May 2019

Finding my Purpose through Music

Bobbie-Jane Gardner, Birmingham, UK

This is part of the Young Women's Stories—Fostering Leadership project.

  • Gender equality & women's empowerment

I was born and raised in Birmingham, to an Afro-Caribbean, modest, working-class family. My parents worked exceptionally hard to support me and my four sisters. I started playing piano at 10 years of age and then went to an all-girls Catholic secondary school where I faced bullying. I was a bit of geek but because of my musical talents I was able to avoid bullying by hanging out in the school music room and earnestly taking part in musical activities outside of lessons. As my skills improved I was able to get into esteemed youth choruses and orchestras which followed a different etiquette — something that’s subtle in the UK, and it was a dramatic learning curve for me.

My dream was to become a pianist and composer. Throughout my childhood, my parents were supportive of my musical education (although they didn’t want me to pursue music as a career, knowing the instability of the industry) and my pen pal, who was a professional composer, encouraged me as well. However, even after completing my university degree, I still felt like a complete outsider within the classical music scene. I was the only black person on the course and didn’t feel I could be my true self. On top of that, I also doubted my capabilities as a musician.

After university, I returned home where I found myself dissatisfied working in various administrative jobs. So, I decided to go on an adventure. One year later, I was living and teaching English in Japan. This experience ignited a passion in me for education. I loved my students, but unfortunately, I just wasn’t as enamored with English grammar.

On my return to the UK, a good friend encouraged me to explore participatory arts practice as a serious career move, fusing my love of music and education. The first few years went quite well, and I was assigned a good amount of music workshops to deliver. Eventually, I moved to London for a training course and to create professional connections, but when the recession hit, work opportunities started to dry up. I signed onto state benefits for the first time, and I felt trapped in a cycle of applying for jobs I didn’t get. I started to become quite depressed, developed severe panic attacks, and had a dramatic falling out with my best friend. Not long after, I returned to my parents’ home to live in their spare room, and, quite frankly, I felt like an absolute loser.

At this low point in my life, my Buddhist practice helped give me the confidence to start sowing hope-filled seeds. I felt a strong inner voice encouraging me to pursue a Master’s in music composition. In 2012, I started a part-time course with the aim of refining my compositional skills and building a professional network. I absolutely loved studying at the post-graduate level and strived as hard as I could while working full time.

While living in London, I had noticed it was made up of 32 boroughs, and I wondered how my hometown compared. I learned that Birmingham consists of 10 constituencies, each containing 4 wards, totaling 40 wards. Then, an epiphany hit me — I could create an interesting composition project where I’d write 10 pieces of music, each consisting of 4 movements. This seemed like a great way to use my musical skills to contribute to my local community, initially a solo venture (a vanity project, if you like). But later, I developed the idea of creating music collaboratively with 40 Birmingham communities representing each ward and a team of composers to co-write music.

I devised a smaller, pilot version of the project named “for-Wards” to see if I could do it. Arts organizations initially turned down my request for support, so I started developing the idea alone. This went well, and it opened up many doors for me; some of the arts organizations that had initially turned me down became interested in creating the fully realized “for-Wards: Citywide” version. I submitted a larger funding application that was successful the first time around. I learned lots of tough and valuable lessons, such as how to manage a core team of producers, outreach coordinators, 10 composers, 8 artistic partners, and 40 community groups.

The for-Wards: Citywide music project was successfully completed in July 2018. We received coverage from various broadcasters. In one story, BBC Midlands Today reported that our project helped a young lad who had recently moved to Birmingham and was struggling with confidence. Through the project, he discovered his talent for music, and he now regularly composes and is taking keyboard lessons.

This project also inspired my PhD, which I started in 2016. Now in my final year, I have successfully completed a 60s RnB inspired project working with an online community who are vinyl enthusiasts. As a result, I was able to complete research in Los Angeles. I met and learned from a legendary musician and composer who now wants to devise a project together. I’m still in awe and shocked by this result!

Also, due to the project’s success, I’ve received significant work offers —some that I’ve unfortunately had to turn down. One offer, which I accepted, invited me to support a large-scale public artwork involving 1,092 voices from across Birmingham as a lead artist and curatorial consultant. The community-based project is part of a Turner Prize-award-winning artist’s public artwork and will be displayed outside a new high-speed train station as an aural clock.

At this point, I have a clearer vision for my next career step, but I’m still absolutely petrified about my future. Deep in my heart, though, I know I want to work in musical higher education. Even though I still feel like an imposter, I have realized that in order for the classical music scene to change and be a more inclusive place than it was for me, I need to remain there to show others from diverse and working-class backgrounds that it is a space where they can flourish, too. The field of classical music may be facing a lot of challenges, but I can see its potential and feel compelled to be part of a positive change for future generations.