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Interview with Sense of Sound

We chat to Jennifer John, artistic director and manager of one of our creative community groups – Sense of Sound.

How and when did Sense of Sound start?

We started in 1992, so its 21 years old this year. It started when I was working as a consultant; at the end of my time in the position they told me I could write a report on anything that I felt passionate about, and at the time, the creative landscape in Liverpool and particularly the music landscape was extremely different from how it is now. I chose to do my research and produce a report on the role of black women in music on Merseyside because I knew lots of amazing singers who were passionate about singing but didn’t know what to do with it – didn’t know they had options because none of them had been trained particularly, they were just naturally good at it. I had been trained, coming up from London and being lucky enough to go to a music academy while at school.

Some of the findings, some of the recommendations in that report said that there was a lack of training, and I thought - rather than be a document that sits on someone’s desk, I’ll create some training. So I started some workshops and they were really popular all of the women that had contributed to the report attended it. Then as the weeks went on it just got bigger and bigger: it had no beginning, middle or end. I felt it need to be structured.

I knew three amazing women who also worked within music: Saphena Aziz, Juliet Russell, and Perri Alleyne-Hughes, and we all got together. Simultaneously to that, we had got together anyway to do a concert – we did our first a cappella concert and it went really well so we felt- “Why don’t we continue?”
So all of those things together made us think maybe we should structure it and turn it into a business.

What did you set out to do?

We set out to make music; singing, as accessible to as many people as possible. In fact, first of all, it was to as many women as possible and we did that at a time when there was very little available for people who wanted to sing; sing collectively as a group – to meet up with others and feel they can learn to sing in a safe environment. Our by-line at the time was ‘art is for everyone, music is for everyone’ and I think that was our raison d’être and we have certainly achieved that.

How has Sense of Sound developed over the years?

In so many ways. Over the years, we have been able to formalise some of our courses into either 10 or 12 week blocks, we teach lots of individuals, we work within various sectors as a training organisation so the sectors are: corporate, education, health & wellbeing, the commercial music industry, and our thing is very much about enabling people to find their voice and therefore find their confidence. Also, we’ve managed to create choirs, create vocal ensembles that we feel represent the ethos of the company which is that we create and produce amazing ways to celebrate singing.

What services do you provide?

Sense of SoundWe do individual singing lessons. I suppose for corporate companies it would be about team-building and staff development, and that works in a number of ways. It can be about choir development, so it’s getting groups of people within the corporate sector who haven’t even thought about singing, far less thought about joining a choir, to maybe have a goal which is to learn performance skills, understand about the contribution that harmonising has on the experience as a whole and the role that then lead to a performance. It also develops their presentation skills and most importantly, it’s fun. Those are the kinds of things we provide – ice breakers, as well, for corporate companies.

But we also, within the music industry specifically, and actually within our singing lessons, I think we do ourselves a disservice to say that we just provide vocal one-to-ones, actually everything we do is about artistic development, so an hour’s singing lesson isn’t just about developing your vocal technique, it’s about how you present yourself and think about yourself as an artist- and showing yourself in the best possible light. So our thing is always been very much about the people that are standing in front of us and how we can bring out the best in them.

What impact do these services have on its participants?

I think the most rewarding and biggest indicator is people becoming more confident, whether that be someone who comes along to sing for fun and they’ve never dreamt of opening their mouths in a room full of other people, right through to people who go on to be successful artists in their own right, fearlessly, without doubting that they can go as far as they want to go and be themselves.

Have you helped develop any famous musicians or singers?

We’ve been there when people are at the peak of their careers, but at the moment we’ve got a couple of artists who are just about to break. For example, Jetta (who wouldn’t mind us saying) is just about to launch in America, she’s from Liverpool and she’s about to move to LA actually and launch her own career. She very much came through our artist development programme, similarly, Esco Williams who is more kind of British based R’n’B, came partly through our choir and through our training programme. Singer song/writer, Hannah Peel who recently won a 2013 Royal Television Society award for best original title music for her song.

We’ve got lots of people who are like that, some who work behind-the-scenes, some who have also gone on to teach. Whether it be themselves in front of a camera, or whether it be that they’re behind-the-scenes developing themselves as producers or writers. I think we’ve been really instrumental in getting people exactly to where they aspire to be.

Currently I am vocal coach to the Valentine Brothers, Tyler Mensah and Millie Courtney which is all very exciting as I have total faith they will continue to grow as artists and have long successful careers as great singers and songwriters.

You were featured recently on BBC 2’s ‘The Choir: Sing While You Work’ as well as other programmes in the past.What was it like to be singing on national television?

We’ve performed a lot on national television, in two capacities: one as performers, and the other as trainers. This is the second time we’ve worked with Gareth Malone: Boys Don’t Sing was the first series. It’s great working on national television because obviously it gets us to a larger audience; to look at the way we work. When we first worked with Gareth, it was because he is fantastic at what he does but what he couldn’t do is reach the inner-city boys in the school who just didn’t feel like they could relate to the classical nature of the choir that he was taking to the Royal Festival Hall. And so he got us in because of the work that we do – I think because the work we do is – some of us are trained classically, and some of us are not, but with all of our skills together.

The thing that we have in common is we understand about people’s fears, their reservations, their aspirations, and all of the things that are required to be as kind of “blue-sky thinking” as it requires you to be successful. Somehow we are able to translate that to young people, so again, working on this current series it was a different approach, but it was working with the Cheshire fire service who were amazing- because, obviously, they spend their lives saving lives, so to have some time out just for themselves and actually realise they could be amazing was a real challenge – really rewarding.

Has your experience changed the group in some way?

There was a series a few years back called Last Choir Standing and the choir did well. We came sixth in the live shows. It was great for us; it brought us a lot of attention and it opened the doors, gave us a lot of opportunities for higher profile performances and more collaborations, so it was good in that sense. It also made us realise how hard we have to work to stay up there – you have a self-life of time when you have something that high-profile to let as many people know about it and to kind of look for opportunities to ensure that you can carry on doing it, so I think the thing that we learnt is that we really need to be on-the-ball, as on-the-ball as possible in terms of marketing around any kind of high-profile events that we do, and also to think ahead a lot more about thinking about what the opportunities are and where you currently are to lead to the next place you wish to go.

What large corporations have you worked with in the past?

We are a regular supplier for the BBC, so if ever there are backing vocals or some training like Gareth Malone – they often come to us. We put quite a few people forward for The Voice and, in fact, provided them with some of the vocal coaching that goes on behind the scenes.

Where do you hope to see Sense of Sound in the next few years?

As a music company and as a creative company- all the people that run and manage the organisation, we’re all singer-songwriters, and first and foremost, we are creatives. What we want to do is develop our production based performances, so we look at doing really kind of challenging work whether it just be challenging in terms of its scale, challenging in terms of the issues we want to talk about, because at the heart of most of what we do we have diversity and excellence. So we want to always be promoting that ethos, which means the diversity aspect probably speaks for itself but it’s also about accessibility, not being so far-removed that people don’t feel like they can’t approach us, and excellence in terms of the quality of the work that we produce.

 

Want to know more about Sense of Sound? Visit their website.

 


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