The MOBO Award-winning saxophonist, broadcaster – and Bancroft’s alumnus – YolanDa Brown talks about her work to get young people making music

Where did you go to school and what inspired you to start making music?

I went to Bancroft’s School in Woodford Green. I loved the school and there were lots of extra-curricular activities to get your teeth into. From an early age, my interest in learning an instrument was supported by my parents and at school. I had piano lessons privately and at school I learnt the drums and then, from 13, the saxophone. I loved that I could apply my music making outside of one-to-one lessons into groups like the wind band and concert band. I was also in a saxophone quartet with three of my close friends – we were called the Sax Pack!

Who/what were your key music influences and why the saxophone?

I think my primary influence was the wide variety I heard growing up. My Dad has an amazing record collection and I was hearing an eclectic range of music – from soul to classical, rock-and-roll to Latin jazz, opera through to reggae. I couldn’t wait to start making my own music. The saxophone was my first wind instrument and I instantly loved the connection I had with it. Using my breath to create sound was a new experience. Every other instrument I had learnt I was playing on – the saxophone was my voice.

You moved into music after a First-Class degree, PhD and a potentially star career in management science. So, what gave you the courage to swap paths?

I don’t think I ever saw either path as more perilous. I remember not knowing what I wanted to study at university and a family friend asked me what my favourite subjects were. I loved Business, Maths and Spanish, so that’s what let me to study Management Science, which included a year in Oviedo, Spain as part of the Erasmus project. I did take my saxophone to university and to Spain and music was always a great way to meet people, join jam sessions and just enjoy the instrument. I joined a band in the summer before my PhD and it all grew organically from there. Four years later, while teaching undergraduates and reading for my PhD at the University of Kent, I realised that I was spending more time working in music than on campus. I had to make the difficult decision. An encouraging sign was that a couple of months after making the decision, I was awarded an honorary doctorate for my contribution to music by the University of East London. That was a moment of confirmation for me that I had made the right choice.

Music champion | YolanDa Brown in conversation
YolanDa Brown moved into professional music after a spell in management science

With two MOBOs, TV appearances and a phenomenal range of collaborations, what inspired you to reach out to very young audiences?

I have always been passionate about music education and offering young musicians and young people the opportunity to learn in a way that resonates with them. On tour I always make sure I hold workshops in local schools (across all ages) and in music schools based on improvisation and exploring the students’ interests and building around their learning. I am thrilled that my journey has allowed me to build on that year on year.

Could you explain more about your philanthropy work and role with Youth Music, BBC Teach and The Prince’s Trust?

I think it is very important to give back. I love working with the variety of charities in the different roles that I have, both as an ambassador and patron. It has been a joy to be the Chair of Youth Music (the largest music education charity in the UK) and helping young people have access to music-making opportunities. I also launched my charity with businessman and philanthropist James Drake. Called the Drake YolanDa Award, it provides funding for independent and emerging artists for their music careers. 

“When our everyday life is disrupted, music becomes an important escape. It is a way to communicate and connect”

Your hit CBeebies show YolanDa’s Band Jam has inspired a new album. Tell us more about the show and the album.

Hearing how children around the country are dancing and playing along with their toy instruments and learning about different aspects of music is so heart-warming. We have a great time in the studio when filming, I’m so glad this comes through on screen. I have also loved hearing from teachers, who have said they use the show as a resource for music lessons. The album features some of the favourite songs from series 1 and 2, so families can listen whenever they want to. The music gets you up and moving and introduces some music terms. We have built a music lesson resource for schools around the songs, developed in collaboration with Super and Sony Magic Star for young music makers to get involved.

Has Lockdown altered perceptions about the value of music and sharing music in childhood?

Music is very important to our health and well-being. When our everyday life is disrupted and there are lots of changes plus emotions to deal with, music becomes an important escape. It is a way to communicate and connect, change moods and add inspiration. Also, the use of technology to link virtual choirs and stream performances, has been a great way to stay engaged with music. In childhood, the opportunity to be expressive in your own way is so important and that freedom in music should be encouraged.

What is your roadmap for improving music teaching and music making opportunities for young people?

I feel the pull to be a part of bringing more music-making opportunities into schools, also enabling young people finding their own voice in music. I am really excited about my ‘Join the Jam’ resource, which provides readymade lesson plans that teachers can bring straight into the classroom. I am also passionate about the music industry providing opportunities for young people to get involved in the industry – from production to live events and the commercial elements of releasing music – to help and support a smoother transition into careers, or simply to gain knowledge.

C Yolanda Da Brown A Copy
YolanDa Brown says it’s vital we enable young people to play and enjoy music

YolanDa’s Band Jam, the album, is out now via Magic Star.

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