THE WORD Working to keep playing – vital support our musicians need

A musician’s career is precarious and its stresses can have a devastating effect on their health and well-being. The charity Help Musicians UK is 100 in 2021 and has increased its impact by 600% in three years. Its chairman, Graham Sheffield, director arts for the British Council, sets out its mission and centenary target

I have been in and around music almost since I could walk: my first memory is of my mother playing Mendelssohn’s F sharp minor Venetian Gondola Song Without Words on an old upright piano in our flat in Little Venice to encourage me to do my own practice for a rather stern teacher at Arnold House school, who used to place a short ruler on the top of my left wrist to ensure correct positioning. 

Main image shows SKJØR, who the charity has supported, playing at the Help Musicians Scotland launch event at King Tuts Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow

Music A-Level at Tonbridge, plus regular piano, organ and timpani studies, led me to read music at Edinburgh University where opera became a passion (it still is), as I became closely associated with the university’s Opera Club.  Thence to BBC Radio 3 as a producer, Southbank Centre and the Barbican, always making music programmes, always planning concert series, always meeting artists and going to hundreds of concerts, many at the Proms in the late 60s and 70s as a fully paid-up Promenader.  Music is in my bloodstream, and I rarely get through a day without a substantial dose of it!.


Graham Sheffield, left, with Help Musicians' Northern Ireland  development manager Keith Miller at the Belfast office

I felt very honoured when Help Musicians UK (at that point the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund) asked me to become the charity’s new chair in 2014.  The music charities which the Promenaders support include Help Musicians UK, which has now become Britain’s leading independent music charity, by virtue of the scale and breadth of its programme across its creative and health and welfare programmes.

Since 1921, and borne out of the ideals of its first president Sir Edward Elgar, Help Musicians UK is proud to support professional musicians at all stages of their lives and careers.  This was an opportunity, I thought, to put something back into the profession with which I had been associated professionally and emotionally for so long, observing the vicissitudes and uncertainties of musicians’ careers, the stresses and the often challenging life-styles, as well as the inspiration of the music-making.

I have been fortunate to oversee the charity’s tremendous growth, not only its transformed “look”, rebranded from The Musicians Benevolent Fund, but in its vision, values and scope.  We believe we are now a proactive and modern charity with substantially enhanced support and offer to all those working within the music industry, in whatever musical genre.

In 2015 we welcomed a new CEO, Richard Robinson.  In 2016 we introduced an ambitious five-year strategy designed to lead up to our centenary, Agenda 2021, which outlines how we can extend our reach and support to musicians across the UK; and in 2017 we launched the most comprehensive mental health service the industry has ever seen – Music Minds Matter.

Agenda 2021, the charity’s ambitious five-year strategy adopts a vision, mission and values approach: A world where music thrives; HMUK provides help, support and opportunities to empower musicians at all stages of their lives.  We have set out priorities and goals linked to achieving each of our priorities, powering the charity towards its centenary year.

The golden thread of Help Musicians UK was, and remains, the “life support” it provides to musicians and those working in the industry when they need it the most.  Our impact has increased by almost 600% in the last three years, and our work has expanded significantly.  In 2017, the charity helped over 5,400 individual musicians – covering a wide range of genres, ages and professional roles. Whether it be support back into work after an injury or illness, a grant to receive professional development, or access to subsidised hearing protection. This support represents an uplift in grant giving by £1,143,00 since 2015 to £3,474,000.

We are determined to give musicians and those around them help to identify a route to find safe and qualified clinical or therapeutic support, as well as the most comprehensive mental health support line and service for the British music industry.  To that end Music Minds Matter launched in December 2017. 

In 2016 our health and welfare team recorded a 22% increase in requests for help from musicians; and the results from our commissioned research ‘Can Music Make You Sick?’  (the largest study focused on mental health in the music industry, with 2,211 respondents) suggested that those working in music can be up to three times more likely to suffer from depression compared to the general public. Response to this service has been overwhelmingly positive, not only from the industry but from the press too—it’s the charity’s most successful campaign to date.

In 2017, 256 grants and awards were offered to musicians and organisations by the charity’s Creative Programme, spending almost £1.2 million through five strands of activity, doubling its investment year on year.  This represents a radical transformation from a reactive grant-giving programme to a pro-active change making programme to reach even more emerging artists from diverse backgrounds, geographies, genres, and career stages.

With almost a hundred years of experience and recognition, as we look to increase our reach and impact across the UK (underpinned by a £21 million fundraising target), partnership and collaborative working is vital. We’ve broadened our approach by working with a coalition of like-minded organisations; these partnerships vary in scope and size, from organisations the charity funds through its grant making, to those who deliver services on its behalf or event/initiative partnerships. We are enabling more organisations to effect positive change and influence in the lives of musicians, funding a third more organisations (33) than in 2015.

None of this will be possible to achieve in a sustainable way without the ability to communicate the breadth of HMUK’s work alongside the need to fundraise - and we have an ambitious target to hit. The fundraising environment continues to change with multiple charities competing for funds.  As an independent charity, HMUK relies solely on income through voluntary donations, legacies and its own investment assets. We do not undertake this challenge lightly; as a result we have rebooted the capacity of our hard-working fundraising team.

With a head office in London’s Kings Cross and new regional offices in Belfast (2016) and Glasgow (2018), we are consolidating our position as the leading independent charity for the industry with national reach.  I am excited to be chair of Help Musicians UK as we continue to transform our organisation and grow, with ever-increasing demand for our refreshed portfolio of services and creative grants.  We look forward to our 2021 centenary with confidence and energy.

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