Michael Garvey, currently Director of the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, has spent the last six years increasing partnership work and international touring; focusing on audience engagement and collaboration. While leading the organisation, he has made innovative developments including introducing live streams and VR experiences. 

In June, Michael announced that he is embarking on a journey as Executive Director of the Benedetti Foundation, a new charitable organisation set up by violinist and music education advocate Nicola Benedetti. He will support the final stages of establishing the charity and steer the newly established organisation through its first years. 

Can you tell us about your new role?

I’m starting with the Benedetti Foundation for two main reasons. The opportunity to be a part of something from the beginning is quite appealing and the approach we’re going to take is very much like a start-up. 

There’s work to do - music education is poor in this country and the UK and I’m getting increasingly frustrated that not more is being doing about it. It’s been systematically dismantled, underfunded and de-prioritized and that’s not good enough. Music education is so important. At the moment, however, there’s a general push to improve reading, writing and arithmetic and ensure that the UK can compete on a global scale in those fields specifically. Personally speaking, I think that’s because we’re comparing ourselves to East Asian countries who are phenomenal at that type of education.

I worry that the focus on that means that we miss all sorts of other skills and education that at the moment, are undervalued and seen as unimportant. Specifically, lots of wellbeing and social cohesion and what people might see as the ‘softer’ side of education – creativity particularly. However, we would all agree that to be a civilised cohesive society that isn’t undervaluing the individual we need to focus on creativity in order to demonstrate our own USP and differentiate ourselves from the way other countries are going.

The challenge with education is that if it's going to fund the global economy in due course then, of course, the two are intrinsically linked. Contributing to the global economy might not necessarily be the ultimate goal we’re aiming at, or a priority. It’s okay to look at other models that focus on the individual - Scandinavia, for example, is an interesting model to which we could be compared. Experience would suggest that Scandinavians are particularly good at supporting the individual, at looking after social cohesion, family life, creativity. If happiness were our end goal and not the economy, Scandinavia seem to have that nailed.

Why have you chosen to work in Cardiff?

I’m originally an Essex boy and before this job was living in Bedford and working in Cambridge - that commute was a bit of a faff but it’s a very nice part of the world.  We lived in a little village in Bedford and my family grew in its younger years living in rural communities and the countryside. 

I felt this job [BBC NOW Director] required a move, because of the need to serve an audience and to understand a Welsh context, I feel you need to live here to do it. Fortunately, that came at a perfect time when my family was movable and I wasn’t worried about disrupting exams, and my wife was a physiotherapist so she could work where she needed to work. We’d talked about the need to move for my career because the types of jobs that I have don’t appear just anywhere and if I wanted to develop that career, I’d have to make a decision and move – and that’s what we did. 

The Benedetti Foundation has a Scottish registration - Nicola Bendetti is Scottish so it makes a lot of sense to register there - and part of my job will be the establishing of the charity and getting it registered.  We’ll be working remotely and come together when we need to. If the charity has aspirations to work across the UK and overseas, why base yourself in London when you don’t need to? I’ll be working from my man cave in Cardiff – my office at home. Many people have warned me that I’ll be going from an enormous office, there are a 100 people in my current office, to being by myself and I might get lonely and isolated. Working by myself is great but if I work by myself for too long I sort of get underpowered and crave engagement with other people to bounce ideas and get back to working on my own again. I’m feeling confident that there will be a network of people that I can get involved with and will support me. I’m counting on Creative Cardiff to make that happen!

I’m also looking forward to dotting myself around the place. I know that the new BBC Wales Central Square building has been designed to be more open to the general public and to the independent sector particularly, and small independent companies will have access to the building. BBC Wales sees the value of this type of collaboration so I might ask them if i can borrow a desk there every now and again. 

What inspires you about being here?

Cardiff is a fascinating city from my perspective and from a musical and wider arts sector perspective there’s bucket loads going on. 

The very fact that my daughter sings in the Wales National Opera youth chorus is a direct result of us being here. She may well have wanted to be a singer but it would not have been possible in Bedford, where we used to live. The opportunity to practice music and to come and see professional orchestras or take part in WNO youth opera it just doesn’t happen outside a city like this. There are so many opportunities.

Cardiff is compact and unlike other cities that have got a similar volume of activity it’s often a minimum 45-minute journey to get anywhere whereas in Cardiff you can be on your bike or the bus and get to places in 15 minutes. 

What challenges have you found in working in Cardiff?

We should be working harder to communicate and work together. That’s certainly been something we’ve done during my time here - just embrace each other and work together for the good of the audience, which is ultimately the aim. It’s such a small city that, if we don’t work together, we’re probably going to tread on each other’s toes and that’s not good for audiences. We have to coordinate because we could either mistakenly miss a group of audiences or super-serve a group – neither of which are a good thing. An emphasis on collaboration was driven by a business need that would enable the National Orchestra of Wales to be both a BBC broadcasting orchestra and Wales’ national orchestra - serving both the BBC and listening to what the audience in Wales wanted as well. 

If your programme doesn’t attract a large audience in any given concert venue well then, in turn, the musicians don’t play as well because they’ve got no one to play for, no audience to feed off. If you programme and you get a full capacity concert venue, then the musicians will play better, their morale is improved and the radio programme that gets made for broadcast (usually on BBC Radio 3) is better – everyone wins. It’s about balancing the live concert and broadcast experiences and in so doing by emphasising the needs of the live audience you also build your profile in Wales and the orchestra becomes better known and better loved and you can begin to take braver decisions regarding artists, music and you can do it because you’ve got an audience behind you that are willing you on. And again, it becomes a virtuous circle. 

Wales can be a little bit insular – and its very proud of what it does, but it doesn’t share or talk about it enough. I don’t know whether that’s an inverted pride but there’s some amazing work happening in this city and country that the rest of the world ought to see. 

How successful do you think Cardiff has been at making itself a creative capital, particularly in your area of work?

I think through the natural infrastructure of National Orchestra of Wales, Welsh National Opera, Symphonia Cymru, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama there are a lot of key players in a small area and that’s a really good thing. I think in my time here we've worked at embracing each other, we're better at working together as big organisations for the good of the audience and Cardiff. 

In your opinion, what needs to happen to make Cardiff a more creative city?

I think people need to be more open with each other. We learn from engaging with others. Despite it being a small city we don’t work with each other as much as we should and I think we need to be better at getting out of the office and engaging. 

I suppose it’s difficult in a world where there’s either too much to do – especially in the Arts sector - or you’re a freelancer and every hour you work is so valuable. It means that the communication element is the last thing on your mind – it’s a challenge. Getting away from your work and having a conversation with a person when it might not come to anything can be difficult. But it might lead to something incredible, or it might take a few months or years until it leads to a collaboration or idea but it will only happen organically. 

What do you think Creative Cardiff should try to achieve?

I think Creative Cardiff has put creativity on the map in Cardiff, it’s become a lightning rod around which people can gather and that’s really important. So having a body that can call people together, host events and put people in touch – that’s incredibly important.  

I would love for us to be better at communicating and I think Creative Cardiff need to continue doing that because it might be seen as a luxury even and it might be seen as just a networking event but that is so important in order for businesses and ideas to grow.  

From a musical perspective specifically – it’s wonderful to know that Cardiff City council is beginning to develop its Cardiff City of Music strategy – the work that Sound Diplomacy have done and the consultation they’ve gone through, I think is really exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing how the council will roll that report out. I think Creative Cardiff should support, enable and be a critical friend in the process. 

That means, because the music in this city is so exceptional, we have an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from other cities across the UK and Europe by talking about it, promoting it and investing in its infrastructure and activity that could in turn have a good impact on its economy and global profile.

What projects are on the horizon? What new ideas are you working on?

Well, to be fair, there’s already a lot to do just setting the Foundation up, like I said it doesn’t exist yet!  We’re going to have the company set up and apply for charitable status, then set up a board, policies and governance structures. We’re going to have to ensure that our child protection and safeguarding policies are absolutely perfect. In due course – so phase two – we’ll be rolling out a series of workshops throughout the UK which will be the primary purpose of the charity. Nicky herself will teach school children and teachers as well so they can have what state education is not providing at the moment, high quality music education. 

Nicky wants to ensure that teachers are really well trained as well so that when the weekend of fun and excitement is over there’s still the ability for the children to continue with their learning at the right level. Instead of just having a wonderful experience and waiting another six months the students will be able to continue with their training. There’s a focus on sustainability. 

That would then be supplemented by some of the social media and videos that Nicky will be making – currently on YouTube - which become part of a suite of educational tools alongside a curriculum that will then be developed. This curriculum will then support people wanting to learn an instrument. It’s like having a personal violin lesson with Nicola Benedetti. 

Another side of the charity, will hopefully step towards eventually convincing local authorities, power brokers and so on to take music education more seriously. We want to help people understand the importance of music education. That’s already happening in Wales where there have been many reports by Welsh Government, but to date we haven’t seen any action in overturning the problems that already exist. 

I want the foundation to help in that argument. One of the reasons I’m so excited about it is that Nicky is so credible in that sphere, she’s a world-class violinist and musician and she’s deeply passionate about allowing her legacy to go on and ensure that children and young people can learn at the same standard she did. You need talent, but that talent can only be polished and made greater through support and network. That’s what she’s so incredible in offering. 

Learn more about the Benedetti Foundation and its ambitions. 

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