It is often assumed that to get your foot in the door of the music industry, you have to be a Londoner or at least live in a city. But there’s a northern town – the little sister of Blackburn – with its own kind of ‘Brit School’ opening up the world stage to local aspiring musicians.
Paul Stuart Davies and Mark Bateson who run the Darwen School of Music have successfully twinned with The Marc Bolan School of music in Sierra Leone, which was set up by Gloria Jones: northern soul legend and mother to co-founder Rolan Bolan, the T-Rex front man’s son. “Outside of teaching I am a northern soul artist,” Paul explains when I ask him how they managed to secure such a prestigious connection.
“I perform at a lot of Butlins’ northern soul weekends and this year the headline artist was Gloria Jones. We were chatting in the dressing room and I said to Gloria ‘I’ve been reading that you run a music school’, ‘I run a music school as well,’ and she said, ‘We should link them’.”
Established in 2003, the Darwen School favours performance and professional skills over classical music education: “It’s not just about learning how to play your instrument or how to sing, it’s about doing performances and recordings, giving a realistic idea of what it’s like to be a musician. There’s a social aspect to it as well – even though they get the privacy of the one-on-one attention in their lesson, they also get to work together when it comes to band rehearsals and shows.” We’re not just talking about recitals in front of friends and family – students at the school entertained hundreds of Darwen residents at this year’s Christmas lights switch on, sharing the stage with celebrities including Blue’s Simon Webbe and Father Christmas! Some of the school’s students even go on to become celebrities themselves: “The biggest success we’ve had in terms of students is a lad who used to come for singing and drums. He went on XFactor and ended up joining a band that came fifth. He now tours the world with The Vamps.” After his XFactor experience with Stereo Kicks, former student Reece Bibby signed to Virgin EMI subsidiary Steady Records with Pop-Rock trio New Hope Club and now plays stadiums on an international level.
For the school, the New Year brings one of its most exciting celebrity connections to date. Paul plans to get the stone rolling with the Marc Bolan School when he flies out at the end of the month. However, despite the celebrity support, the music school doesn’t have quite the same access to industry standard equipment andexperiences: “They only run their music school at the weekends at the moment. It’s been going since 2011 but they didn’t have an actual premises for it because they’ve hardly got any money over there – it’s actually run as a charity. They have got an architects plan drawn out of the school that they want to build, but at the moment they are using some other premises which is only just okay for what they need to do. We’re very lucky over here – it makes you realise that even though they are linked to Mark Bolan and Gloria Jones, it’s actually us that have got the equipment that we need to record our students and put them on iTunes. They have very minimal equipment.”
Operating in one of the countries most affected by the 2013-2016 West African Ebola Virus outbreak, the Marc Bolan School of Music offers musical education and all the transferable skills that come with it, to children living with material depravity: “So the idea is to go over there and offer them some free workshops and hopefully take over recording that we’ve done with our students. I can take some recording equipment and add their voices on. The idea is to sell the single back in the UK to raise money to send back over there to help them. We very much like the idea to also put on a benefit concert that our students will perform in and hopefully Gloria will come over and be part of it.”
For the Darwen School, the twinned status will be invaluable: “I think with a lot of our students, especially the younger students who won’t know who T-Rex are, it will be like an education for them. I’m telling the students at the moment about our news, and a lot of them are saying – who? Then you tell some of the adult students who come, and they are like – wow I bought those records back in the 70s! Just being able to mention themselves in the same sentence as someone like Marc Bolan is quite a cool thing.” For the school’s owners, the opportunity is especially meaningful: “The soul music connection to Gloria Jones is great on a personal level, and then my business partner Mark – he teaches a lot of rock guitarists, and it’s great for them to have that link with T. Rex. Also, Marc Bolan link aside, I think for myself personally the idea of going over to Sierra Leone and being able to teach a workshop over there is a bit of a bucket list thing. I think it will be very rewarding and it will be something I’ll never forget.”
We’re very lucky, we have everything we need over here: recording facilities and all the equipment we need to deliver really high quality lessons, and over there they don’t have any of that. So hopefully that’s where we’ll come in.”