Music Generation: why music education in Ireland has The Edge

Music Generation Tuned In at The Model, Sligo. Photo © Brian Farrell

As music services and hubs across the UK struggle to provide tuition on ever-squeezed budgets, a flourishing Irish initiative backed by U2 is kicking down the financial and social barriers to prove music-making is in fine tune. By Karen Stretch.

Think Ireland, think music. The jaunty melody of the penny whistle and fiddle and the beat of the bodhrán in a spontaneous, craic-infused gig. But like UK music services and hubs, the Irish provision faced an uncertain future in the aftermath of the economic crash of 2008. Not only traditional sounds but every kind of music-making was threatened with recent pilot projects from Ireland’s music touring and development agency, Music Network, focussing on Donegal and Dublin halted in their tracks.

Enter stage left globally successful rock band, U2, and philanthropic network, The Ireland Funds, with a joint donation of 7m Euros and the ambition to do something about access to music education for children and young people in Ireland.

‘When they were looking at options, Music Network’s national strategy was the one that overwhelmingly appealed to them and which they committed to,’ explains Rosaleen Molloy, National Director of Music Generation, the organisation established in 2010 to continue rolling out the programme and developing the model built on public-philanthropic partnership.

‘This enabled the creation of opportunities in performance music education for thousands of young people in Ireland.’

In fact, the model was developed in a further 12 areas of the country, providing music tuition for 38,000 children and young people annually. This happened in just five years – an ambitious target achieved 18 months ahead of schedule – with five more partnerships in new locations announced in January.

While such achievement and impact is impressive, it’s hard not to wonder what happens when the funds run dry. What hope for countries without a Bono or Adam Clayton prepared to dig into their pockets or donate the proceeds of concerts to the charity coffers as they did with their iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Irish concerts in 2015?

‘One of the goals of philanthropy is for long-term, lasting outcomes to be achieved,’ says Molloy. ‘So this principle of sustainability has always been at the core of Music Generation as it evolved. Currently, U2 and The Ireland Funds’ seed funding is strategically leveraging long-term investment from the Irish Government through the Department of Education and Skills and Local Music Education Partnerships – similar to the Music Hub model in England – ensuring that there will continue to be a future for Music Generation beyond the term of the philanthropic gift and that it will be more than just another short-term project that was only as good as the money lasted.’

There’s no doubting that the model of public-philanthropic partnership that Music Generation is built upon has proven to be a remarkable success, achieving sustainable outcomes on all fronts, most importantly for children and young people.

Music Generation Cork City and Carlow trad orchestra weekend at University College Cork (UCC). Photo © Clare Keogh
Music Generation Cork City and Carlow trad orchestra weekend at University College Cork (UCC). Photo © Clare Keogh

‘The goals of philanthropy are all about bringing about real and meaningful change,’ adds Molloy. ‘Philanthropic giving is from the head and the heart; it tackles the cause of a problem rather than simply easing the symptoms; it provides financial capital to organisations with a vision and a strategic plan; and it focusses on long-term results.’

The 50/50 funding model operated by Music Generation ensures philanthropic investment leveraging matched funding investment from Government and Local Music Education Partnerships. As well as addressing the future sustainability of funding, this promotes local ownership and roots the programmes within local structures and communities. It also means that the initial philanthropic donations are generating ongoing return on investment.

The phenomenal success of this business model has been turning heads further afield too. At last year’s ISME (International Society for Music Education) conference in Glasgow, Music Generation presented the findings from a partnership with Dublin City University’s St Patrick’s College that looks at how the programme is enabling positive and meaningful outcomes for children and young people through music.

Real interest was generated with international delegates who learned how the model of public-philanthropic partnership has allowed Music Generation to develop an entirely new way of thinking about performance music education while offering a framework for future development.

‘In theory, that framework – the vision and thinking behind Music Generation – could be adapted to other contexts,’ says Molloy, ‘though in doing so, it would be important to recognise the central importance of diversity and local ownership.

‘Music Generation has diversity at its core and our many partners interact in multiple different ways at every level of the programme. This diversity – within the structure of the organisation, its processes, music practices and among its participants – is the hallmark of the programme’s success.’

Young Musicians from Music Generation Laois perform at the Post Primary Music Teachers Association Conference
Young musicians from Music Generation Laois perform at the Post Primary Music Teachers Association Conference

That success is evident in the mind-boggling mix of concerts, events, settings and communities that feature on the Music Generation website as a snapshot of the life-changing work that is going on day by day.

‘More than anything, I am incredibly proud of the extraordinary things that Music Generation is achieving for children and young people every day – enabling access and opportunity,’ beams Molloy. ‘We are providing a platform to share skills, practice, passion and experience with families and communities; and bringing together musicians of all ages for transformative musical encounters in countless settings and contexts.

‘It’s difficult to pinpoint any one project as the work crosses such diverse contexts – be it rock, pop, traditional Irish Music, classical, jazz or hip-hop; focussing both on individual music-making and all manner of vocal and instrumental ensembles; catering to children from Early Years right up to age 18.

‘We work in educational, community and arts settings, within healthcare and probation services, at festivals, events and venues. That breadth of reach and the transformative power of music education that we witness in the work, voices and music of the young musicians inspire us every day.’

Pushed to pick out highlights of this epic journey, Molloy mentions some recent successes that are truly astounding in their scope.

On Easter Sunday 2016, more than 300 members of Music Generation choirs joined an ensemble of 1,000 voices to perform live together with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising in Ireland and the world premiere of a new piece by composer, Shaun Davey, One Hundred Years a Nation.

Last April, a choir of seven young musicians travelled to the Sistine Chapel in Rome to perform with U2’s The Edge at a special acoustic concert. In May, three young traditional Irish musicians from County Laois were introduced by Adam Clayton as they performed for guests at The American Ireland Fund’s Annual Gala Dinner in New York.

And in July, a trad orchestra of 25 players was invited to perform at the Worldwide Ireland Funds Conference in Trinity College, Dublin, for guests including former Vice President, Joe Biden, and Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny.

‘These are momentous occasions for the young musicians involved and we are tremendously grateful to our donors, funders and partners for enabling those life-changing opportunities,’ she adds.

Young ukulele players from Music Generation Wicklow. Photo © Barbara Flynn
Young ukulele players from Music Generation Wicklow. Photo © Barbara Flynn

It’s hard to imagine how occasions like these can ever be surpassed but there is little doubt there are great things ahead on the Music Generation journey. Its recently published strategic plan outlines goals up to 2021 focussing on core ambitions of Growth, Sustainability and Quality. The organisation’s first phase of work and infrastructure will be consolidated as new experiences and opportunities are created for the musicians of the future.

Already, economic benefits are being seen. There have been 330 jobs created as musicians deliver tuition with investment in learning opportunities for the range of partners involved in the programme, including on-going professional training and development initiatives.

Instrument-makers and providers are also receiving custom from participants, schools and partner organisations involved with projects locally. Regional community, cultural and arts venues are being animated as workshop and performance spaces for Music Generation programmes and events and independent service providers are contracted to support local initiatives, including press and marketing teams, printers and designers, photographers and videographers, project managers and catering companies, among many others.

It’s abundantly clear that the reach of Music Generation goes way beyond that of enabling children and young people to perform. A country once resigned to a patchy music performance provision based on limited resources and a geographical lottery is now reaping the rewards of sustained and focussed investment teamed with smart forward-thinking and partnership.

Not only musical life has been enhanced but also the social and cultural identity of many of the local communities and rural areas in which it is established.

‘Our programmes encourage social inclusion and improve the quality of life for those who access it, either directly or indirectly,’ concludes Molloy. ‘This all generates increased inward investment for Ireland as people want to live and work in a country where quality of life is enhanced.’

Think Ireland, think music. The beat of this Music Generation most definitely goes on.

Header photo: Music Generation Tuned In at The Model, Sligo. Photo © Brian Farrell

About the author

After cutting her teeth on the arts pages of the Burton Mail and the Yorkshire Evening Post, Karen Stretch headed up the launch team for Metro Yorkshire’s arts section before joining its head office in London.

Now a freelance writer and mum of two, she is also a Primary music teacher and a keen explorer of the arts scene in her new home near Bristol.



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