Impact Story: Changing young people’s lives through music and volunteering

Impact Story: Changing young people’s lives through music and volunteering

For the past 15 years, SoundSkool, a full-time music industry college in London has been offering support to vulnerable teenagers. Founder and CEO Simon Gordon is committed to the school continuing its important work for the next 15 years too. But the school has encountered a number of challenges more recently and last year Simon turned to Link UP London for support. Through Link UP, Skilled Volunteer Lalit Kalra (known as Kal) stepped in to help Simon restructure SoundSkool. The mentorship role Kal took on was perfect for him as he has a career worth of experience and learning to share.

For the love of music

When he was a teenager, Simon dreamt of becoming a musician but with little support, it felt impossible. Instead, this passion for music feeds SoundSkool every day. “I wasn’t encouraged with music as a young person myself. And there were no places to go that supported and nurtured this interest”, Simon recalls.

SoundSkool was founded by Simon in 2008 to help young musicians find their way in the music scene. The school has been offering young musicians, 16 to 19-years old, fully-funded Level 2 and Level 3 Music Performance & Business and Music Production & Business full-time music courses. It is an accredited Rock School London (RSL) centre.

Pupils take daily music courses and performances guided by a team of specialists with the ultimate goal of performing on live stages. Any student who has not yet achieved a Grade 4 or above in English Language and/or maths, will have the chance to attend classes and take these exams at the school. The students at the school come from difficult backgrounds, from some of London’s most deprived areas. The school currently has 45 full-time students and many of them are making waves in the music industry such as Luena Martinez, an XFactor winner, who was formerly in the band RealLikeYou and now KYNO.

Alessandro Quao is a current student who is now heading off to university. He spent nearly two years with SoundSkool, years that he credits with shaping his personality and his plans for the future. A musician who writes lyrics and produces a fusion of genres from soul to R&B and alternative hip hop, Alessandro recalls how he built a relationship of trust and confidence with each teacher at SoundSkool. “I was born into music. I played percussion and instruments from a baby, this led me to take piano lessons in primary school and drumming lessons in secondary school.” He then started writing and producing music. And Simon also admitted him onto the SoundSkool Advisory Board to help him better understand first-hand the way decisions were made.

Alessandro was grateful for simple things, like paid opportunities given to young people, such as the Nigel project with the National Jazz Orchestra or the possibility to have access to recording equipment and just practising music. Coaching events and peer mentoring were also part of the SoundSkool experience. “My most cherished moment was when I got to meet Jamal Edwards MBE who unfortunately passed away, shortly after. Through his online R&B/Hip-Hop platform SB.TV, he influenced a lot of the UK music industry. Big names such as Ed Sheeran, Jessie J, and Stormzy are among the artists he helped in their careers.”

But a music career is only part of his dream of the future as he wants to give back what he has learnt in SoundSkool too. “Five years from now, I will have a diploma in creative musicianship and I will be working with young people and be teaching, and working with organisations and people transferring the skills I built up these years”, he said. “And” Alessandro hopes “I will be working with disadvantaged young people that could benefit from help through music, coaching, whatever it might be, just like I have received”.

SoundSkool’s sustainable future

Alessandro is one of many teenage musicians dreaming of making music. And their dream has been supported by Simon’s determination. But the organisation has faced challenges and insecurity over the years, and last year Simon sought help. He came to Link UP London in search of a Skilled Volunteer that could help him streamline his future strategy for growth Skilled Volunteer Lalit Kalra was a perfect match and together they conducted a diagnosis of the music organisation. “We reviewed our sustainability, planning, governance, and structures. Honestly, I can’t thank you guys enough, for the impact that you’ve made and the change you have started within me. I believe that I’m so lucky that I found Link UP London and everyone that I’ve worked with has been amazing there”, Simon said.

Simon started SoundSkool from a place of passion, not as a business project, and it now needs a stable headquarters and plans for a sustainable future. When discussing the result of Link UP’s support, Simon explained “By helping me and SoundSkool, you are helping many, many young people with their lives and they really need it. You’ve helped me move my passion and my dreams toward a sustainable organisation. Part of that is being safe, and secure. We’ve never had a building and that’s what we need to move forward to now”, Simon explains. Another aim for Simon is to grow the number of students. As founder of the school, his role has been ongoing and complex. “I’m very different from other CEOs who do similar things, that are much more corporate and much bigger. And that’s what SoundSkool is about. It’s about the individuals, and to make sure that they feel part of something, you know, like a family, that they feel like they’re listened to and they’re supported.”

The Skilled Volunteer’s role: Teaching you how to fish

After retiring, almost two years ago, Kal considered how to use the skills he had gained throughout his career to help people. “I learned the skills of a doctor, a researcher and then of a corporate manager. And now I have time and no other pressures in life”, he explained. And professionally Skilled Volunteering is a great match, “When I work with Link UP I can use the skills and the expertise learnt during my career to help other people.”

Kal responded to Simon’s request to help him restructure SoundSkool. “I still work with them, knowing where they are heading and supporting them in the journey”, Kal explains. And he is happy with the results. “I would like to say it was because of our involvement, but I think Simon did it on his own with a little help and with a little support from us at Link UP”, Kal said. “It was operational, administrative, and strategic support more than anything else.”

Professional Skilled Volunteering worked very well for Kal: “hands-on volunteering does not teach anyone anything. That is what Link UP does, I call it technical capacity building – I am building capacity in an organisation to help them grow”.

After supporting Simon through the Link UP project and with a plan in place to develop their strategy, Kal became a member of the board. For Simon, his help has been very important. Kal’s contribution has given a clear pathway for the future with a secured headquarters and the ability to take on a higher number of students.

Meanwhile, Kal believes that his volunteering career has just begun. “What I have discovered is that as long as people are enthusiastic and committed and you support them, they will succeed. And that’s the beauty of what Link UP does – people who come to us believe in their mission and are willing to work hard but sometimes they need a little guidance; they need someone to show them the way.”

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