An interview with Hexham community leader, Mike Coleman from Core Music

“Music changes lives.”

Mike Coleman

Core Music provides facilities for more than 200 people a week to learn a musical instrument, play music together, sing and celebrate music in all its forms and genres. 

Set up in 2008 as a Community Interest Company (CIC), Core Music’s mission was to make music accessible to all across the community of Hexham and the Tyne Valley through one to one lessons, a shop offering affordable instruments and introduce and run various projects such as the ‘Ucorlele’ workshop, where unemployed people gained the design and making skills required to create a Ukulele from reclaimed and recycled wood.

Through the hard work of Director, Mike Coleman, the centre offers a safe, friendly and non-judgemental environment where people of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy music. We spoke to Mike about his role as a community leader and social entrepreneur:

Mike Coleman in the Core Music shop
Mike Coleman in the Core Music shop

Your dedication has been celebrated by BBC Music Day in recent years, you were named as an Unsung Hero. What advice do you have for aspiring community leaders who want to make music more accessible to more people?

Recognise that anyone and everyone should be encouraged to have music in their lives because it changes lives. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how old you are or what type of music you like. Music should be for everyone. Be kind and honest and laugh a lot. Treat everyone as an individual and be yourself.

Performers at Core Music's 9 year celebration concert
Performers at Core Music’s 9 year celebration concert

How do you encourage participation at Core Music?

I think that is down to the philosophy we have in ensuring people that no-one is going to judge them about their lack of experience. We have so many examples of older people thinking that they would never be able to get involved with music. A lot of this seems to come from bad experiences at school. For instance, being singled out to sing in front of a class at a very early age, that kind of thing.

We also offer people the chance to interact with music by offering volunteering opportunities such as helping to organise events and concerts, or planning some music workshops. There are many ways for people to be involved and it doesn’t just have to be through playing an instrument or joining a group.

The team here really enjoys being involved, we laugh a lot and we treat people with kindness and respect. This helps create the right atmosphere.

Why do people sometimes feel excluded from learning or playing music?

Cost and affordability. There’s no doubt that music can be an expensive pursuit. Lessons are out of the reach of many families, particularly in these austere times. We need to find ways to subsidise and support learning and playing because music changes lives. It’s a way of expressing emotions. It improves communication skills and self-confidence. It makes people smile.

We also need to tackle things like gender stereotypes e.g. girls playing drums, boys playing flute. Geographical isolation in rural areas is also a factor, as is social class-based hang-ups “that’s not for people like me etc”.

Another factor is being intimidated by the environment – some places can feel daunting to go into. Music shops sometimes focus only on selling products and don’t really care about the individual. My experience growing up, was going to music shops and not feeling that I could try out instruments because I wasn’t good enough, being shown up by shop assistants and, in some cases, other customers.

Here at Core we all try to make sure that our customers are welcome to try out any instrument regardless of the price tag, their experience or their age.

How are you tackling the issues of cost and affordability?

We offer various ways to try and keep costs as low as possible including the Take it away scheme and our Instrument Amnesty project, which takes in donated instruments, refurbishes them and we then rent or sell them at affordable prices – knowing that we are providing a very playable instrument.

I think when people realise that we are a not for profit community organisation (and soon to be a registered charity) it gives them the confidence to get involved.


Core Music offers affordable instruments, tuition and room hire

We really believe in what we are doing here and I think people buy into the concept that when you spend money with us all the profit is used to improve our facilities and services. What we need is more investment and more places that are willing to adopt a social enterprise approach to business. Less greed and more sharing.

Do you think there is room for improvement in primary or secondary school music education?

Without a doubt. The focus in many schools now seems to be on those subjects that are seen to be more academic than music e.g. maths, science. It also seems that there is a focus on “will studying this subject lead onto a career where I can earn money”. This completely misses the point when it comes to music as it can enrich life in so many ways; Making friends and being part of a social group, self-esteem and confidence, enjoyment and fun! 

Why is it that so many schools seem to be joyless places now? Not all of them obviously, but there’s no doubt in my mind that there is increased pressure to pass exams and get good grades, inspections, budget cuts, behaviour issues, stressed out teachers, stressed out students.

The children we see here at Core Music for lessons all leave with a smile on their face and our waiting lists are growing by the day. I think we will regret hugely the lack of investment in music education not only in schools but in general.

How do you support young people in continuing to learn and play music?

Every young person who comes through our door is treated as an individual. We get to know them. We help them look after their instruments. We give advice and information. We develop new projects, workshops, sessions, holiday activities which encourage engagement and fun. We take them seriously. We listen to them. We offer opportunities to get involved as volunteers and through work experience and apprenticeships, and in several cases become teachers themselves.

To date, seven young people who started coming to Core when they were very young have gone on to teach here. Some have gone on to join bands who have been signed to labels and are winning awards. Every Christmas young people who have moved away from Hexham come back to be with their families and they all call in to see us here and let us know how they are doing.

And, for those that need it, we teach them how to make a good cup of tea! I’ve met parents who have told me of their delight when their son came home from a day with us on work experience and made them a cup of tea for the very first time and without being asked!

What changes have you seen in people who come to the centre?

Increased self-confidence and self-esteem. I notice that as people come and go at Core they become more able to engage in conversation. Particularly the shy ones! It’s great to be able to build up relationships with individual people and find out how they are doing in various parts of their life. We become confidants and mentors almost by accident!

I especially enjoy seeing students who are differently abled becoming more confident and really engaging with their lessons. We have a number of students who are autistic and have been coming to Core for several years now and in all these cases the parents have told us how much it has made a difference to their children’s lives.

These are the things that keep us going through all the challenges we face every day. There are the lightbulb moments as well when you see an almost physical change in people after a particularly good lesson where something has clicked and they have gone up a level. Finally nailing that drum pattern, or that chord sequence or realising that your fingers aren’t hurting anymore! It doesn’t matter how small the change is because for that person. In that moment, it marks a huge achievement. That’s what I love about this job.

About Core Music