Q&A: Ashley Wass

Harriet Clifford
Monday, March 1, 2021

Ashley Wass is the recently appointed director of music at the Yehudi Menuhin School, one of the few specialist music boarding schools in the UK. Harriet Clifford catches up with him.

Sara Porter

HC: What was it like taking on your new role at the start of a pandemic?

AW: It's been a source of amusement to many of my friends that I started at the school on 1 April 2020 – I think I'm probably the fi rst director of music in the school's history to have started without any pupils. It's been challenging, but interesting, and the key has really been to try and find creative ways of keeping the school community together at a time when the pandemic is keeping us all apart.

HC: Can you tell me about your career before joining the school?

AW: My career has been very diverse, for which I feel very fortunate. For over 20 years I was a concert pianist, but I don't think I was ever particularly suited to that life. There was a seminal moment on my eldest daughter's first birthday when I was on a plane to Australia and I just thought, ‘I don't want to do this anymore’.

From there, I co-founded a production company focused on creating content centred around music but also incorporating other art forms, which was so rewarding. I also started teaching at the Royal College of Music and then became deputy head of keyboard at the RNCM. From there I moved on to YMS.

HC: What changes have you had to make because of the pandemic?

AW: The key loss to our timetable is communal music-making. Where there are gaps, we're focusing on delivering new workshops covering important issues such as performance anxiety and just general life skills – last weekend we were talking about how to fill in a tax return, which I'm sure was thrilling for everybody, but it's actually essential. There are lots of other imaginative things going on and I think the key thing is not to get stuck in the daily firefighting in a time such as this, but to also have one eye on the future.

HC: And what are your plans for the music department?

AW: There's this idiom that has been repeated over and over since I arrived, that the school is ‘Surrey's best kept secret’. That's something we really want to change – we don't want to be a secret anymore. There are lots of ideas floating around about how we can engage and reach wider audiences. Inclusivity is absolutely essential to us. I also want to become a little more forward-thinking in our approach to music, and particularly in the diversity of the music that we cover at the school.

HC: Do you feel that the DfE's Music and Dance Scheme does enough to attract students from a range of backgrounds to your school?

AW: I want to stress that the scheme enables a school like ours to be truly means blind. It's the thing I'm most proud of, that pupils are selected entirely on their ability to play, not their ability to pay. Most students are on very large or full bursaries, and we wouldn't be able to do that without the MDS.

But it's certainly something we need to improve on. My viewpoint is that as a specialist music school, YMS needs to be leading the way in promoting diversity. It's not necessarily my school or any other school's fault that these divisions and problems are there, but it's absolutely our responsibility to drive progression and to be the leaders in that field. I want to embed ‘outreach’ into the heart of everything that our children grow up learning to do. I want it to be part of their mindset and I want them to appreciate how important it is as part of the continuity of the musical world. It can be so much more than it is now.

HC: What are your thoughts on the current landscape of music education in the UK?

AW: We all know that music education has been starved. But there are lots of wonderful initiatives taking place and there's a growing awareness of the importance of the arts as a refuge from the daily troubles we face.

We're at a very challenging time – we've got Brexit, and of course the perfect storm of a global pandemic. As a parent myself, I would have to question the wisdom of sending my child to a specialist music school just at a time when the music world is ravaged. I understand the questions that are being asked. But I genuinely believe that when the world reopens and returns to some semblance of normality, there will be an enormous creative surge. I think it will be a remarkably exciting time and we all must ask ourselves what role we want to play.

HC: What are your hopes for your students?

AW: If I'm to make my role a success, I'd like to think that when kids leave the school, they leave not only as good musicians, but as happy people who feel that the school has been a healthy environment. I hope that they are innovative, entrepreneurial and open-minded individuals who are not just the next generation of ambassadors for music, but are actually the cultural leaders of the future.

Teachers or parents are invited to send YMS pre-audition videos free of charge and the school will provide feedback on a child's suitability for an audition. www.menuhinschool.co.uk