Ben Sellers studied BA Ethnomusicology and now works as an educator at Transformance Music.
Why did you choose SOAS, and why Ethnomusicology?
The element of my music-making I wanted to develop most was improvisation and I began to listen to people improvising in musical styles from around the world – Nusrat, Toumani, Mbira, Klezmer. If I could have described my dream course, it would have been the undergrad Ethnomusicology course at SOAS, and it already existed!
What did you enjoy most about your course?
Being surrounded by incredible musicians from all around the world – sharing ideas and songs, dancing and eating together, jamming late into the night in the SOAS bar. As a clarinettist, I was exposed to new repertoire, playing techniques and ways of thinking about music. I ended up touring Azerbaijan with an Azeri violinist and a Syrian/Iraqi Oud player. Only at SOAS!
Can you tell us about the work you do now and how you got there?
After leaving SOAS I started running music workshops in schools, and was an early adopter of using iPads as a way to compose and write songs in schools. 10 years later and this has developed into a freelance career working within the overlapping worlds of musical inclusion, technology and pedagogy. I train and mentor instrumental teachers to work more effectively with pupils with Additional Learning Needs. I convene a group looking at how technology will shape the future of music education. I support teachers in Special Ed schools to design pupil-centred music curricula. I lead large scale participatory education projects, most recently with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and Drake Music.
How has your experience at SOAS helped you in your career?
Even though practical music-making is only one element of music at SOAS, everything we studied contributed towards developing our musicianship. It becomes obvious early on that some of the fundamentals of western approaches to music-making aren’t so fundamental after all, and alternative approaches to composition, performance and analysis start to seep into our own work. At the same time, it is also possible to see the elements of music making that are fairly universal and draw on those more explicitly.
As an educator, a grounding in ethnomusicology has helped me to support curriculum designers to think in a global context. I have been able to adapt pedagogical techniques from other cultures to better engage pupils with additional learning needs.
What advice would you give to students thinking about studying Music at SOAS?
Do it. And enjoy every moment.