Written by Jack Pepper - MFY Ambassador
This year’s Creative Project and the Proms #ThankYourMusicTeacher theme are inspired by a new musical, Duet, for which I’ve written the book, music and lyrics.
For years, Mike Jenkins worked as Head of Music at King’s College School, Wimbledon, a prestigious independent school for boys aged 7-18. Among his pupils over the years was Marcus Mumford; he was cast in the school production of Oliver!, and the band Mumford & Sons formed under Mike’s guiding hand, whilst still at school. Ivor Novello Award-nominated electronic music whizz Jon Hopkins also studied with Mike. His impact extends far beyond professional musicians, too; Mike ‘alumni’ also include BBC News Southern Europe Correspondent Mark Lowen, and one of the UK’s top vocal surgeons who specialises in vocal care for singers. The impact of a teacher ripples through generations, across decades, across genres and indeed across all aspects of professional work. It is not an overstatement to say that a good teacher can change your life.
Mike changed mine. He left his school job and relocated, teaching piano privately. Possibly hoping for a quieter life, what Mike didn’t realise was that one of Britain’s noisiest children – my own estimation, not officially ranked – lived a few doors away. My family and I would walk our labrador up and down the hill, and my mum would chat to Mike as he watered his beloved flowers. He heard that I was writing music and playing the piano, composing largely self-instructed. I attended the local state secondary school which gave me huge encouragement and moral support, but like most state schools it didn’t have extensive resources or experience to support a fledgling classical composer. This is where Mike stepped in. He kindly suggested I pop down the road and play him some of my compositions. This was the start of a five-year long ‘tuition’ course in piano, composition and general life philosophy – and a lifetime of friendship.
When I turned 18, Mike told me about his own past. I was shocked. He and his piano teacher wife Sarah had been unable to live together for nearly 30 years, having been torn apart at an early age. Both endure physical and mental scars. The thing that pulled them through – and eventually reunited them – was the piano. Behind their smiling faces and their love of life was deep trauma, but nursed by music. As soon as they had completed their story and left the Pepper house, I rushed to the piano and wrote the first song of what is now a whole musical, telling their life story: Duet.
Wind forward to 2023. I’ve just presented Music For Youth’s National Festival in Birmingham, and in a sleepless night I was thinking about the 6000 young musicians I’d helped introduce to the stage, and equally about the countless teachers, mentors and parents who loitered backstage, willing them on. Many in the audience raised their hands when I asked who had travelled more than six hours to get there that day. I thought of Mike, and how behind every name on stage is a name behind it. This was the genesis of the #ThankYourMusic Teacher Thank You Notes campaign.
Teachers are the unsung heroes of music. A good teacher remains a friend for life, and often teaches you as much about life as they do music or technical matters; Mike remains the first person I often call when I’m in some trouble or worry. On the flip side, a bad teacher can turn you off a subject for life and close your horizons. This campaign, then, is designed to celebrate the inspiring mentors who go above and beyond for our young people; when so many music education campaigns involve shouting at politicians or rattling a fundraising tin – rightly highlighting the dangerous state of music provision in many UK schools – I felt we needed a campaign based more on inspiration and aspiration. Highlight the goodwill and creativity that exists in abundance, make people feel amazing – the way only music and a MFY event can – and then ride the wave of positivity and awareness to make a change.
I became a man on a mission, speaking with individuals and companies I have worked with over the last few years. What is clear is that generosity and supportiveness are not exclusive to music teachers. From our newspaper print partners at The Times to our supporters from Music Mark to UK Music, from Scala Radio to funders and foundations like the GLF Schools Foundation and The Tasso Foundation: we are so grateful for their help in making today possible.
So, what are you hearing in this Creative Project? I have taken three songs from Duet – never heard in public before – and arranged them specifically for the MFY Proms. It’s the largest ensemble I’ve ever worked with: over 1300 musicians each night. The Creative Project is for the first time ever divided into two parts, opening the first half of the Proms and the second. Each half opens with a real piece of classical piano, as does my musical; these two pieces (Bach’s C Minor Prelude and Chopin’s E minor nocturne, op.72 no.1) both played a real-life role in Mike and Sarah’s story and in my own as a piano student. Our pianist has been selected by a nationwide call-out, spotlighting the piano stars of tomorrow.
This classical opening then morphs into a beefed-up arrangement, before turning to my own original music and melodies from the musical. Fragments of ‘Running’ dominate the first half, a song that our female lead sings when she decides to stand up against the forces that held her back. The instrumental part after the opening chorus hints at the verse melody, but I don’t give too much away… The second half features ‘Melody’ – an anthem to the power of music – alongside ‘One More Second Chance’, a song of reunion. Breaking up the medley will be narrated Thank You Notes, showcasing some of the finest testimonies we have gathered as part of the campaign over the last few weeks.
The Prom Finale will see all forces come together for a song I wrote in theatre workshops in March; ‘In Tune’ – the campaign anthem – celebrates how music helps us understand ourselves and others. It’s an extremely personal song for me, having myself found someone I truly love in the last year; this song is a tribute to them, and to my teacher.
Mike celebrates his 80th birthday next year, whilst Sarah has just turned 60. They embody the spirit and values of the finest music teachers around, and so I hope that today’s Prom and eventually my new musical will be a fitting tribute.
Duet is currently in development in association with the Southampton Mayflower / MAST Studios, Salford’s The Lowry and Norwich Theatre. There are plans for a full concert performance in 2024, so watch this space; for the latest updates, keep an eye on jackpeppermusician.com.