Sigrún Sævarsdóttir-Griffiths is Founder and Artistic Director of MetamorPhonics, a social enterprise that helps people with lived experience of homelessness rebuild their lives through music.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I was born into a family of musicians and artists in Iceland. My father was a trained actor, director and artist, but my mother and both brothers are professional musicians. My musical education was hugely affected by the environment which I grew up in. As a young child I would lay under the grand piano during my mother’s lessons and accompany her to rehearsals with soloists and choirs, where she was the accompanist. I firmly believe my understanding of harmony is built on my sitting next to my father during rehearsals with the local male choir, hearing how the different vocal parts sounded in isolation and how they then fitted together in polyphony.
I am classically trained, my main instruments being the trombone and the piano. I was heading towards a traditional career within music until one eventful weekend, when I was introduced to an approach to collective and creative music making in different social environments. The weekend was eventful, as not only did I find my future career…I also found my husband of 20 years, Paul Griffiths, who was the leader of the project.
Soon after meeting Paul, I moved to London to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, on the Masters in Leadership programme. The programme was internationally renowned for training musicians in the craft of creative music making and collaborative arts, working across different art forms and in a range of community environments. Soon after graduation I began teaching at the school and in 2008 took over the leadership of the Masters programme, with my dear friend and colleague, Nell Catchpole. Nell and I led the Masters programme until July 2019, when the programme discontinued and my next adventure began.
In my role as course leader at the Guildhall School I had started a 30 piece band with my students and people with lived experience of homelessness. The band is called The Messengers and has performed at big festivals, the Jazz Café in Camden, had radio time on Pitchfork Radio in the US, recorded with Luaka Bop and now we have recorded our own album. We create all our music together as a collective and have a strict rule that nobody can bring anything pre-written for us to work from. Everything has to be made organically in the room, in order for every member to have equal ownership of the music.
On the 23rd of April 2020 the band will launch their debut album, Bear Witness, at the Guildhall Jazz Festival. We are all tremendously excited and proud of the band´s incredible achievement.
The Messengers sparked the idea for my Community Interest Company, MetamorPhonics. The company runs bands like the Messengers in collaboration with higher education institutions and homeless charities in London, Leicester, Los Angeles and in Iceland.
In addition to my job at the Guildhall School and running MetamorPhonics, I also sustain my freelance career, leading community music projects with various arts organisations and higher education institutions on an international platform. As part of my freelance career I have worked with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for over 20 years and have taught at the Arts Academy Iceland for 17 years.
I love all the various different elements which make up my professional portfolio. I love being out on the fringes of our society, meeting new groups of people, of different ages, in very different places in their lives and create new music with them. I love teaching my craft to students in higher education and professional music teachers, leaders and performers. I love creating and planning new projects and I love having the opportunity to present and talk about my work at international conferences and other academic platforms.
I am deeply grateful for the incredible people I meet and the opportunities which I get in my work and for having such a wonderfully diverse and exciting job.
I live in South-East London with my husband Paul and our two beautiful children. I was so fortunate to gain three wonderful stepdaughters when I married Paul, who now are all grown and having families of their own. We have two granddaughter and another little one, only a few days from entering the world!
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
No. Absolutely not! It has been much more a case of welcoming and accepting new opportunities as they appear. Besides, I don´t think I could ever have assembled a plan which would resemble my working life, as it is today. It would be a ‘wild’ job description! However, I do regularly take stock of where I am and where I´d like to be. I sit down with a pen and paper and draw maps of ideas, questions, obstacles and ideal situations. What will enable me to get where I want to be? What is within my control? Which situations are beyond my control? What influence do I have? Who do I know who can help me? What do I need to learn to help me on my way….etc etc.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Nobody can get through life without challenges. I don’t think life would actually be any fun without challenges. We need challenges to grow and develop, as people, as parents, as partners and as professionals. The professional challenges I have faced have been very formative. They have helped me understand who I want to be, what my priorities are and what is worth fighting for. They have helped me become even clearer in my conviction of my purpose and my mission of enabling arts engagement for all and to impact the training of our future generation of musicians to include far greater emphasis on our collective social responsibility and the need to engage with every member of our society, not solely those who are in a position to and can afford to see us play.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
I feel my biggest achievement has been to have stayed true to myself and my conviction, when put under significant pressure to serve a different purpose and to have turned a very negative experience into new opportunities. As a parent I feel proud to have demonstrated such resilience and commitment to my children.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
Being able to meaningfully communicate with people, wherever they’re at in their lives, is what I believe is a pivotal factor in my ability to do my work well. Within one and the same day I could be have a meeting in a homeless shelter, deliver a music session in a primary school, teaching students at the Guildhall School, sitting in a board meeting with my colleagues at the Guildhall and attending a fundraising event with high power business people and representatives from official funding bodies.
In every one of these circumstances I must be able to intently listen and understand people, adapt to the environment and communicate without barriers.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I think mentoring means many different things, depending on the environment you are in. The way I understand mentoring and the way the term is used in my professional environment, I am a great believer. I have a mentor and I am a mentor to students, graduates, project participants, teachers and other professionals.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
To put in place proper support structures surrounding maternity pay for freelance professional women, such as artists. It is remarkable how far we have yet to travel in order for this tremendously important period in the life of every family not to be the source of huge anxiety and financial worries for mothers who do not have steady 9-5 jobs.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
Everything in life is a phase. Things develop, change, grow, end or fade away. You might need to roll with the punches, take firm action, keep your head down or simply enjoy the ride…but always know that it will not last forever. Good or bad.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
My most immediate task ahead is to launch and release the Messengers album at the Guildhall Jazz Festival. This is a very significant moment in the life of the band and what we stand for. I want the album to raise awareness of the huge and ever growing issue of homelessness in the UK. At the same time as I want the album to challenge assumptions about the people who have found themselves in such distressing situations as being homeless. I want to demonstrate the unequivocal, positive impact which meaningful engagement, dialogue and collaboration has on all involved and I want people to be inspired by the incredibly talented and creative individuals in the band, and be moved by our powerful, beautiful music.