backgrounds, the relevance of Western classical music is regularly queried, but OMF are coming up with new ways of approaching collaboration without sacrificing the tradition’s advantages.

Multi Musical Manchester, a new partnership with University of Manchester, aims to collect traditional music from migrant diaspora in Manchester with the intention of creating an online hub, through which musical institutions can commission new music that engages sensitively with communities without losing their sense of ownership. Or as Jo puts it, to ‘generate new music from something else without guessing, or othering, or making it a bit pentatonic!’

This considerate attitude underpinned Making Manchester too, where facilitators spent time equipping participants with the language and understanding needed to control the outcome of their compositions. ‘We’re a bit naïve sometimes’, admits Jo, ‘supposing that children can just ‘write music’ – unless you give them a language and tools and facilitate that, then it’s not possible. You can’t just give them manuscript and a big pen and then, voila, here’s a symphony. But you can facilitate it in some way, and it’s interesting what they come up with, because they don’t have preconceptions about a four-bar phrase, or biases about diatonicism. Give them a really crunchy chord and they might say ‘ooh I really like that’. If you want to write new music, they’re the best people to ask.’