Music Engagement Officer, Coventry Music
Drummer and spoken word artist Joe Cook thought he had to be a teacher to work with young people in music. But after struggling in school, he didn’t feel that was a route for him – despite coming out of formal education with a degree in Popular Music with Technology. That was, until an inspiring workshop started him on the path to freelancing with among others, MAC Makes Music. Now he has a permanent role at Coventry Music Hub leading their Positive Choices programme for ‘at risk’ young people.
How would you describe your musical background?
I’m a percussionist and drummer. I had private lessons from Year 6 onwards, and then through secondary school and beyond, but I didn’t get involved in other music activities in school. I took GCSE music, and although it wasn’t really relevant to my musical background, I did OK, and went on to do a BTech Level 3 in Popular Music in Practice at Birmingham Met.
I learned a lot of music from jamming with mates, making beats, and I started a band when I was 16, doing a mix of ska, reggae, punk and hip hop. We needed someone to write lyrics, so I gave it a go, and loved it. I come at it from a hip hop, lyrical rap angle – I’m not a singer songwriter.
After college, I went on to study Popular Music with Technology at Derby University. I wasn’t planning to, but getting a triple distinction made me think, I can do this.
How did you get into working with young people through music?
"MAC Makes Music invited me to attend a musical inclusion course run by Phil Mullen. That was the first time I thought, I’m a musician, I could do workshops with young people through music."
Through writing lyrics, I got into poetry and spoken word, and when I finished my degree I saw that MAC had a poetry workshop, run by someone from Beatfreeks. This introduced me to a scene I didn’t know existed, facilitating workshops with young people. The facilitator, Amerah Saleh took me under her wing as I said I’d be interested in doing work in schools.
I thought you had to be a teacher to work with young people, and that didn’t appeal as I’ve never been academically strong. As a child, I was diagnosed with a learning disability called Irlen Syndrome which causes visual sensitivity. Then at uni I found out I had dyslexia, dyscalcia and dyspraxia – but I just thought I wasn’t very bright.
So I started shadowing Amerah, doing spoken word workshops in schools, shadowed a few other facilitators, attended a ‘train the trainer’ course, and then gradually took on my own projects. At first, it was more poetry than music.
I realised I loved it, was good at it, and working with young people creatively was what I wanted to do. Growing up I never went to workshops so I never knew this was a possibility for me. I’d always had a sense of wanting to do something creative and that showed art as an empowering thing.
I became freelance, taking on other pieces of work around the area, including in PRUs and more recently (2021) for MAC Makes Music, working with young people from Solihull Youth Offending Service.
MAC invited me to attend a musical inclusion course run by Phil Mullen . That was the first time I thought, I could do workshops with young people through music. Until then, being a drummer, and not being a teacher, I didn’t think that was possible. But the course made me realise, this is about more than teaching an instrument, it’s about helping young people engage with music in whatever way’s right for them.
How did you come to be working for Coventry Music Hub?
Soon after uni, I volunteered at Birmingham Symphony Hall’s music industry programme, Project Sound Lounge. It was there I met Richard Shrewsbury, the Head of Learning and Community Outreach at Birmingham Conservatoire. I worked with him on some other projects, and then he asked me to be involved in some workshops for a Saturday morning creative music centre called SoundLab, a partnership with Coventry Music Hub.
Through that, Mark Steele from the Hub asked me if I’d work in PRUs for them. So I started working regularly in PRUs and it went down really well. That led to me being asked to apply for the role of project manager for Positive Choices, an after school programme targeting young people at risk of exclusion, or being involved in youth offending, gang exploitation or gang violence. I got the job, and initially worked one day a week which grew to two days. Along with other work it means I’m now employed full-time by the Hub as a Music Engagement Officer.
How have you picked up the skills for working with young people, particularly those who’ve found education challenging?
I struggled in school because of my learning difficulty. I acted the fool and could easily have been excluded – I wasn’t built for that way of teaching and it translated into anger at times because I was frustrated. I also have cousins who’ve been removed from education, so I understand these young people and the circumstances that have put them there. I knew I’d be able to relate on some level. That gave me confidence, combined with the shadowing and training I’d done before.
MAC provided training sessions that brought together everyone working in PRUs to share experiences and advice, and I really enjoyed that. They also put me in touch with Justice, a facilitator who does a lot of work in PRUs and youth justice, and we’ve had some conversations that have made me think differently about what I do. We had a conversation about Drill lyrics which gave me lots of ideas for how I could approach it differently.
What does inclusion mean to you and how does it inform your practice?
"When I work with whole classes, it is difficult making sure everyone’s included. So in those situations it’s just making sure I get round every single person. And being flexible."
It’s just about being learner- and young people-led. Making sure there’s some way for every person to be involved, how they want to and meeting them where they’re at. I’ve never worked any other way. I start by finding out what they’re into, then showing them all of what I can do and asking what might interest them. And if there’s something they want to do that I can’t do, I learn about it – ask colleagues and friends, other musicians and facilitators, young people themselves. I’m constantly thinking about what happened today, or in the last session, and how can I make that better, how can I make what they want, happen. I guess that’s reflective practice.
With lyric-writing, I usually start by suggesting we come up with a word bank, just asking them to give me some words about what they want to write about. I use similes a lot too: if you had to compare that feeling to something, what would it be? We’ve had some great lyrics coming from those young people.
When I work with whole classes, it is difficult making sure everyone’s included. So in those situations it’s just making sure I get round every single person. And being flexible: if I set a task and someone wants to do it differently, being open to that. Don’t want to write something down? I’ll write it down for you. Don’t feel confident to make music yet? We’ll find some samples. I try my best to make whatever we create, sound the way they want it to sound. I felt I couldn’t express myself when I was younger, so I care about their voices and their self-expression. I think they can see that I really care. I try to be that person I wish I’d had in school.
What would you say to other music service teams considering introducing inclusion training or recruiting a wider range of musicians to their workforce?
People have to understand that there is more to being a musician than being classically trained and studying music theory. Music education and art in general is becoming more of a privilege for upper/middle class people. A lot of young people only get music and arts opportunities at school – and schools are cutting both.
Also within the workforce, teachers who work for music services have told me they struggle at being creative, coming up with ideas, arrangements etc. They are really talented players, technicians of their instrument but that doesn’t necessarily mean you're going to be the most engaging of teachers.
I think music services need to take on a much stronger youth-focused approach to music making: even down to simple things like what genres they’re into and embracing more music technology. When people ask me what I do I say I work WITH young people because I work side-by-side with them to help them create stuff.
How would you sum up the difference MAC Makes Music has made on your pathway as a music facilitator?
I always thought that MAC, the music service, all those establishment places only took conservatoire musicians. I didn’t think I would have a place there. But Holly and Jen trusted in what I’m doing, and they’ve asked for my views and advice, which has been a massive confidence boost.
Joe Cook is a musician, lyricist, music producer and spoken word artist from Birmingham. He plays drums and percussion in various musical projects performing live at venues and festivals across the UK and Europe. His work has been shared on various BBC platforms such as BBC Arts, BBC 1XTRA, BBC Asian Network as well as performing on BBC Doctors. Joe is passionate about music and art to be used as a tool for social change and has worked alongside various charities and activist groups internationally to fundraise, raise awareness and campaign for social justice. Joe facilitates music and lyric writing workshops in schools, community centres and extended learning centres across the Midlands. Joe is strongly passionate about young people expressing themselves and being able to channel their thoughts, frustrations and passions through music and lyrical content.
This post is part of a set of case studies, ‘Working together to move the needle on inclusion in five West Midlands music education hubs’, produced by Anita Holford.
Check out other inclusions stories from Solihull Music Service and Severn Arts in Worcestershire
Coventry Music Hub is part of the MAC MEH Strategy Group – five hubs who meet monthly, to support and challenge each other to move the needle on inclusion in their organisations and partnerships. The group is facilitated by Holly Radford, who leads ‘MAC Makes Music’, part of Midlands Arts Centre. The work is backed by Youth Music, thanks to the National Lottery via Arts Council England.
Further Reading & Resources
Find out how you’re doing: download Youth Music EDI audit and planning templates
Find inclusion resources for and by music services on the Changing Tracks website
Find more inclusion resources on the Youth Music Inclusion Resource Hub
Please contact us if you would like to discuss how we can support your hub
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