A reflection on the inspirational rule-breakers, unexpected challenges and creative teachers that have shaped the career of Judith Webster, CEO of Music for Youth.
As a young person I wasn’t very good at breaking the rules. Anice, my inspirational music teacher, got me improvising for the first time, listening to all kinds of contemporary music from her endless vinyl collection, and invited me to her house on Saturday evenings to play string quartets with her friends - all at least 25 years my senior - as an equal, and an adult. Her creativity, her healthy disregard for the rule book and her ability to be radical within conventional boundaries were where my real education began. This taught me to always have a go, be creative, take risks. What’s the worst that can happen?
From school days, I was determined to play the violin in an orchestra for a living. At 20, I had an accident which crushed my left hand and everything changed. Being single-minded is great, but you can’t control what happens in life. My accident was the single biggest influence on my future career. It taught me not to take anything for granted or to make assumptions about my future. I was forced to redefine myself as a musician and trained as a music therapist.
People often asked me if I got sad or frustrated working as a music therapist, because of what the children couldn’t and may never do. The reverse was true. As a music therapist, you are understanding the young person in terms of what they can do, celebrating what is possible, and building on that. My greatest joy was the satisfaction of connecting on a deeply personal level with someone whose disabilities initially made them harder to reach. The power of music to connect people remains a strong driver for me. At Music for Youth, connecting people through music is at the heart of our work. At our annual National Festival, 10,000 young people come together with a shared interest, and opportunities to interact, support each other and celebrate their love of music making.
Phyllis was known as a wartime concert pianist of international stature. I knew her as a warm, generous teacher with an extremely creative approach to learning. I wanted to get a diploma to prove something to myself following my accident and Phyllis took me on as a private piano pupil. With my damaged left hand, perhaps she was drawn to the challenge. She never once accepted my injury as a barrier to my progression. I had to play pieces from memory while having a conversation with her about something we were watching on the TV – all at the same time. It was her capacity to tackle challenges from many different perspectives, continually refreshing her approach and never accepting defeat, which were so valuable to me as I initiated change in organisations I subsequently worked for.
I first knew Peter when he was Head of Research at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and I was setting up the Community and Education Department at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Peter became my lifelong mentor. I would go to him for advice, hoping for guidance and even solutions. But not once did he give me any answers! Instead, he asked probing questions and helped me to find my own way, to develop my own leadership style and sense of purpose. Peter described his work as having ‘creative conversations’. At Music for Youth, I am continually asking questions as a way of developing our offer to young musicians, checking whether our ideas are based on evidence of need or on our own enthusiasms and unconscious bias. In today’s technological world, we are reinventing our events to reflect today’s musicians. Knowing what’s relevant to them is crucial.
People who are different from me
I love being with people who don’t look like me, think like me, have the same cultural reference points as me. At Music for Youth, we facilitate collaborations between contrasting groups of young performers from different backgrounds. In our 2018 Music for Youth Proms, Kingdom, a group of rappers from a Croydon comprehensive, collaborated with the Penzance Youth String Orchestra, performing one of Kingdom’s tracks together. They stole the show! But the best bit…? The young people spent two days together in Croydon, sharing their performances and experiences. Thanks to inspirational teachers from both groups, young people could come together for a truly cross-cultural collaboration and each go away with greater insight about other people’s lives.
Judith Webster is CEO of Music for Youth. She will be leading a session at the upcoming ABO Conference in Belfast on Thursday 24 January on how youth orchestras can cross boundaries and be better connected with each other and with professional orchestras.