A new way to bring classical music to children

Jennifer Chen (MBA, 2020) discusses her new social enterprise, Fugue Children’s Music, which is introducing young children to classical music in Taiwan through a mixture of storytelling, nursery rhymes, sensory activities and live orchestral musicians.

Like most Birkbeck students, Jennifer had to be flexible to complete her studies. Unlike most students, Jennifer discovered on her first day of the course that she was pregnant with twins.

“It was almost surreal,” she says. “My MBA cohort heard the news before some of my family. My first thought was that I may have to drop out or start again in a few years, but Dr Pamela Yeow [Reader in Management at Birkbeck] advised that I complete the first module, then helped me rejoin the programme at the same stage a year later. It was fantastic to be around other people who were balancing work, study and family life. There is a real empathy and understanding.”

As a creative, Jennifer had spent several years working as a freelance design and art director for major brands. This encouraged her to think about how she could upskill to be involved in more than the form-giving and styling phases of the innovation process. She embarked on the Birkbeck and Central Saint Martins joint MBA in 2017, describing it as a “transformative experience” and “unique in its focus on creative approaches and social engagement.”

After graduating in 2020, Jennifer decided to temporarily relocate to her hometown in Taiwan to be with her family and give her two toddlers a “more normal life.” Taiwan’s initial response to the pandemic was effective, so Jennifer was able to take her children to classes where they could see other children:

“I was really excited to get them meeting children their age. In Taiwan the gymnastics classes were great, the dance classes were great, but the music classes were not as engaging and immersive compared to our experience back home in London. The kids never got to touch any instruments other than tambourines and triangles, the teachers expected obedience, the songs were not particularly enjoyable for the parents, and they all assumed that children couldn’t enjoy or appreciate classical music. So I applied the mantra I’d learned at Birkbeck: if you don’t like something, change it.”

The music classes were not as engaging and immersive compared to our experience in London… So I applied the mantra I’d learned at Birkbeck: if you don’t like something, change it.

Jennifer had been anxious about putting her career on hold while in Taiwan but realised this was a perfect opportunity to apply her skills and create something different that her kids would love. She was introduced to another mum with children of a similar age, who shared her enthusiasm and together they came up with a new way to engage young children with music:

“Our idea was to introduce children (aged one to six) to the unfamiliar classical music alongside something more familiar, nursery rhymes and fairy tales. We wanted the kids to be able to touch the instruments and be led by the musical accompaniment to the storytelling.

“It helped that we [Jennifer and her business partner] were in the same situation. We were both working every night — from when the kids went to sleep until midnight. From our personal networks we found a professional pianist and a trombone player, and I agreed to lead the storytelling and sing for the pilot sessions. We delivered our first three sessions in December 2021, just three months after we first met.”

A video taken during the first session in December 2021 (Language: Mandarin)

Jennifer and her business partner applied to host the initial classes at the National Taichung Theatre and amazingly they agreed, despite having seen nothing like this before. “The first sessions all sold out before we could even advertise them,” Jennifer explains. “I thought I would be singing in front of a few children in a parent’s café or social club, but now I was singing at the National Opera House, without any musical training… it was frightening. But the response has been great. The kids loved it, and the parents all got involved with the singing as well. If the parents don’t enjoy themselves, they won’t want to come back regularly!”

National Taichung Theatre, Taichung, Taiwan

Since their launch, Fugue Children’s Music has received interest free loans from the Ministry of Culture after being shortlisted in a government-backed cultural accelerator programme. They have also been shortlisted for a start-up grant of over £25,000 by the Taipei City Council to support their expansion to other major cities, and Jennifer is now one of four full-time employees:

“This year we have sessions planned in national performing arts centres in Taipei and in Kaohsiung, as well as our original base in Taichung. We want to establish our model and our presence in the major cities first, but we also want to ensure that we make the sessions accessible to a wider audience and families with lower incomes. This is a social enterprise and the whole point is that classical music is for everyone.

“Everything I’ve learned in my career and at Birkbeck has become so relevant now, and I’m applying it every day. It’s been great to have mentors at Birkbeck who have been really supportive of this project.”

Jennifer’s next challenge is to future-proof the business before she returns to London, where her two children will start primary school in September. We wish her the best of luck.