A saxophone placed on colourful woven blankets

In my role as Creativity and Learning Director, I have felt it was really important as part of Plymouth Music Zone’s 20th anniversary year to explore different pathways that our team have taken in their lives and work. I have become interested in what sparks that initial interest in music and facilitation and how skills are shaped as we grow alongside our participants. Watching. Listening. Doing. Learning. Keeping passionate and reflective about the work.

Holly’s journey with Plymouth Music Zone has been extraordinary. Inextricably interwoven between her love of music, people, deep human connections, family and friendship. Here are Holly’s words about her 20 years with us, shared in a fascinating and humbling conversation.

The whisperings of music…

Way back in my family there was something musical lurking…nobody in my immediate family is musical at all, but somewhere along the line, my great grandad was said to have played 5 instruments. We think it skipped a few generations and then found me. I dabbled with my brother’s Ocarina, which drove him mad because I found it really easy and he didn’t’!

I was very serious about dancing prior to getting interested in music. I did lots of grades.

I then remember having to choose between dance and music. I remember the first time I saw a Clarinet at the end of primary. I remember seeing it glittering in the stage lights and loving the sound of it – I remember thinking ‘I want to do that!’

I was incredibly shy at school. I had to build myself up for weeks before I felt I could ask about Clarinet lessons. I was given one without reeds to start with, which was ridiculous! It didn’t put me off – straight away that was my instrument.

I studied instruments through the grades system – I did Grade 8 clarinet within 4 years of starting to play it. I then moved onto Saxophone as I was thrown in at the deep end trying to teach someone having never even held one before. I taught myself to play it. I got into University on sax as well as clarinet.

The exams weren’t everything – it was the experience that counted. I switch between all of the instruments now, depending on what I’m doing – percussion, themed instruments (materials), exploring moods through music and particular instruments.

I also like using other arts to help people explore feelings e.g. drawings alongside musical instruments.

Holly’s Plymouth Music Zone story…

In 1999 PMZ’s founder, Matt Griffiths came to my secondary school (Tamarside at the time, now known as Marine Academy) to teach an orchestra to play instruments for people who had never touched an instrument before – so that was fun!

Moving on from that…I learnt more about PMZ and one of the first project I did was with Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey and we did a performance at Downing St together. I got involved in more and more of the projects that were on offer – Birmingham Royal Ballet (composing music). We wrote all of the music for a theatre project at The Drum (Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Basically, by that stage I’d only had about 3 lessons on my clarinet but was already joining an orchestra and doing everything I could that was on offer. The Royal Marine Band was another thing…Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (amazing workshops!), Jazz Band and Soul Band (I did that from about age 15 for 3 or 4 years).

I vividly remember the feeling of working with Andy Baker and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. We performed ‘Bitterwseet Symphony’ by the Verve. I just remember that intense feeling of singing and playing as a group. There is nothing like that feeling of being surrounded by all those instruments. This happened when playing with the Royal Marines band too.

At one point, I got involved with the Theatre Royal, playing in the pit band. Theatre culture was a whole other world, and that was really nice to be part of. I’ve kept everything from that time – newspaper articles, posters, signed items – it all meant a lot to me.

I then had a gap year filled with different music experiences. I was the first person to try a pre-apprenticeship scheme. I shadowed as many people as I could, but it was mainly Anna because I was very interested in working with children with additional needs. I learnt so much throughout this year. It was all about the experience – so much can’t be taught. You can be guided but you really need to learn it yourself. Sometimes being ‘chucked in at the deep end’ is the best way. I think I got run over by a wheelchair about 3 times that year! I’ve now learnt to get out of the way…!

This was the most important year for me because that’s when I truly started to understand I wanted to specialise. I then thought about becoming an SEND teacher. I was then diagnosed with a chronic illness, which massively changed my path.

I then went to study at Dartington College of Arts on a degree course. At the same time I continued to work for PMZ. I kept the two things separate, but by the third year, I combined what I was doing here (SEN/D) work with a final project. I graduated in 2009.

After this time, I did a lot of Early Years work in a number of settings. Around this time I got married and two children came along. I needed to separate out my home life with my own children and spending too much of my additional time with even more young children – it was just too much. To balance this, I began to do a lot of outreach work at SEN/D schools and activities in the building at PMZ, in particular using the Sensory room.

Now that my youngest child is now 5, my eldest is 7 I feel able to go back to working in Early Years with a new set of experiences and having learnt a lot along the way. Nothing scares me anymore because I’ve lived it! The children are now settled in school and I can concentrate on myself a bit more and my music leading work. I am ready for some new challenges with the work. Much of it will be similar to before, but now I will be working with adults with learning disabilities. I am still working in Early Years and learn from my own experiences with my children all the time.

Memorable moments along the way…

I was working with Anna Batson at a setting somewhere for people with additional needs. I’d never met anyone with a disability before this time. All of a sudden I was in a room full of profoundly disabled people. I’d never experienced this before and it was very overwhelming at first, but the feeling didn’t last long.

I always really appreciate the significant moments along the way. I remember once in a ‘Sensory Sounds’ session in the sensory room, a child who never spoke previously, suddenly said ‘Hello’ to everyone. After this he couldn’t shut up!

Another important time was when PMZ was fundraising for and developing the Sensation Music Station (sensory music room). I remember being really hopeful that this was going to be something new for Plymouth. It was a fantastic feeling when the bid was successful and this amazing space was created. Learning all the equipment was really full-on but clearly going to be beneficial to so many people who wouldn’t be able to access music in conventional ways. It was a lot to learn, but we just immersed ourselves in exploring ways you could use it to make it all work and bring music alive for people with complex additional needs.

Anna: What makes you a good music leader? What would you say are your strongest skills?

I think it started when I was young that I have a strong skill in observing people well. I can get a good idea of who someone is just by watching. You can then work out the best way to approach and support them because everybody creates and explores music differently.

I studied BSL (British Sign Language) as it was something I was always interested in. I wanted to prove to others that deaf people could experience music too. I used sign language to explain things, but also helped people explore instruments differently, so that vibration and sensory stuff was all happening in the same way that anyone else might experience it too. The music they created was different, probably because it felt different to them, but still was completely valid. I found this fascinating. These people (mainly children!) had as much right to access music as anyone else and it was up to us to make that happen. I am passionate about this.

Yes, thinking about it, I do have many other skills apart from being a musician: I’m able to sign. I’m a parent. I do a lot of craft and cooking.  I can apply a really wide range of experiences to my job. I do everything I can to create family and work experiences that are meaningful.

What else do you think about the work? What drives you?

I think to do this job, you have to be selfless to do it. It’s not about you – it’s about what you do for and with other people. Music I enjoy. People are my passion. I don’t want to be a professional musician in the conventional sense. I want to be a people’s musician – about connecting in a very deep way.

I keep motivated through other people – bouncing ideas off each other with other music leaders. The people you work with – watching them achieve things they may have been told they could never do. I never underestimate anyone.

e.g. a young girl in an SEN/D school who disproved all her teachers by getting on a microphone and vocalising.

Another example was finding out that a 14-year old girl had perfect pitch and could match and name notes to each other. None of the staff knew this and I was able to highlight this skill to them.

Anna: You’ve been with Plymouth Music Zone since the very beginning…an extraordinary journey with the organisation. Do you have any final reflections on this?

Plymouth Music Zone has evolved over time and I think a lot of this has to do with the different passions of the leadership team / director at the time. I’ve been through the whole journey of the project and it’s always been changing and developing in different ways.

I think my earliest experiences with the organisation were hugely influential – so many experiences! Then we moved more into SEN/D work as a focus, then came more music technology. Then working with adults as well as children and exploring wellbeing. There is always a lot of behind-the-scenes things going on and I think a lot more pressure on funding that changes things now. The project has changed along the way of course and will continue to do so.

Matt Griffiths (CEO Youth Music) and Mark Trewin (also a previous PMZ Director, now Director of Creative, Digital and Science Industries at City College Plymouth. Plymouth) have been such a huge influence in my musical life because if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now.

It’s very hard to pick separate things out from my memories because I’ve spent so much of my life connected with Plymouth Music Zone. It’s all interwoven. And what an amazing journey it has been!


Plymouth Music Zone would like to thank Holly Bench for her incredible commitment, insight, memories and sharing her story so honestly and openly. We look forward to creating many more meaningful moments alongside Holly in the years to come – she is an exceptionally thoughtful and wonderful person and we love her always! x

PHOTO IMAGE by Holly Bench – a life journey with music and Plymouth Music Zone – interwoven. Inextricably linked. Threads of memories and meaning.