Music Success Stories: Xhosa Cole, Winner of BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year 2018

The best thing about working for Services For Education is the passion within our team. Our staff love their jobs and they love the difference they make to people’s lives.

It fills us with joy when someone we have taught or supported goes on to achieve great things, (musical or not) so as you can probably imagine, we were absolutely thrilled when an ex-pupil of ours, Xhosa Cole, won BBC Jazz Musician of the Year 2018.

We are all very proud of Xhosa and his achievements, so this week, we asked if he would mind putting together a few words about his journey. Here’s what he had to say:

Xhosa Cole’s Story:

“I have been extremely lucky to grow up in Birmingham. It is a beautiful city with a richly diverse mix of cultures from across the globe and amazing opportunities at every turn.

I owe a great deal to a number of community arts organisations, as it is through their generosity and support over the past 15 years that I have been able to grow and develop and enter into the life of a professional musician.

One of these organisations was Birmingham’s Music Service (now Services For Education Music Service).

Through them, I was able to have free instrumental tuition, free instrument loans and access to free coached ensembles ranging from their Big Band through to their Symphony Orchestra.

They equipped me with all the tuition and tools that I needed throughout my 10 years with them completely free of charge. My first experience with the Music Service was through the Handsworth Area Ensemble, led by the amazing flautist and music educator Cormac Loane.

From there I started having free saxophone tuition from Andrew Isherwood at my secondary school. In these early stages of my development, I focused on developing my voice on the instrument improvising and creating music in band settings.

I later went on to play Baritone Saxophone in the Birmingham Schools’ Wind Orchestra led by Adrian Taylor. Here I discovered a real love for large ensemble playing and through this ensemble and the Birmingham Schools’ Training Jazz Orchestra I started to learn how to read music, not just the notes but how to shape phrases and build dynamics and how to articulate.

In other words started to learn about how to be expressive within a larger ensemble setting and how these larger scale works fit together in order to produce amazingly varied complex and colourful sounds. I used to cycle to Wind Orchestra with that Baritone on my back (I still wonder how 16 year old me got away with that).

But I soon discovered that the flautists not only had a much lighter load to carry but also weren’t subject to sitting right in front of the trumpets, which could sometimes be a bit of an earful!

Therefore, after a year of hard work I got my flute playing to a standard that could keep up with the amazing Wind Orchestra flute section, I immediately volunteered to play piccolo, I always have been a bit of an attention seeker.

By this point I’d moved to sixth form at Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School where there were some exception classical instrumentalists, a couple of whom were in the Birmingham Schools’ Symphony Orchestra.

It was my aspiration to make it to the Symphony Orchestra and tackle some more mainstream orchestral repertoire. After only a couple of months, there was a vacancy for a flautist in the orchestra and I was fortunate to be offered the chair.

By this point I was really out of my depth, to be playing works by Shostakovich, Ravel and Rachmaninov to name a few was a real undertaking for any youth orchestra. I fell in love with this music.

There is not much more to say, I really did fall in love with the majesty of the sound, especially that feeling being slap bang in the middle of the orchestra. It was a real work out for me as my technique still was not really, where it needed to be on the flute and neither was my reading. Sectionals were always quite nerve racking but over the years my confidence grew and grew, we had and absolute ball.

I cannot begin to express how much I learned in those Saturday morning sessions. Mike Seal our conductor remains one of my most impactful teachers; his understanding of music and musicians really is something else. Seeing our development over the months was breath taking and that really was down to him.

Later that year we went on tour to Germany and this remains my favourite trip abroad. To be playing this music and hanging out in Europe with friends was a real dream (I should say that my costs were supported by the amazing Friends of Birmingham Schools Ensembles, thanks so much).

On the third performance, the girl playing first flute became ill and it was down to me and the other flautist to split the parts between us. As I was on Piccolo, I got the bulk of the first flute playing.

I had listened to the music so much that I managed to make it through the rehearsal and Mike gave us a special thank you at the end of the rehearsal commending us on our efforts. That moment has stuck with me as one of the proudest moments of my musical career.

Fortunately, our playing was not tested on the performance as the first flautists recovered. I could go on talking about the music service forever and ever. They have opened up so many doors for me and given me some of the best moments of my life. The work of the music service is so important for the welfare of the city.

Of course, there are cases like mine where I have been fortunate to be able to pursue music as a career but the impact of this organisation goes way way beyond that.

In times where arts and the education are feeling great strain, the Music Service’s role has become even more important. Music education can be a life changer and a lifesaver; it can level the playing field and provide people with the skills they will need to tackle an increasing challenging and demanding work.

I am now studying Jazz at Trinity Laban in London.

Big love for everyone at the Music Service!”

A huge thank you to Xhosa for putting this piece together. We are very grateful for his kind words and proud of all of his achievements. We are sure he will have a very bright future.

Find out more.

Our Central Ensembles require an audition and will be open for registration next Spring. Our Area Ensembles do not require an audition and continue to recruit throughout the year. If you’d like to find out more about our ensembles, visit the webpage here or feel free to email us at

Support our ensembles.

Our ensembles are free to join because imposing a charge would create an immediate barrier for many families who would struggle to afford these costs. We do, however, ask those who can afford to, to consider supporting us by becoming a Friend of Services For Education.

Every year, we bring together 2,000 young people from across Birmingham and form over 70 ensembles, specialising in a variety of instruments and we do want to ensure that we can keep this running for years to come. If you would like to help us, please visit our charity website here.

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