Five years young 13 April 2017
The fifth Music & Drama Education Expo took place in February. But what were the highlights, and where next? Chris Walters, head of content for the first event in 2013, reports and reflects on how the event has shaped the industry

On 9 and 10 February, the Music & Drama Education Expo celebrated its fifth birthday, filling London’s Olympia exhibition centre with a riot of sound and colour. For the many music and drama teaching professionals who’ve made it an annual fixture of their diaries, the Expo represents a chance to network, socialise, take stock of new products and services, and attend sessions – from interviews with education ministers to workshops on body percussion, theatre techniques, assessment and more. In this milestone anniversary year, what were the stand-out moments?

The Expo is in fact a complex weave of several different strands, among them a huge trade exhibition, a conference programme of over 80 sessions, less formal events like celebrity ‘fireside chats’ and teacher meet-ups, plus – if you’re lucky enough to get invited or nominated – the glittering Music Teacher Awards for Excellence dinner on the first evening. It’s an amazing feat of organisation, but what hits you first is the scale. On entering the main exhibition floor you are immediately confronted with an array of exhibition stands and a swirl of sounds emanating from grand pianos, electric guitars, child-friendly wind and brass instruments, cutting-edge music technology and perhaps a live act taking place on the central performance stage.

The Expo’s delegates also make up several different strands – classroom teachers, peris, instrumental tutors and sector leaders hoping to catch the latest gossip and perhaps a political announcement or two. In the latter vein, I came across the shadow schools minister, Mike Kane, being interviewed by MT editor Alex Stevens on the morning of the first day. Several years of working in music education have taught me that there’s never a time when policy and funding feel safe, but the sense from delegates this year was that the political climate is more challenging than ever. And while Kane’s comments revealed him to be a personable character and clearly a fan of music (he worked as a secondary teacher until 2008 and still rehearses with his band over FaceTime), he ultimately failed to say anything particularly inspiring beyond encouraging teachers to band together and fight for a better system.

POLITICAL HANDCARTS

Indeed, the conference sessions flourished when they steered clear of politics, but often failed to inspire when politics was the focus. For example, the schools minister, Nick Gibb, gave a polished but somewhat unconvincing account of the arts excellence he has supposedly witnessed in schools up and down the country. The delegates were having none of it, and chief among their rebuttals were allegations that the government’s EBacc performance measure has deprioritised the arts and led to some schools not offering GCSE music. Gibb retorted that the opposite was the case, and very quickly the session arrived at an unfortunate and surreal stalemate. While Gibb’s slickness did little to compensate for the obvious holes in his story, it was also disappointing to witness the negative atmosphere that some on the side of music education also had a role in creating. It left me wondering how debate can happen when two sides have little interest in hearing what the other has to say.

Following Gibb’s slot was a panel debate on upholding the place of creative subjects in schools – although in the event it was a gruelling session on how to fix everything that’s wrong with music education. The individual contributors were all excellent, but the political heaviness that permeated their comments, on themes ranging from appropriate terminology to CPD, left the audience deflated.

DUCKING AND DIVING

But such grumbles take nothing away from the overall dynamism of the 2017 Expo, which everyone seemed to agree was the best yet. Ducking the political sessions whenever I could, I managed to attend two sessions on new notation and sequencing software (Steinberg’s Dorico and Cubase), and another on accessible instruments for disabled musicians in Drake Music’s DM Lab. All three were inspiring and entertaining.

WHEELING AND DEALING

One phenomenon of the Expo is the informal fringe it has spawned. Colleagues from across music and drama education use it as an opportunity to meet up and make plans, and this year the cafes and pubs of Olympia were as full as ever with clusters of plotting practitioners. At the awards dinner, I witnessed this activity continue late into the night in the packed ballroom of the Park Lane Sheraton, which was populated by what must have been one of the largest social gatherings of arts educators in the UK ever. Dressed to impress in black tie and ballgowns, the guests partied hard and celebrated the achievements of various award winners, announced by Classic FM DJ Margherita Taylor. Most visibly delighted among the winners were double champions Bristol Music Hub, who mopped up an award for Best Print Resource in addition to the Music Education Council Major Award (shared with Portsmouth Music Hub); Kathryn Deane, winner of the Music Teacher Magazine Editor’s Award for her contribution to the field of community music; and Krystyna Budzynska, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for her outstanding commitment to string teaching.

WHAT NEXT?

After five successful years, which have seen the event embrace drama alongside music, and upscale from the Barbican Centre to a larger space at Olympia, the next step is the launch of a one day Expo at the Hilton Deansgate in Manchester on 4 October. Although delegates do visit the London Expo from around the country and even beyond, it feels right to acknowledge that there are other centres of activity beyond the capital. It will be interesting to see how many new people will be inspired to visit the Manchester Expo, and how many of the event’s existing constituency will support it in a new location.

Returning to my first question about the Expo’s stand-out moment, I must confess that, for me, the crowning achievement is the totality of the event itself. It’s hard to imagine that, until 2013, no single event existed that was able to bring together the different strata of music and drama education so convincingly – from manufacturers and retailers to teachers, managers, leaders, exam boards and universities. There’s scope for greater input from some of these groups, of course, but what has been achieved in just five years is little short of remarkable. I left the Expo feeling exhilarated, better connected and full of new ideas – not bad for a free ticket. Bravo to everyone involved.

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