The former hard house queen is on a mission to give disadvantaged and disabled young people (and anyone else, really!) a leg-up in the music industry. We headed to Manchester to find out more
Nearly 8,000 pupils in the UK were excluded from school in the 2016-17 academic year – and according to the children's commissioner Anne Longfield, young people who aren’t in mainstream education "are being marginalised, and are more vulnerable to gangs, who are preying on them and grooming them". Meanwhile, young adults living with conditions such as autism, Apspergers syndrome or ADHD are 50 per cent more likely to find themselves unemployed than the neurotypical population.
Put simply, school just doesn't work for everyone, with many young people leaving the education system with no qualifications and little prospect of a job. If only there was some alternative route into education/training, somewhere designed to better cater for their needs where they could gain new skills and boost their long-term job prospects – without having to pay for it.
That's where the Lisa Lashes School of Music comes in. Currently running in Northampton and Manchester, but with hopes of expanding across the country soon, the school aims to give young (and not so young) people from disadvantaged backgrounds a head start in music, and grew out some private tutoring Lisa had been doing in her home town of Leicester.
In the beginning, there was Lisa
"I just wanted to do something different in the DJ world," Lisa explains. "After 24 years, there came a time when I didn't want to travel so much – it's hard work! Plus I was leaving the hard house world, going into techno, and I wanted to give something back, I guess, to the younger generation. So I started doing U18 workshops in Leicester, just with a few people... and then I met Deborah."
Deborah is Deborah Hewitt, who is Lisa's partner in running the school, with logistical support provided by PTS Training Academy, a training provider based in Northampton. Deborah became involved when her 17-year-old son Oliver begged her to drive him from Kent to Leicester to take part in one of Lisa's workshops.
"He's the typical student that we're focusing on now," explains Deborah, "the kid that really struggled in education. He's been to loads of schools but he's got ADHD, he's got anorexia, and a traditional education wasn't really working for him. And my background's in education and training, so after a really long drive back from Leicester with a 17-year-old going on and on and on about how amazing the day had been, I called Lisa up and asked if she'd be interested in us working together."
That was in May 2018. Fast-forward to March 2019, and the first school the pair set up, in Northampton, is now on its sixth intake of students, while on the day iDJ headed up to the Tiger Tiger bar/nightclub complex in Manchester, the very first Manchester group of 50 students were just beginning their 12-week course. They certainly seemed excited about it – but then when you've got big industry names like Rob Tissera and BK as tutors, who wouldn't be?
Who it's for, how it works
The school runs slightly differently in the two towns – in Northampton students do one day a week for 16 weeks, the Manchester course is two days a week for 12 weeks – but the basic principles are the same. The course covers areas such as DJing, music production, events management and marketing skills, while also offering support in areas like literacy and numeracy for those that need it. And best of all, it's free!
Or at least, it is if you need it to be. As Matthew Joyce from PTS explains, "We're funded by various bodies to provide free training for young people with special needs, young people who've been excluded from schools, the long-term unemployed and so on. Finding and chasing those different pots of funding is basically our end of the deal: we take care of the funding side of things so that Lisa and Deborah can concentrate on the actual course itself.
"What that means is that people who have a well-paid job, or people with a degree or other high-level qualification, won't qualify for a free place. But that doesn't mean they can't come on the course, it just means they'd need to pay to do it – and because we have so much funding behind the rest of it, we can offer those places much more cheaply than other providers."
A school like no other
You may already be wondering what a school is doing in a nightclub, but there are reasons for that, as Lisa explains.
"I didn't want it to be like a workshop, I wanted it to be, like, you walk in and there's me on the decks," she says. "Some of these kids have never been in a nightclub before, and I think it's more creative and inspiring if you do it here."
Plus, as Deborah adds, "It works well for the clubs too, because they're not actually doing anything during the day. So it's about finding ways for all of our businesses to work together, and about encouraging people to actually use their night-time economy as well."
Accordingly, when we walk up to the top floor of Tiger Tiger we're greeted by a somewhat unusual sight. All along the bar and on tables around the club are multiple Pioneer DJ consoles, with tutors and small groups of students clustered around each one. Walk through to the dancefloor area, and Rob Tissera is teaching a larger group of absolute beginners basic DJ skills, while if you wander down a narrow corridor you'll find the club's multiple karaoke booths, which have been kitted out with top-of-the-range Macs for the day – this is where the music production lessons take place.
Popping our heads into one of these cubicles, where another hard dance legend, BK, is teaching a group of about eight how to filter out specific frequencies in Ableton to make different sounds sit better in the mix, we 'borrow' 24-year-old Lubo from Mexico. She's currently travelling the world for a year, and came to the UK specifically for this course.
"I started DJing in Mexico – my dad got me into it, because he used to be a techno DJ in the 90s," she tells us. "But I want to move on to the next level. And I love it here, because the tutors are so friendly. I did try a DJ course in Mexico, but it wasn't as good. I'd come here every day if I could!"
Made to measure
It's clear that Lubo and the rest of the students are greatly enjoying their first week. Part of the reason the course has proved so popular, suggests Lisa, is that each person's learning programme is tailored to their specific requirements.
"Primarily, we cover DJ skills and music production – we've got some amazing professional tutors and they students will all have created their own track by the end of the course," she says. "But we also cover things like social media skills, which you need these days, and we have masterclasses from different people. Anne Savage came down recently to do a masterclass on protecting your hearing, for instance, because she's studying for a PhD in tinnitus prevention and treatment. And we embed maths and English in all of the lessons, too."
"And things like first aid and customer service as well," Deborah adds. "It's about giving the students an all-round education within that three months, and enabling people to take themselves in a different direction. Really we're looking at getting kids into the music industry, especially kids who've previously struggled in education, because you don't need any previous experience or qualifications. You can come to us, and undergo a fast-track 12-week accelerated programme – it's roughly equivalent to a year of A-levels, but in three months. Then we look for placement opportunities. We've already had pupils go on to run their own club nights or set up their own labels or form production duos with each other, so it seems to working so far!"
Looking to the future
The next step, says Lisa, is to expand the programme nationally. There are already plans afoot to run an under-16s course for excluded pupils in Leicester, as well as getting a programme up and running in Lincolnshire, while Lisa's also keen to take the school to London, and even to Ibiza.
In the meantime, the school will soon become an officially recognised Institute, and offer their own bespoke apprenticeship, geared specifically towards events management. Make no mistake: the school may have a bunch of old ravers as tutors but they're serious about the business of education, with the school paying to put all their tutors through formal teacher training.
"So it's good for the tutors, too," she says, "because a lot of them have been making music for 20 years and they don't want to sit in their studios on their own any more! So they come work for us 10-4, four days a week, and they often say it's given them a new lease of life, or given them fresh ideas to take back into the studio."
The last word
Before we leave, we sit down with one of those tutors, the aforesaid Mr Tissera. Rob – who got involved after previously offering private tuition off his own bat – is an old friend of iDJ, so we were keen to get his perspective.
"I love it!" he says of his new-found role as an educator. "I never, ever thought that I'd enjoy it as much as I do, but I've been doing it every week for the past four years and it produces a joy that I didn't even know existed. When you're teaching someone something new, and you can almost see that lightbulb above their head going on... that's magical."
"I just wish something like this had been available when I was younger," he continues. "You know, I was dragged up on a council estate, I didn't do the best at school and all that, and when I started getting into DJing and music-making, I had to figure it all out for myself. Something like this would have helped me get started a lot quicker... but to be fair, I've done pretty nicely out of music over the years, thanks! So now I'm giving that back to people and showing them how I've managed to make it work for me over the past 30 years or so. It's very rewarding and very enjoyable."
Words: Russell Deeks
To find out more about the school and/or to apply for the course, visit their website