Waikato Wellbeing Project Lots of Little Fires

Takoha Puoro - The Gift of Music

Joe Wilson on April 2023

 As I drove up the road leading into Fairfield College, my favourite song started playing on my spotify playlist …Jackson Browne’s ‘running on empty’. Up until that point it had felt like a rather gloomy morning … windy, overcast and midweek humpday to boot. I let the song play while I sat in the car and sang joyfully along. Deep down I’d always wanted to be a professional singer songwriter and living my dreams through Jackson was the closest I knew I’d ever get. Thankfully my mood had shifted...just in time for the second half of the day to begin. I hopped out of the car and strolled happily across the car park to the main entrance. I walked up the steps and enthusiastically greeted the lady at reception. 

“I’m here to meet with Jamey Ferguson” I informed her. “I’ll just let him know to come and meet you,” she said.

I thanked her and sat down in the comfy waiting chair, still singing along to the Jackson Browne song I had been butchering in the car.

Kia ora my Bro!” I looked up and saw the warmest smile beaming from a guy wearing a singlet, shorts and jandals walking towards me. “Jamey?!” I said excitedly. “Yes bro, Joe?!” he replied with equal excitement.

When people ask me ‘what is my biggest or most proud achievement in life?” I always say the exact same thing, without hesitation; “the answer to that is easy, the thing I am most grateful for in my life are the human connections I've made with generous, empathetic and compassionate people who walk the talk and make me and others feel warm and accepted for who I/we are.”

I’d only met Jamey once, through a phone call for 15 minutes a few weeks earlier. I shared the “Lots of Little fires’ kaupapa with him and asked if he’d be open to finding out more.

From that short kōrero, we had already created a bond and a connection where trust, understanding and shared values had been found along with a silly sense of humour. I knew before we even met that we would get on like a house on fire, and that proved to be the case exactly.

We gave each other a big hug, hongi and made our way across the school to Jamey's newly refurbished, and what is now becoming increasingly famous, music facility.

The right people come along at the right time…

Jamey Ferguson has had an incredibly successful career in music; writing, playing and touring the world over with the band Katchafire for 16 years. He has contributed so much to the wider Aotearoa musical community and has worked with many incredibly talented professionals from all genres.

More recently however, Jamey has seen himself return to the community in which he was raised and fully invest his time, energy and talents into raising the vibration for the rangatahi and whanau of Fairfield College. He is now working as both Head of Music and leading the alternative education programme ‘Takoha Puoro…The Gift of Music’ placing all his energy into giving back to the rangatahi of the Fairfield and Enderley communities.

I sat down with Jamey and got to learn more about who he is, what inspires him and why he believes so much in what he is doing with Takoha Puoro 

Lots of little Fires (LOLF): So, let's start with the obvious; how did you get into music? Where did your passion and drive come from?

Jamey: “Well I owe pretty much everything to my mother. She taught me to play music to a high standard and always encouraged me to explore and to be creative. But it was her way of being, her care and her understanding of what music could provide me with so I could succeed in life. I think that’s what really comes through now when I reflect back.”

LOLF: So, what does music mean to you?

Jamey: “Music is expression, it is finding your true authentic self and it is connection. For me music plays such a big part in who I am and what I do that there is really no separation between me and music, it just all blends into one.”

LOLF: It must have been a big decision to leave Katchafire. Was there a specific moment or event that made you want to leave the band and come home or was it a gradual process?

Jamey: “There were a number of things that came together. I guess the push factor was that touring and playing live music was getting tiring and so many of the things I enjoyed about it as a younger man were getting less appealing as I got older. The pull was that at a point in time a few years back, there were increasing struggles in my community and a whanau tragedy that I knew I had to be here to help move through.”

In recent years, attendance rates at Fairfield College have fallen to around 50%. Covid, poverty, lack of employment, social media, lack of school engagement with whanau and numerous other factors have contributed to this statistic. Many students are dealing with high levels of anxiety, turbulent lives outside of school and a lack of positive role models and opportunities to which they can rely on. Jamey saw that something different needed to be done to re-engage students back into kura and to help rebuild their sense of pride, belonging and trust in their School and community.

“I have a close tie with these streets. My nephew was killed just around the corner from here, by a couple of Fairfield College students, yeah, a few Fairfield College students, so for me it’s been a healing coming back here and a true path of forgiveness and showing that to my nephews and to my sons on how to deal with what happened to our family,” said Jamey.

Because Jamey knows many of the families in the community and their children, there is a reciprocated trust and care between them, and this is a big part of what allows him to share his gift of music with them.

“The right people doing the right things” Jamey’s says… “People first then programmes - relationships are the most important thing.”

LOLF: I couldn’t agree more I laughed; the whole community sector has been saying this for years! Haha, well that leads us on nicely! So, what is Takoha Puoro exactly? What does it do?

Jamey: “Takoha Puoro translates to ‘the gift of music’. It is a programme that we have created for students with the lowest attendance and the worst behaviours. We ask the Dean to send them to us and we do the rest. At this point though, I think it is important that I bring John Cook into the conversation because Takoha Puoro is way more than just me. Without John none of this would have ever happened. 

Enter John Cook…

John Cook is a retired businessman, also born and raised in Fairfield/Enderley, Kirikiriroa. Having had the time away from full time work and running a large and successful business, John found the time to reflect on ways in which he could give back to the community from which he had benefited so much over the years. He was deeply concerned that the attendance levels and achievement levels for rangatahi in his community were so low and wanted to do something to help.

I spoke to John over the phone a few days after meeting Jamey.

“My partner Jo, drew my attention to an article and it was about a school in the UK, low decile, that had adopted a music programme and had had resounding success in changing people's lives.” John said.

Being bold and passionately driven to do something, John approached Richard Crawford, the principal of Fairfield College.

“We came to Fairfield, we made the appropriate connections and instantly recognised that there was an alignment of stars here.” John said.

When John first met Jamey, he saw an incredibly special person. A man with not only the skills to teach and engage with the students musically, but with a huge heart and a burning desire to help change the lives of the rangatahi he taught.

“It was clear we had all the essential ingredients that were required to make this programme at Fairfield College a success; the talent and the willingness on everyone's behalf to ensure that this would be a successful programme.”

When John first walked in the music room, as it was back before his involvement, he was shocked at the state of neglect and condition of the facility and instruments.

“The room was cold and dark; the instruments were all locked away in cupboards with many in a state of disrepair…you couldn't even see the instruments. I couldn’t even tell that it was a music room,” laughed John.

John knew that for success, the whole facility had to be completely revamped and heavily invested in. For the students and Jamey to feel valued and respected, the music room had to also reflect that and so the mission to get wider community and business support began.

As a passionate believer in community led development, John and his partner Jo went about contacting business partners and alumni of Fairfield College who he knew would commit to supporting the kaupapa. Being from a business background, John was used to moving at pace and seeing results. He soon realised that working across community, education, business and funders required a slightly more gentle and patient approach. Nevertheless, rapid developments were made because of the key people who shared the same vision, passion and had the means to enact change at pace.

“We reached out to a wide range of local businesses, alumni of the school and personal contacts and together we revamped the existing music facility that would set them up for success, an environment that matched the aspirations Jamey had for the students so they could feel valued and inspired,” said John.

Together, each bringing their trades and unique skills, they rolled up their sleeves and put hours upon hours into getting the room and equipment up to the standard that matched the aspirations and energy which Jamey brought in skill and passion.

“The music room was a different space to what it is now thanks to John Cook, Jo Lowry and Warren. When John came in, I could see the look on his face. I know he initially didn’t mean to do as much as he did, but um, that's John! He saw a need and he went the extra mile. He’s made this room into a place that I just love coming to everyday,” said Jamey Ferguson.

John referenced that the work, time and money he has invested into the programme is a no brainer because in Jamey he saw the one person who can pull this off.

“Jamey has an undeniable gift. Without him, none of this would work. I, along with the other local business partners I know, have simply put the structures, conditions, processes and financial support around him so that he was set up for success,” said John with a warm smile.

It is beautiful to see the gratitude and respect Jamey and John hold for each other. As someone who works between community, funders, education and business, it is very moving to see an initiative like this come about organically and one which has blended two very different worlds. In my own experience in community led development, this kaupapa is a unique and incredibly powerful example of passionate people front-footing relationships with people and sectors to really make change happen.

 Back to the kaupapa…

LOLF: “So tell us how the programme works Jamey, what do you do in Takoha Puoro and how do you achieve success with the students?”

Jamey: “Well, firstly, I’m so happy you have come to learn about our programme, I’m really grateful for you coming to learn about it and to share our story.”

Gratitude, that most magical of traits. Even when answering about his own successes, Jamey see’s the gift this moment provides and the opportunity to thank me for sharing what he is doing with a wider audience. 

LOLF: “I think it is us that should be saying thank you to Jamey!”

Jamey: “Haha, ok, well it is all about relationships, building trust, relating to experiences and caring, I think. I know and understand how to build a connection with these students in a way that works for them because I have been through a lot of what they are experiencing. Sometimes they just need a safe place to be and go through what they are feeling. Every student is different, every day is different and every day is a new day to learn and grow in this space.”

Jamey explained that the culture of the space is one that allows the students to feel safe, ok to be who they are and treated with respect and trust. He talked about how some students come in for some ‘time out’ to themselves, to calm their state of being from whatever chaos is going on in their lives.

LOLF: “That sounds very special, a place where they can just be who they are…”

Jamey: “That's right bro, just to be safe and accepted for who they are. And then, because there are so many instruments around and they are out and free for them to try and play on, they can start to explore music on their own terms and at their own speed.”

LOLF: Beautiful bro, slowly slowly. So, from this point, how the hell do you get all these students playing to such a high level and with such confidence?! Can you talk me through how you do it?”

Jamey: “Haha, well it takes time, some students need a gentle approach because they are too nervous to try in front of others, while some thrive when playing with others in a group. I’ve got tutors who are in the industry, so they are very good at what they do, and it doesn’t take long to dazzle a student with your skills, and that’s what we do initially, we dazzle them, we show them…’well what do you want to learn how to play’ and then play it for them and they’re like ‘oh my goodness!’ And we say, ‘yeah well, I’d never played that before, but I just figured it out, do you want to learn how to do that?!’ Yeah, we throw out little hooks like that. In their free time we eventually see them sitting down slowly working through things, you know it's painful, takes a lot of patience, but they get there.”

LOLF: “That’s so cool, so they get to meet and learn to play with professional musicians!”

Jamey: “Yeah! We’ve had it going for two years now, so we’ve seen the different processes that are possible, for the kids that are naturally talented and for the kids who have no interest in it and don’t believe that they’re talented. We’ve seen those snapshots of those different stages to get them to where they are now in two years, which is, they’re all the top musicians in school.

The situation in Katchafire was a lot of what I do here. If someone didn't know the part, I’d just jump on the instrument real quick and show them and if they needed some sort of skills I’d help them. And then eventually other musicians came in as the band got more popular, other musicians came in with abilities where it became mentors teaching students and then turned around to students teaching mentors, and what a beautiful equation that was in Katchafire and so yeah, that's what I’m trying to mimic here.”

LOLF: “It really is amazing how you have blended your professional music life and the ways in which you did that successfully and brought that into the school. Has the programme helped get the students back into education and engaging in School?”.

Jamey: “It is. Yeah bro, the processes they go through here with Takoha Puoro help them see, ‘ok I’m something valuable now, I can do all this’... ‘I need maths to work out how, I need English, I need all these other things and I need to learn how to get along with people’”.

Jamey leans on the best musicians he knows in the industry and the funding he receives from John Cook and other business partners, goes straight to ensuring they can come in and work with the students consistently. He pays them industry rates and the students feel valued and respected because of it.

Jamey: “The students get exposed to amazing and inspiring people and this means that the students get to see and hear stories that are aspirational from cool people…it opens their minds to possibilities of different futures that are achievable and open to them.”

Jamey’s natural way with the students, knowing when to push and when to step back and let them find their own way is something special and, in many ways, the foundation of the programme. He tells me that sometimes they sit and cry about challenging things they are going through in their own lives and sometimes they cry with laughter and joy when they make a breakthrough and want to celebrate. It is being in a space where they don’t feel alone, and they feel seen and valued for who they are.

Jamey: “They see how they can be a part of music in the simplest of ways. Being part of something bigger than themselves in an atmosphere that brings energy and positivity allows them to experience success and what it feels like to be valued and appreciated by others. The skills they learn build their confidence and they celebrate their successes together. For many, this is the only celebration and positive praise they receive in their lives and so the importance of this is in building their self-worth is priceless.”

Jamey is so happy in the role he now plays at Fairfield College and is happy that the life he’s led has resulted in this moment.

I am exactly where I am supposed to be,” he says. “Because I know and love this community, and I can see where I fit in and where music fits in. I can help here in a big way. That's given me a passion, an extra passion and an extra love for the students at Fairfield College. That's what feeds my fire.” says Jamey with a big smile.

Anybody would thrive off being around Jamey. His gentle nature, his warmth, his generosity and infectious passion for music and using it to help others grow is something we could all use more of in our lives. Luckily, for the students at Fairfield College, they get to have Jamey all to themselves and reap the benefits of the lessons and gifts he sows every day.

Jamey says it's all about aroha, love.

“Music breaks down the barriers for students to feel safe to be themselves and to find ways to see the value in themselves.”

The future looks bright for Takoha Puoro and the students at Fairfield College. The programme is reliant on the ongoing partnerships and funding by John Cook and his generous business partners, but the need for additional government and philanthropic funding support would be greatly appreciated. It would allow them to not only continue the programme, but to extend and further improve the facilities to meet the growing need and demand from the students at Fairfield.

“The programme works. It has proven itself and it is here and ready to be supported and developed further” says John Cook… “If we accept as businesses that we should be doing something for our communities in which we prosper, then we should consider looking around for the kind of projects that are already established and going on in the community, which are making a difference. And we can either give time if we're a small business on a weekend, or we can give financial support if we're a larger organization to encourage, enthuse, to grow those proven projects, which are going on around us.”

John's hope is that government ministries will see this programme and other schools will pick up the idea and look to run and fund similar programmes in their schools. John sees that education as it is, is simply not working for so many. He believes that rather than trying to force it, we should adapt and progress in ways that do prove to be successful and will help raise the achievements and aspirations of all our young people. John goes on to say,

“This is how a business operates. The customer experience must be optimal and the product relatable and valuable. If it is not, we don’t sell anything and therefore make no money…we become obsolete. If the success of education is the priority, in my view, it needs to look beyond its current state to new ways and I hope that our programme here at Fairfield College can provide a successful example of how business, community and education can come together to innovate and make positive change for the students and the wider communities they serve”

Lots of Little Fires would like to thank Jamey Fergusson and John Cook for the time they have given to share their story and their hopes for the future. The Waikato Wellbeing Project fully endorses the Takoha Puoro programme and advocates for its continual support in creating and supporting equitable opportunities for students at the college.