Member Spotlight June 2024 - Kay Tucker

Member Spotlight June 2024 - Kay Tucker (BIFF Music Adjudicator)


Kay Tucker has been a BIFF adjudicator specialising in strings for over 20 years, beginning her professional musical journey at the age of 12 when she started playing the cello. After graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Kay had a successful career performing as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player.


She set up Stringbabies in 2004 to introduce young children to the world of music. Her methods have been adapted into a book, whilst her teaching techniques have found their way into schools and music services as far as the USA.


Kay spoke to us about the continuous success of Stringbabies, her journey into adjudicating with BIFF and what festivals can offer young people.



I want them to retain that sense of fun and play in the lesson

The groundwork for Kay’s lifelong journey into music started at young age.  “I don’t come from a musical family, but I’ve always loved music and always responded to it” says Kay.

“When I was about 4 or 5 years of age, my parents bought one of those portable record players in my room because I loved listening to music”.

Kay was particularly enamoured by the sound of strings coming from the music, a curiosity and passion that would help shape her life. “I do remember quite clearly dragging my mother into the room and saying, “What is that playing now? She identified the instrument and thought it was a violin.”

Kay, who is from Sheffield in South Yorkshire, started learning the cello at the age of 12 when she had an opportunity to receive free instrumental lessons. “That only came about because at that time in the 1970s, I was able to have free instrumental lessons here in the UK. Certainly, my background was such that my parents could not have afforded private cello lessons. It was a golden opportunity and that’s how I got started.”

Kay’s career progressed from her studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, through to performing and teaching, culminating in the formation of Stringbabies in 2004. The idea for the musical teaching method came after she noticed a need for an easy way for very young children to learn an instrument without too much pressure at such an early age.

“It’s a framework for teaching strings and general musicianship” explains Kay “I’ve been teaching for years, and I’ve loved teaching very young children. I wasn’t happy with the material that was available for teaching children. There just seemed to be a gap as far as I could tell.”

Over a 30-minute session, a Stringbabies lesson is designed to ease children onto their first steps with an instrument. A child is taught to train the ear through song and there’s a high element of play throughout the lesson. “I want them to retain that sense of fun and play in the lesson.” Kay explains.

Using toys to represent notes on a string, shapes and symbols for rhythm and notation, Stringbabies helps break down a potentially complicated music lesson into an easy, fun, and carefree experience. “They have control over their own learning processes. It can be very creative and huge fun.”

The lessons have also been successful for children with special needs and even adults who have never learned music in their lives.

“It’s a happy bedfellow with anything out there. It’s flexible.” Kay points out. “The important thing at whatever stage is that the student can make their own choices. They can compose their own rhythms and then they play back what they’ve done. They are doing two things straight away; they are composing and sight-reading.

“When you are very young, you are physically flexible, it’s quite easy to acquire good playing technique.”

“What I did notice fairly early on is that when Stringbabies students learn a new piece of music, they are able to take on much more than notes and rhythm. They are able to work out things for themselves, take on bowing, dynamics and all sorts.”

In 2013 and 2014, Stringbabies was shortlisted for the inaugural Rhinegold Music Teacher Award for Excellence in Music Education and Kay's techniques are now being taught in the USA. The success of Stringbabies is clear from the progression that young children have made, with some children going on to progress in their musical studies.

“Some of the earlier students have gone on to music college and are graduating”. Kay notes. “I have one student coming to the end of a composition course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Stringbabies is where she cut her teeth.”

Not only has Stringbabies helped produce successful musicians, but it has inadvertently helped identify students with learning difficulties before schools were able to spot them.

“When we get to the stage of moving to conventional notation, some of the students have struggled when the notes look all the same. We’ve actually found that all of them had an issue like dyslexia, and in some cases my colleagues and I were able to say to schools that we think there’s an issue, and it turned out to be the case.”

Every adjudicator should always practice kindness, that should be your motivation

Kay is one of over 100 BIFF music adjudicators, and she specialises in strings. She has been in demand as an adjudicator throughout the UK, having worked at well over 200 festivals.

Kay’s journey into adjudicating began in 1998. “Initially, I never thought about it to be honest.” Kay explains. “I was a young mother. I had a toddler son and a baby daughter and was thinking about what I wanted to do when they were older and was thinking I would quite like to do examining. A friend of mine who was an examiner said that a good way of preparing to be an examiner is by adjudicating.

Kay’s application process saw her going through an interview stage, observing festivals, and then taking part in a workshop adjudicating in front of others. “That was quite terrifying, but the comfort was we were all terrified!”

Kay got through the application stage and over 25 years later, she reflects on some of the most notable highlights from her career.

“I was at Ayrshire Music Festival in about 2018. It must have been the second visit to the festival. I was doing orchestras that day and there was a gentleman hovering with a piece of paper. When the chance came, he thanked me and showed me my adjudication sheet from the festival before.”

“I had adjudicated his daughter, who I understand was a bit wobbly in her progress as a cellist, but he said, ‘What you said to her and what you wrote down just changed everything’. She’s now in her second year at the Royal College of Music. Isn’t that wonderful!”

“There was a time at another festival where I remember whatever I had said to this young girl apparently was well-received as this child had been dealing with some very personal bad news. I went back to the festival about a decade later and they were still talking about it. I couldn’t believe it. They talked about this adjudicator who had made a difference!”

Kay offers advice to those looking to become adjudicators with BIFF.

“The lovely thing about being an adjudicator is that, as an expert in your field, it gives you an opportunity to publicly help somebody.”

“Every adjudicator should always practice kindness, that should be your motivation. You can be critical but incredibly kind with it. It’s about them. It’s not about us as professionals.”

“What I would say to aspiring adjudicators is to go and watch other adjudicators. Find out who the best adjudicators are. They are usually BIFF!”

Festivals offer children a chance to showcase their talents in front of an audience and a panel of highly trained BIFF adjudicators, who help give them positive feedback to develop their craft. The festival movement helps not only build skills for a career in the arts, but also general skills that could help shape their life.

“I see more and more youngsters these days who don’t seem to have any resilience. I find that quite frightening. There are many reasons and it’s probably very complicated.”

 Kay believes that festivals can help children to grow in confidence and develop courage.

“It is one-shot saloon at a festival. Anything can happen and anything often happens! You learn how to deal with the situation when things go wrong and get a sense of perspective about it. I frequently tell my youngsters ‘Remember only one thing matters, at the end of your performance you will still be alive!”

To find out more about Stringbabies visit the website here

Photo credit: Andrea Sarlo 

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